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House Rules: Reading with Authorial Instructions

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Organizer: Tatyana Gershkovich

Co-Organizer: Chloë Kitzinger

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In defense of Vladimir Nabokov’s efforts to control how his readers read him, Zadie Smith hailed “the house rules of a novel, the laying down of the author’s peculiar terms…This is where my pleasure is.” We tend to presume that the more interpretive license we have, the greater our intellectual freedom, so any authorial attempt to circumscribe our interpretation seems to constrain us. But perhaps, as Smith suggests, what we seek in literature is not so much “unfettered freedom” as “limited, directed play.” Perhaps, too, we stand to learn more about the terms, the functions, and the “limits” of this play by shifting critical focus from an attempt to look past the author in quest of the text, to the question of how authorial instructions build fictional worlds.   This seminar investigates authors—from Tolstoy to Philip Roth, from Nabokov to Coetzee—whose work is sometimes accused of imperiously steering how we read it, but might be seen instead as an attempt to furnish such “directed play.” What concerns—artistic, philosophical, social, psychological—motivate these authors to chaperone our reading experience so closely? What strategies do they employ, and how might these strategies clarify the techniques of other, less obviously prescriptive authors? How are their efforts to direct our reading facilitated or undermined by generic and formal aspects of the texts themselves? A more nuanced picture of the means and motives of controlling authors will allow us to reflect on our own wariness of controlling texts, and to consider where these texts belong in the “phenomenology of reading” to which critical conversations have recently returned. What models do texts with especially insistent “house rules” offer for understanding the experience of reading any work of fiction? When should we guard against an author’s undue influence—and what are the dangers of our own hypervigilance?

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