9 min read

‘Is There a Way to Read With Love?’

Author’s note: Hello to those new here at The Reading. Today, in celebration of your arrival, the one-month anniversary of paid subscriptions, and the last reader letter of 2020**, the enhanced features of The Reading, usually part of the paid tier, are being sent out to all this week.

For those of you who aren’t aware, that means today’s letter*** includes the audio version and a short postscript from me, usually sent in a separate email (like this). On Wednesday, I’ll be back with a special Q&A for everyone, also usually part of the paid tier.

Next Sunday, you’ll receive a roundup of The Reading in 2020. I’ll close out the year with a short letter for you for the new year. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to catch up on old letters and dream forward for 2021. Because there is, and will be, a future there.

** Yes, against the grain of my Capricorn moon, I am taking a much-needed vacation for the first time since February!

*** Not in a separate email as I say in the recording—I decided to streamline it instead. :)


Photo by Yanyi: It is, but it has formed an image—the white trunk chipping around its hollow. An auburn leaf, crumpled, dangles by its stem over the dark offering. Grass surrounds you and rustles in the wind, but you cannot hear it. Only the apple red, rump out, gazing past toward the stars.
Dear Yanyi,

Your letter to M and deconstruction of brutal honesty was so, so nourishing. Thank you. Here is the question I am left with at the end of it: how do we read with love? In a class on nature and translation, my professor always urges us to read “in friendship”: toward the writer and the text too. What can criticism based in love look like? Where do I begin?

Sincerely,
Critical Love

Srinagar, Kashmir

Dear CL,

While starting the response to your letter this week, I thought of, and immediately went to read, Eve Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid reading and reparative reading. It has been so long since I’d heard of this essay that I can’t remember if I’ve read it before it or if I’ve simply spoken about it with friends in queer and academic circles (not mutually exclusive).

I didn’t set out to include Sedgwick’s thinking in this letter about creative writing. Sedgwick is writing for an academic audience, particularly those in queer and feminist thought, but her essay is still about reading practices and, more importantly, she is thinking about what kind of knowledge reading produces. At the beginning of the essay, she admits that her “unremarkable epiphany” is this: “knowledge does rather than simply is” [1].

CL, your letter got me interested in this question. I, too, want to read with love. But to answer your question, I felt like I needed to start with how we read now as writers. What are the practices we use to produce knowledge? What feelings, behaviors, and actions, does that knowledge produce? And is that the knowledge we’re looking for?

The bulk of Sedgwick’s essay focuses on describing paranoid reading before comparing, and offering, an idea of reparative reading. I was surprised, honestly, that the more I read Sedgwick’s essay, the more I could imagine it next to, or around, the approach we bring to the creative writing classroom, and the more it aligned with some of what I was trying to get at in ‘How Do I Overcome My Inner Critic?’ So I hope you won’t mind the detour—I promise to answer your question at the other end.

Sedgwick writes that paranoid reading is anticipatory—it “requires that bad news be already known” [2]. With writing, I think of the never-ending search for expertise, trying to get ahead of the game. Think: the impulse to search for teachers, how-to articles, retreats, and even advice columns like this. All are in service of knowing, before anyone else does, how to be a better writer, which you may or may not interpret as how to be a better worker, which you may or may not interpret as how to be a better person. It’s the impulse to be in the know and not be caught off-guard by someone else’s reading—someone else’s ability to see your flaws.

The second detail is that paranoid reading is “reflexive and mimetic.” Sedgwick lays it out like this: “Paranoia proposes both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first—to myself” [3]. All those nights spent wondering what your writing needs in order to be “right?” All those workshops and classes you take to be “corrected?” The inner critic who assails your sentences before you can even get them out? The professor who tears your work down in front of the class? The trick to never being on the defensive is to always be on the offensive. We practice humiliation on ourselves and each other. Then we mistake power and authority for those who humiliate others the most.

The third and fourth attributes of paranoid reading: it is both a strong theory and a theory with humiliation as its underlying affect, or emotion. Paranoia shapes systems widely beyond itself [4]. There’s a rippling effect on all these systems surrounding it: they organize to minimize what feels bad. The more effort you spend on minimizing humiliation, the fewer resources you have to search for pleasure [5].

The fifth and final aspect of paranoia is that it places “extraordinary stress on…knowledge in the form of exposure” [6]. That is, paranoia banks on the fact that exposure is the most efficient way for knowledge to do something. It “deconstructs,” it “reveals,” it “exposes.” In the case for writers reading other writers, to be exposed is to do what? Does another’s humiliation make them a better writer? Does shaming divergent aesthetics, contrary or elsewhere from that which is traditional or expected, advance the big river of art?

Sedgwick ends on the possibility of reparative reading, and for a reparative reading, it is important to “surrender the knowing,” even “realistic and necessary to experience surprise” [7]. For the roving panoptic eye of paranoia can’t tolerate surprise. It must know beforehand—it must anticipate already everything that has happened and that is about to happen. In order to tolerate surprise, one would have to dismantle all these mechanisms in place to divert humiliation. A paranoid reader can’t afford surprise and therefore, also, can’t reach surprise and what sometimes comes with it—pleasure.

In contrast, reparative reading not only allows surprises, it openly wants them. I liked best when Sedgwick quotes Joseph Litvak, who says, “Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises” [8]?

She goes on, then, to say that “[t]he desire of a reparative impulse…is additive and accretive” [9]. It banks on survival by keeping what it can. Sedgwick’s idea of reparative reading is what anchors how I’ll define reading with love or, as your professor called it, reading “in friendship” toward the writer and the text.

Writing about Sedgwick to you, CL, is vulnerable for me. You are watching me think “out loud.” What if I misread a part of her essay? What if I’ve glossed too much? But I’m putting this out there because I believe you already know how to read with love. We read with love in community, with friends who welcome our most bumbling experiments and intellectual leaps. This is the same space that we also need to be creative. Space enough where a correction can be achieved without humiliation. Space enough to make good mistakes.

To read with love is to read without obsession to expose others. Of what? Of being part of this world, too? What does policing do for literature but make more police? In the feedback we give each other? In our friendships? In our minds?

Perhaps to read with love is not only to collect the fragments of life for oneself, but to “repair,” to draw together that which may otherwise stay apart. Perhaps to read with love means to ask how we keep each other, not discard each other.

One of the most vital shifts I have made as a writer looking out onto the literary world was a realization, one day in class, that though my students come to class for my expertise, for themselves, or for reasons of self-interest, the space of the classroom lends us to response. Response not to what they know, but what they don’t know—about their peers, about themselves, and how they might relate to others.

This value is not possible alone with self-help books, on book tours, or prizes of the highest degree: the writing group is literature alive. If you do it right, you will notice the moment that poem or story you didn’t care for lighting a fire in someone’s life, start a friendship, throw over the connective thread that exists in the step beyond literature.

To read with love is to believe in these accumulations, to allow them in, and to help them grow. In community, the literature becomes incidental: we encounter each other.

To read with love, you must shift your attention from your own importance to believe in the importance of someone else. For, let’s face it: a reader who focuses only on one way being right is not able to see a work as it is—they read a work as its mistakes, its deviations. A reader in search of what they already know can rarely see what they don’t. And the drive to only see a world of what we know? It forecloses the possibilities of changing with a world around us.

To read with love is to believe in the value of accumulation over exclusion. It is to read with vulnerability. Vulnerability to one’s self being changed.

At the end of Sedgwick’s essay, she writes that paranoid and reparative reading are both about survival. But while the paranoid reader repeats the past by acting and wishing only on what they know, the reparative reader acts out the future by believing in the possibility of what they don’t know. That is, what is, exactly, good literature at all? Who reads it? Who needs it?

By including more of the past, we invite more futures. In reading with love, we hold more, together, without humiliation or fear. To read with love is to begin that process of giving freedom back to ourselves.

When you read with love, our traditions grow larger and more various. The faces and circumstances of life can change. And what of literature in that chaos? Isn’t that the point? We all deserve some chance, some possibility that we didn’t know we needed, preserved in the dust-leaps of imperfect archives.

You read with love so you can write with love. Your work is not to explain—it is to write into the future. To be surprised by what could be. To live more than yourself.


Notes

[1] Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.”Touching Feeling, Duke University Press, 2002. Pg. 124.
[2] Ibid., pg. 130.
[3] Ibid., pg. 131.
[4] Ibid., pg. 133.
[5] Ibid., pg. 136.
[6] Ibid., pg. 138.
[7] Ibid., pg. 146.
[8] Ibid., pg. 147.
[9] Ibid., pg. 149.


Postscript

Love and teaching

Now that it’s the end of the semester, the mountain of grading slowly approaching me, I return to what I thought teaching would be like and what it actually was like.

Before teaching, a stubborn part of me did believe that there was one way to write poetry well. I assigned what I considered the best of contemporary writing today. Difficult texts for which one’s mileage, especially when beginning, wildly varies.

Two things became clear: first, that there’s something persuasive about another’s joy upon encountering something I’ve never loved myself. Love is infectious. It cannot be made up, but it can be inspired within us. Second, that my job was not to teach the “right” thing but to teach others how to find that love and foster that love. This overflowed into how I looked at writing at large.

The more kinds of writing we have and the more traditions we practice, ambitions for expertise might diminish. Knowledge, in abundance, might be too much for aspiring conquerors. And perhaps, by then, we could concentrate on some other things.

While I have rented my life to companies and had my own pains with teaching itself, it is a privilege to watch people change, to invent and play out strategies to help them along wherever it is they are going.

There’s worry that we’ll forget what language can do, its muscular deftness of compression or form, of history. But technicalities can be practiced; history can be learned. Love can’t be made up.


Until Lunar New Year 2021


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