How Should A Person Read?
Introduction by Khalid Warsame
So a few weeks ago I was having lunch with two friends of mine, who are really good and smart even though they are writers, and we were fretting about the usual things writers fret about: grants we missed out on, the price of rent in this city, Rihanna, and why no poet ever seems to be able to drive a car. Eventually we got around to talking about books we were reading. Now, I hadn’t read a novel in almost a year at this point. Actually, now that I think of it, I had read Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing some months ago but that was only because my friend Stella, who reads more widely and has better taste than perhaps anyone I know, pressed the novel into my hands and said, “You should read this,” and I couldn’t find it in me to refuse her.
It was a bad summer for reading all around, I think. Our very own publisher at this journal—who I shall not name—declared one day in the office that we should all only read Jack Reacher novels. He’d read thirty-seven of them in about ten days or something like that, which is a feat no one emerges from completely intact. Another friend of mine was reading Goosebumps novels, and another was ankle-deep in the Star Wars expanded universe. We were all trying to avoid thinking about Donald Trump, I think, which is a fine excuse to dive into schlock. Back at the lunch, we were debating whether or not it was schlock. What was so bad about these books? I’ve read too many literary novels to believe that inherent goodness actually exists in this world. We all have. We read white men, and then reject them, and then read against them, and then move on to the next exercise in retrenchment. Where does this take us?
Is there even an ethic to reading fiction, the way there’s an ethic to writing fiction? To be honest, I don’t know: I’m a writer, not a reader. And besides, the only ethic to my writing is an abjectly digestive one: I need money for food! I’ve got to get paid! But Adam Gopnik over at The New Yorker thinks credibility of character is the only ethic worth a damn in fiction, and I guess he’s right, even though he’s a writer. But still, what of reading?
So here’s what I did: I found four writers who are better at this thinking stuff than I am and asked them this very question. What is the deal with reading? How should a person read?
All the red flags were on the Facebook page for Hell’s Lettres, the Inner West reading event: the most Third World-sounding surname on the lineup was ‘Ferrari’; the venue was a shipping container in the front yard of a dilapidated mansion near Macdonaldtown station; and the event was titled ‘Fuck Off, We’re Fully Sick’. So I can’t say I was shocked when I rocked up and Ferrari, standing under a naked light bulb hanging from a cord wrapped around a chain, turned out to be a white guy with mouldy dreadlocks I could smell at the back of the cramped container. He said, “Wrote this while I was stoned, so, like, yeah,” and recited a poem that ended with the lines: “Gentrifiers fuck off, you’ll never succeed, Newtown’s for weirdos, and we’ll never cede.”
He then lowered the microphone to the ground. The audience applauded. Someone whistled through their fingers.
The next reader was a brown woman with high cheekbones wearing a bootlegged Aaliyah T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “This is a poem about being mixed,” she said, tilting her head down, “and trauma.”
She read what sounded like journal entries on scrap paper. The writing itself, while intensely personal, wasn't good: she used metaphors for no particular purpose; she was deliberately vague about the subject matter; and there was little movement within the poem, whether in narrative, structure, or language. She finished to the audience clapping and someone yelling, “GO SAM!”
There were, no kidding, another three poems read by whites with safety scissor 'Fuck You, Dad' haircuts insisting Newtown belonged to them, all met with wild applause. Then the event was over. I headed out of the container, where Sam and Ferrari stood in a tight circle with Cool Ethnics in black drapes and Alternative Whites in ski jackets, joint rotating between them. I said hi to a few people I'd seen on Twitter and went back to Macdonaldtown station by myself.
Everything about Hell’s Lettres was super white, from the tertiary-educated crowd LARPing poverty, to the intentionally shitty venue, to the undertones of possession in writing about place, to the pervasive irony that was a disclaimer for casual racism. Still, everyone there was friendly enough, and it was nice to experience this kind of space.
This community formed around sharing writing stands in contrast to my experiences at SWEATSHOP where, even after five years of workshops, my hands still shake when I read. Hell’s Lettres values reading and writing as inherently good; SWEATSHOP, on the other hand, seeks to turn writing into literature, a subset of writing that is necessarily exclusive. As Mohammed Ahmad argues in and demonstrates through his essay 'Bad Writer' in Sydney Review of Books, good writing is specific, unique, and memorable—all the better to convey its author's subjectivity. The writing produced by SWEATSHOP is literature, regardless of whether or not it fits in the western canon.
I don’t consider all of the writing showcased in Hell’s Lettres to be literature. In a sense, that’s its success: it appears to reject literary gatekeeping. I’ll go one step further in saying that creating literature is incidental to its primary goal of sharing writing: Ferrari prefaced his poem with an excuse for its terrible quality, while Sam’s earnestness drowned out any judgements of value. In either case, the physical presence of the writers demanded validation, making the very thought of literary merit gauche. In this sense, Hell’s Lettres doesn’t aim to create literature, instead celebrating radical vulnerability and new sincerity through writing.
Writing that isn’t literature can be valuable as therapy, record-keeping, or entertainment. The point, however, is that Hell’s Lettres and SWEATSHOP present different environments where audiences encounter writing, affecting the ways that the former receive and value the latter.
At Hell’s Lettres, then, the imperative is on the audience to empathise with the person sharing their writing. Perhaps this serves as an important reminder that all writing comes from human sources, and is always valid regardless of its quality, an anti-literariness predicated on radical community building. Considering the homogeneity of its demographic (young, tertiary educated, and craving the authenticity of a life lived in poverty), however, I’d argue against any form of radicalism. If anything, writers at Hell’s Lettres are rewarded neither for their merit nor for their humanity but for their cultural capital accrued within this alternative space, where white mediocrity and tokenism are as rampant as they are in the mainstream.
I’ve been using the word ‘read’ loosely, referring both to the ways in which writing is shared and consumed. Empathy is a requirement in either case. Perhaps Hell’s Lettres is right in demanding audience empathy—how else could one withstand Sam’s earnestness? But Sam is the exception in a line-up of writers like Ferrari, who make a show of apathy to hide their desire for unconditional validation. What results is the writer’s entitlement to empathy without putting anything at stake, an entitlement better described as narcissism.
Good reading, in the sense of sharing writing, requires meeting the audience halfway in terms of empathy: occupying space respectfully by being either entertaining or genuine. In any context outside of Hell’s Lettres, I know what I’d say to Ferrari and his ilk: Fuck off, you’re full of shit.
This is the first in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Stephen Pham is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers Collective from Cabramatta. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland and Seizure.