In Praise of the Naïve Reader

Critics often speak, somewhat condescendingly, of the “naïve reader” – one who doesn’t have the benefit of an awareness of literary history, or of training in criticism and literary theory, or of an extensive knowledge of literature as an art form.  (In other words, a reader who isn’t a critic or a scholar, but a common-or-garden reader for pleasure.  Joe Six-Pack, or his sister Jane, spending their beer or appletini money on a book instead.)

I’ll admit, there’s a pleasure to be had in writing for an audience who knows all the inside baseball of the thing.  I’ve done it myself, at least once.  The short story “A Death in the Working” (originally published in Murder by Magic, now available in Two from the Mageworlds) plays with three different sets of inside knowledge:  the established canon of the space opera series I co-wrote with my husband James D. Macdonald, the traditions of the Golden Age country-house mystery story, and (the part I had the most fun with) the tone and format of various scholarly editions of literary works, especially those in the Methuen Old English Library, where the footnotes would often take up more room on the page than the actual text.

Nevertheless, the most gratifying comment I ever got on the story wasn’t an appreciation of all that insider geekery; it came from a reader who said that they’d like to read more stories about my fictional detective and his cases.  (I sometimes toy with the idea of taking that reader up on their request; but science-fiction/fantasy mystery novels are enough of a niche market that I don’t know if the gain would repay the effort.)

When I think of naïve readers, I also think of the fellow grad student in Old English who admitted to translating the final section of Beowulf with tears in her eyes, because in all her survey courses and the like they’d only read the first part of the poem, and so she didn’t know that – to put it in ROT-13 just in case anybody reading this is in a similar position — Orbjhys trgf xvyyrq ol gur qentba va gur raq. Or I think of a friend’s account of watching a performance of King Lear a few seats away from an older couple who had clearly never encountered the play at all before, who reacted to the blinding of Gloucester with profound shock and dismay.  Or I think about my great-uncle Jake, a huntin’, fishin’ good old boy from Arkansas – albeit one with a college education – who once said to his medievalist great-niece, “That Beowulf . . . he was a mighty hunter.”

Art is about getting people where they live, and a naïve reader will provide you with a response that’s unmediated by other people’s expectations of how they should react and feel.  It’s all very well to be the critics’ darling, but treasure your naïve readers as well . . . they will tell you a different kind of truth.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of the Naïve Reader

  1. It’s available (she says shamelessly) at either of the two links in the parethesis up above. Murder by Magic is a hardcopy anthology of fantastic mysteries by a number of authors; Two from the Mageworlds is an e-published two-story chapbook where the contents are exactly what it says on the tin.

  2. I HATE “entertainment” which is meaningless/incomprehensible without familiarity with/knowledge o this, that, and the other book/movie/TV show/play. If the work cannot stand on its own, to m it in general has at best the status of an in-joke which should never have been unleashed on the public, or more commonly a pile of steaming stinking shit.

    Works which convey additional layers of meaning knowing Background, okay, fine, wonderful. But if the piece is totally dependent on familiarity with someone else for any comprehensibility….

    Years out of high school and forced perusal of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and _Tess of the D’Ubervilles_ read as one of the “read several of these listed books” summer reading list requirements in middle school of high school, I was clued in by over the years discussions, by Dave Hartwell that BOTH of those works are -parodies-.

    “Oh!” I said, the neurons firing in my brain.

    But the fact that they were parodies and the descriptions of the genres they were lampooning and why (Shamela parodying Pamela is very close to intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, if someone has been told Pamela was an early novel, and the person tried to read Pamela and then started to read Shamela), were key critical pieces of information WITHHELD from me in public school. That sort of crap was one of the reasons I was not appreciative of English classes–wrecking Shakespeare was another. I am not a Forced Reading appreciator…. and got the value that “if English classes push it, it’s going to be horrible (Shakespeare was not horrible, but the bowdlerized editions annoyed me and being lectured at about Universality and The Meaning of This Is…crap, wrecked Shakespeare for me)

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