Jul 6 2011

Reading as Therapy by Timothy Aubry

Mark Sussman

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In the middle of his discussion of an episode of Oprah's Book Club, Timothy Aubry pauses to wonder, "Why is the expression 'I don't get it' so characteristic of the insecure middlebrow reader?" In a sense, Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Readers is his book-length answer to that question. In a strange way, though, Aubry's question reflects back on itself; we might well ask what it is about the middlebrow reader that's been, historically, so worrisome to intellectuals. The term middlebrow itself is, for cultural luminaries from Virginia Woolf to Leslie Fiedler, a term of abuse, indicating middle-of-the-road art that congratulates us for our conformity to bourgeois values. One of the interesting qualities of Aubry's book is that it ignores this eye-rolling from the professional intellectual class, treating "middlebrow" lit not as a put-down but as a site of intense scholarly interest.

In fact, for Aubry, "literary merit" is beside the point—he's clearly as intellectually stimulated by The Kite Runner and Infinite Jest (deemed "middlebrow" here) as he is by War and Peace. This means that while Reading as Therapy is aware of plots and prose style, its primary concern is with how books present cultural problems as emotional experiences for their characters, and consequently for readers. Aubry's most significant argument, revealed in the title, is that middlebrow fiction acts as "a practical dispenser of advice or a form of therapy." These novels' impact is determined by how well they both frustrate and soothe, and by how well people recognize in them the shape of their own anxieties and fears.

A large part of the appeal of Reading as Therapy emerges out of Aubry's easy transition from the fiction to actual reader responses and back. He pairs his readings of Toni Morrison's Paradise and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner with glosses on transcriptions from Oprah's Book Club and reader reviews from Amazon.com, respectively. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Rebecca Wells's The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are seen as inextricable from their marketing campaigns, while James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, perhaps inevitably, is read against the background of his now-notorious appearances on Winfrey's show.

Aubry effectively allows us to sit in on the therapy session of middlebrow fiction like an unseen observer, standing back, clipboard in hand, taking notes, diagnosing. This distance affords some clear-eyed analysis and sensitive, smart close readings: He handles Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife with finesse, and provides a remarkably streamlined, comprehensive reading of Infinite Jest, a task that would have a lesser critic tripping over his own shoelaces. All of the readings serve to situate novels within what Aubry calls the "therapeutic paradigm," a broader tendency in which reading becomes psychological maintenance and fiction becomes a device allowing readers to gain distance from their inner selves in order to see them more clearly. The therapeutic paradigm names the way in which the experience of reading becomes an extension of the therapist's couch, without the polemical sting of Christopher Lasch's "culture of narcissism."

Still, we might ask what preceded this dominance of the psychological interior—and how it came to be so important in our reading experience. Aubry chalks it up to the memoir boom, George W. Bush's foreign policy, and the middle-class's self-imposed exile to the exurbs. Without the frisson of the city or the communal ties of the small town, the understimulated and overeducated turn inward. The isolation of the exurbs promotes both self-involvement and a desire to reach out to the world at large, and fiction provides a perfectly calibrated combination of solitude and connection. Perhaps. But have reading habits changed as drastically as he argues? Readers have long looked to books for advice and insight, at least since Madame Bovary. And regardless of the pleasures afforded by novels, was there ever a time when most readers turned to them for a refined aesthetic experience rather than the narrative? Even in the heyday of high modernism, the unexpected popularity enjoyed by Joyce and Gertrude Stein had more to do with their novelty (and a certain amount of freak-show gawking on the part of readers) than a desire for the sublime and the beautiful.

Readers, then, are both Aubry's object of inquiry and the problem with the inquiry. The book's subtitle, "What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Readers," proposes that the experience of those readers is a mystery. Aubry tries to solve it, quite sensibly, by simply "asking" them, via Oprah, Amazon, and the internet. But the fact that he needs to ask in this way, collecting and analyzing the source material of reader's responses, implies the kind of value judgment the rest of the book strives to displace or ignore: In a way, the question lurking behind the subtitle is really "Why would anybody read this stuff?" Presumably those readers know perfectly well why they read contemporary fiction—despite its acknowledgment that reader self-reporting isn't always accurate, the book's success hinges on the idea that it is. If middle-class readers are so resolutely dedicated to the maintenance of their own psychologies, to the point where everything they read gets sucked into a whirlpool of self-concern and anxiety… well, aren't they probably aware of what they're doing?

Aubry's study clearly addresses an academic audience—most of the chapters were previously published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals—and there's a sense that he's trying to convince them, if not of the literary value of the texts themselves, then of the social value they have for their readers. In that respect, Reading as Therapy is a crucial contribution to scholarship on contemporary literature. Whether or not all of this will be news to those embattled readers laying on the therapist's couch of fiction remains an open question. A cynic might say we needn't worry about the middlebrow reader—they're concerned enough about themselves as it is.

Mark Sussman is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches American literature at Hunter College. He lives in Brooklyn.

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