Resistant Readers are the agents for change
It’s my favorite chicken-n-egg: does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? I was sedating some students yesterday with my talk about “resistant readings of literature,” when it all fell into place for me. I should have seen it years ago.
Life imitates the opposite of art.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the students would have loved to have you there yesterday. They didn’t know either. Neither did I, until now, but here it is: whenever we write down an idea or an attitude, it’s as fresh as greengrocer produce until the moment someone reads it. That’s the moment it starts to rot, and before we can say “please consider my query,” our brilliant, progressive epiphanies smell old-fashioned, old-school or just plain old. I used to think this was because the world was just changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up. Now, I know that it’s writers driving the change.
It’s happened to the most iconic authors, although it sometimes takes centuries. When H.G. Wells empathized with his invading Martian conquerors, his narrator said that European immigrants had done the same to, “its inferior races.” His point that, “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence,” mutated from compassionate sympathy then into a racist comment today. Why? Only because H.G. Wells, along with other silk-suited aristocrats like him, had the freedom to write it down. In a backwards sort of way, we owe Herb’s superior attitude for shocking us into racial and cultural acceptance.
Our freedoms grew, because we began to resist the things he wrote.
Oh, but he’s not the only writer we’ve resisted over time. Sherlock Holmes has gone from a brilliant detective to a narcissist who steals credit from his sidekick, a qualified doctor. Katie Rose Guest Pryal criticizes Atticus Finch, beloved champion of racial equality, for trying to hide Tom Robinson’s life as a black man while defending him. Through the years, even Lois Lane has changed hobbies from falling out of windows to saving Superman with her Pulitzer-winning skills. All of these problems in our thinking came to light because of our resistant readings of these characters. Because we’re always arguing with our fiction, we learn more from their flaws than from their strengths.
Here’s what you need to accept, writers: it will happen to you, too. It’s not just the purview of old guys like me. No matter how progressively you’ve designed your writing to champion trends—no matter how #metoo or #ownvoice you think your characters are—there are readers out there just waiting to challenge you for restricting someone’s freedoms. And hey, that’s good news, because it means that if you’re brave, you’re going to be the writer you want to be. Resistant readings of your work are going to make those activists fight for new freedoms.
They just might not be the freedoms you expect.