Reading and its variants

What if the Bovaryism, or the quixoticism, which is projected in the characters, was the right way to read the novels? This is the paradox spun out by Mr. Decout in a provocative essay.

Maxime Decout has a pronounced taste for the genre of paradoxical praise. From bad faith as a fundamental literary principle to imitation or imposture as highly fruitful writing practices, over the course of his essays a guideline of counterbalance, even provocation, emerges, where the underlying irony marks a desire for complicity with the reader. Humor and the oblique also characterize the approach of his last essay, Praise of the Bad Reader : in this one as in his previous books, the inversion of the poles of value sets thought in motion, to explore in a carnivalesque logic what underlies Western literary axiologies, our canonized ways of reading and thinking about literature .

Mr. Decout proposes in this book what he calls “training in bad reading”, which consists of freeing oneself from a priori negative axiological and epistemological weighing on ways of reading which deviate from academic conventions (sovereignty of the Author, sustained and linear reading, reasoned involvement in reading). Based on a historical synthesis of representations of (bad) reading in Western modernity, Mr. Decout offers an overview of ways of reading poorly and a gallery of portraits of bad readers as we encounter them in the guise of characters. of fiction – at the risk of producing in turn a new character-type, that of a bad reader… ideal.

What is bad reading?

In the first part of the book, Mr. Decout draws up a historical synthesis of the main definitions of bad reading as the latter is represented in fictional texts or in the writings of people of letters, more than truly theorized in a critical manner. The system of notes, while it also refers to “classics” of literary criticism (notably around theories of reading, since the 1970s: Wolfang Iser, Hans Robert Jauss, Umberto Eco, Gérard Genette, etc. ) as well as current reflections on cognitive studies, through a careful identification of articles within monographic collectives (many of which are accessible online, testifying to monitoring work on critical news which favors recent debates or current) is succinct, thought left free – even encouraged to emancipate.

Two main movements emerge throughout this synthesis, both linked to a disruption of identification – a pivotal notion around which the reflections like the portraits which punctuate this book are organized. Thus, bad reading would firstly be that, Bovaryan or Quichottian, which encourages imitation in a movement from the book towards oneself, at the risk of contamination of our perception of reality by reading. A second form of bad reading then presents the other side of this, and is based on the projection of oneself in a reverse movement of saturation of the literary experience by the biography of the reader.

Is the XVIIIe century that a collective and already long-standing fear of bad reading is formalized, crystallized around one of the most striking ravages of an irrational collective projection in literature: the “Werther syndrome”, named after Goethe’s famous hero. Thus the first historical aspect of bad reading is intrinsically linked to the fear of the excessive power of the book, its capacity to trap us in fictional immersion.

Faced with this threat, Mr. Decout shows that it was formed from the XVIIe century, to reach its full power in XXe, a redemptive figure of the good reader, capable of deciphering the works and, by shedding light on their workings, of defusing them. Thus opposed is the ideal type which little by little imposes itself on the model reader, based on the cooperation (Umberto Eco) as a cardinal virtue, and a reality that is difficult to grasp, because it depends on personal and material idiosyncrasies, which would be that of the “real” reader, in a pragmatic dimension. This outlines a proposal for the periodization of discourses on reading until the XXIe century, where Mr. Decout diagnoses a new shift: the ambition of reading from now on, in an effect of axiological reversal, would consist of rediscovering the charm and enthusiasm of a “naive” reading that has long been criticized.

Free reading

Two poles delimit the spectrum on which the infractions of the reading contract by which Mr. Decout defines bad reading are distributed: hyper-sensitivity on the one hand, and hyper-rationality on the other – which transcribe in a cognitivist perspective the moral partition between “naïve” reading and “learned” reading. Starting from the way in which various theories of reading (Eco’s “collaboration”, Jauss’s “horizon of expectations”, Michel Picard’s “game”) analyze the modalities of programming the hermeneutic and reading activity through the text, Mr. Decout thus summarizes misreading as a position of rebellion.

The latter comes in three types: reading the deviation from the program thematized in the text; counterfactual, even bellicose reading, which modifies the parameters of text production (from the identity of the author to real historical events, for example, as in The Major Rebuttal by Pierre Senges (2004)) and thus highlights the relativity of the conceptual framework of interpretation; finally, excessively rigorous reading, bordering on madness, which pushes literature back onto the social scene and derealizes the second in favor of the first. Very quickly, the paradoxical thesis of the book asserts itself: bad reading constitutes the horizon of the good reader, the lost paradise of the learned dreaming of rediscovering the abduction of childhood through reading, in the manner of Sartre invoking in The words Pardaillan, the hero of his childhood readings, of Barthes, of Proust again. Getting rid of the critic in oneself thus becomes the ultimate hope of contemporary reading, which would seek to rekindle the flame of a completely pure desire for fiction. “Misreading” then appears as an act of emancipation, both for the affirmation of the freedom of the subject and in an effort to free itself from the dominant systems of reception and interpretation.

A parade of characters

Several accused appear in this false trial of bad reading: unregulated desire, sometimes touching on fetishism, which stifles the work with its manic influence (as in Movie theater, by Tanguy Viel, 2000); jealousy, even hatred against the author, based on a triangular relationship of desire and nourished by the debates around the death of the author in the 1970s (by Borgès (Examination of the work of Herbert Quain1965) to Éric Chevillard (The posthumous work of Thomas Pilaster1999; Demolish Nisard, 2006); truant, even interventionist reading, which profanes the sovereignty of the artist – and sometimes threatens his life (Stephen King (Misery, 1987); finally, the DIY reading, confabulator, creator itself, and from scratch, of a second work which reduces the first to the status of a springboard, even a pretext. The defense, under the pen of Mr. Decout, reverses the accusation of negligence which weighs on the bad reader to recognize behind these different practices a particularly insightful reception, including in its grossest outrages: skipping passages, reading the end in first, and even rewriting episodes, would in reality be the fruit of a scrupulous attention to the text, which subverts the modern literary doxa of literary meaning. The bad reader pushes us to give up “believing that everything in a text is significantly necessary and necessarily significant” (109).

The essay proceeds by induction, starting from a close reading to arrive at theorization. The bad reader as Mr. Decout envisages him here redraws the map of literature, he explores its wastelands and moves its boundaries as he pleases – to the point of inventing authors, works (Lichtenberg Fragmentsby Pierre Senges (2008)) or ghost genres (for example the American novel in The Disappearance of Jim Sullivanby Tanguy Viel (2013).

Plural reading practices thus find a place within this counter-Pantheon, whose walls widen so that skimming readings, dotted readings, spontaneous and unfollowed readings are admitted: a possibly infinite inventory of ways to read, which Mr. Decout does not unfold here but for which he creates a theoretical space for revaluation. Using the traditional terms of the global reading and fine reading debate, Mr. Decout hypothesizes that the first can lead to an understanding of the book as good, if not better, than the second. Following in the footsteps of Pierre Bayard who published in the same collection, he contributes to developing a field of research progressively invested in in recent years, and which questions the “literary reading” institutionalized in professional circles, through criticism and in places of teaching, in the light of other reading practices, blind spots in the theory both in the face of the difficulty of studying reading as an embodied practice and, perhaps above all, due to an axiology implicit in literary studies.

The bad reader, a postmodern ideal?

At the end of this work, filled with admiration for the virtuosity of these bad readers at the same time as fear in the face of their audacity, we will however find ourselves confronted with an obvious fact, which underlies this reading without always being explained: the bad reader, in Maxime Decout, is not really one. A perceptive, agile reader, always on the lookout, he easily refers back to his opponents the accusations of negligence, incompetence or bad will that they oppose to him, and ends up constituting, in many aspects and all things considered, a new ideal reader.

The general perspective of this study, as we have said, is above all axiological. It is based on the value judgments which govern the institutional and theoretical divisions between “good” and “bad” readings, and the establishment of hierarchies which make “naive” reading a foil to “scholarly” reading. “, to reverse its poles – at the risk, perhaps, of erecting through its “bad reader” a new figure-type, an ideal operating mode of postmodern reading: neither naive, nor scholarly, but recreating from his science the charm of naivety.

Unlike the initiatives cited above, which invent protocols and tools to identify real, embodied reading practices, the work of Maxime Decout is part of an internal perspective of the texts, far from any attempt to grasp the readership in its diversity. sociological. This bad reader is therefore, above all, a symbolic figure. If these analyzes draw a framework through which Mr. Decout can grasp the main inflections of a Western axiology of reading over the course of modernity, to reveal the unthoughts as well as the statics, they do not allow us to question what the traditional didactics, for example, considers bad reading, or to confront the diversity of reading practices according to different contexts.

Above all (and this last reflection illustrates it!), the book curiously spares the one who, from this perspective, would nevertheless deserve the title of worst reader of all: the professional reader, supreme maniac, who exploits the text and tracks vulnerabilities by profession. In his practice he combines a few of the faults of each of the bad readers who appear in these pages; this – which the narrator Decout, academic and critic by profession, at times embodies – undoubtedly deserved a more detailed commentary, if only to complete the reflective dimension of this joyous journey.