Merve Emre is associate professor of English at Oxford University and fellow of Worcester College. She holds a BA from Harvard and an MA, MPhil, and PhD from Yale. She is the author of two books: Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 2017); and The Personality Brokers (New York: Doubleday, September 2018), which investigates the strange, secret history of personality testing. Her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, Bookforum, The Baffler, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, where she was senior humanities editor. For more information, please see merveemre.com.
Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America
Literature departments are staffed by, and tend to be focused on turning out, "good" readers attentive to nuance, aware of history, interested in literary texts as self-contained works. But the vast majority of readers are, to use Merve Emre's tongue-in-cheek term, "bad" readers. They read fiction and poetry to be moved, distracted, instructed, improved, engaged as citizens. How should we think about those readers, and what should we make of the structures, well outside the academy, that generate them? We should, Emre argues, think of such readers not as non-literary but as paraliterary thriving outside the institutions we take as central to the literary world. She traces this phenomenon to the postwar period, when literature played a key role in the rise of American power. At the same time as American universities were producing good readers by the hundreds, many more thousands of bad readers were learning elsewhere to be disciplined public communicators, whether in diplomatic and ambassadorial missions, private and public cultural exchange programs, multinational corporations, or global activist groups. As we grapple with literature's diminished role in the public sphere, Paraliterary suggests a new way to think about literature, its audience, and its potential, one that looks at the civic institutions that have long engaged readers ignored by the academy.