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On Writing > Harold Bloom and misreading

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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Corbett (robcrowe00) | 169 comments Dear FFRedux and Goodreads,

Something to think about when we think about reading. How much are we are reading the work at hand and how much are we reading ourselves? The sciences (I think) have something called "confirmation bias", which means that if you set out know what the answer is, you will find it, regardless of what the evidence says.

Now it is possible to imagine, particularly in the humanities, and especially in art and literature, that since both the material and the reader are by definition subjective, that it is simply not possible to get at exactly what the text is saying. In fact, what is said about a text or a work of art by others affects the context in which we try to understand it. So in a certain sense, reading is only misreading.

I don't believe this in strong sense, but it is an interesting frame to think about reading. I was thinking about this while thinking about Philip Roth's correction of his Wikipedia entry for The Human Stain, published in The New Yorker ( The conclusions drawn by reviewers at the time were flat out wrong, but since Wikipedia's editing policy, Roth could not "fact check" them.

I take Roth at his word about Tumin, but the situation brings up a point that readers never come without assumptions to a text. In this case, Kakutani and others were thinking about Broyard because he had been disclosed as "passing." (Passing is by way not the subject of THS, which may annoy some readers, but a way of turning up the irony.) Broyard's biography had nothing to do with Roth's story, but it served as a point of reference for readers.

But can this be avoided by a writer or for that matter by a reader? We can try to check our assumptions, for sure, in reading a text, but can we free ourselves of them. The sum total is a large part of our Self, and we are very prone to take our Self as our Authority, especially when we come to a fact or situation that defies us.

This is the point of Harold Bloom's theory of literary influence. His point is that writers always compose their work in a field labored by others. How then does one stand out? For Bloom, it is by misreading others. For instance, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein consciously rewrites Milton's Paradise Lost, unleashing an innocent creature (her word) who can appear as nothing but monstrous to his creator and everyone he encounters. More locally, the hippies and AWOL sailors of Pynchon become addicts and reformed misogynists in David Foster Wallace. Influence isn't simply allusion, it is a rewriting of a previous text in what Bloom sees as a battle.

There are a lot of turns and twists in this theory and implies that the understanding and pleasure that most readers come to literature is impossible. But Bloom's theory is also a powerful way of thinking about how a writer deals with the fact they are not just writing their story, but stepping into a river of influence.

Anxiety of Influence

(Chapter 1 is probably the most relevant part to get Bloom's discussion.)

message 2: by Matt, e-monk (last edited Sep 19, 2012 12:33PM) (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
I've read Anxiety, I dont think writers practice Bloomian misprision intentionally (if at all)

and further feel that the idea that there is a 'proper' reading to swerve from in the first place is a bloomian misapprehension

In fact I think Bloom is an old scold and largely off base in his theory

However I would be interested in seeing if any of the authors amongst us have felt a need to swerve from or react against the work of a past master

message 3: by Elizabeth, bubbles (last edited Sep 18, 2012 12:30PM) (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Robert! This is fantastic. Thank you very much for offering a summary and several examples. Whether or not anyone agrees, it is very interesting that someone who has such a broad experience base generated theories that apply to all writers.

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