February 24, 2013

Reader Response Today (and in This Room)

For the past 20 years or so, I've been a "reader response" guy. Not in any overly researched way -- my run-ins with any theory position tends to be dialog-and-a-few-articles deep... But that viewpoint that any text (or art work, or cultural moment, or personality) exists in the space where it is read (encountered, seen, consumed, experienced), and that that reader's experience is "the valid thing" -- that viewpoint has resonated with me for a long time.

Aside: it's probably why my life in content so seamlessly became a life in User Experience once upon a time (that and the fact that when you work with a bunch of talented-as-all-hell designers and all you got is a little Word Doc of your little words, moving into something called UX had its own secret agent-sounding caché).

Anyway, so what I'm thinking about now that I've been up a while and the sun is up finally...

In asymmetric writing -- where styles of text, types of language, genre, even things as simple as line length and sentence length are changing up (something I cotton to)... What is going on for the typical reader. What is going on for you?

We approach different types of texts in different ways -- you read a newspaper story differently than a novel differently than a short story differently than a haiku or a tweet or a Facebook post or listings in dinner menu. Different speed, different depths and styles of mental engagement, analysis, imagination.

So when a piece of writing changes things up -- how do you react? Do you switch modes? Do you find yourself reading that first bit of something like it was something else (who hasn't read a menu aloud in the American Poet Voice for comic effect before)? A first sentence of journalistic observation like it was lineated verse, perhaps. A few lines of verse like it was fiction.

I'd guess it is more pronounced when it happens "inline" per se, but maybe it happens when styles change from section to section. Think of how those last parts of Portrait of an Artist (Joyce), the Sea and Poison (Endo, or maybe it was his book Silence -- I read those back to back a long time ago!), The Life of Pi (I forget the author's name on that one, but we can all Google it in a moment) suddenly change... In all those cases you've read an entire novel in a more standard narrative mode and then the coda flips to something utterly different. I guess "changes at a noted break" work as powerfully as in-line breaks on reading style when you are that invested in the first mode (invested in sheer time, pages, words, if not mindset).

Aside 2: that reminds me of the "toast / what do you put in a toaster" joke, which has to be not only one of the best jokes of all time, but also most people's first recognition that something scary like mind control is out there somewhere.

So that's what I'm really wondering about for a moment... Do people shift at those moments of style-change to their own style-appropriate mode? What happens in that moment of shift? Sometimes the trigger is in the format, sometimes it is in the diction or the punctuation (or lack thereof).

How long is that transition from one to the next... And do they "start over" at the point of style-change once they realize they've headed into something new and are reading it a way that's not their usual?

I'm going to look out for that in my own reading, at least.

It's at least as interesting as the difference in my writing with my thumbs (phone) vs. my fingers (keyboard).

And yeah, this was all thumbs.


Anonymous said...

well, sometimes i switch from scotch to irish whiskey when i'm reading joyce. do you mean something like that?