Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.
This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.
To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.
Levels of Reading
Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
How do you interpret this story?
You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.
Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.
Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?
As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.
Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!
I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.
Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.
At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.
Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.
At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.
Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.
At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.
Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment
"Literary" as a handle
With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.
Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.
This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.
Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.
On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.
A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.
Epistemic Status: Model