Analyzing FictionThere has never been a better time to be a specialist in analyzing fiction. Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature notwithstanding, there may still be hope for the study of “literature”; a.k.a., “the lies that tell the truth.”
Sarah Palin in a bikini! [click the link please!]
Fake News Is NewsIn the wake of the American presidential election, there has been a tidal wave of discussion online, on television and in the press about “fake news.” One television news show I saw recently claimed that fake news stories outnumber “real” news stories (whatever “real” means) by a ratio of three to one, and fake news is viewed online tens times as frequently as its conservative cousin. Of course, the television news show in question was quoting online sources, raising the question “Is the news about ‘fake news’ fake?”
Fraudsters Target the Illiterate and Less LiterateHave you noticed that when you receive one of those fraudulent email messages trying to lure you to send money—you know, the ones that say my uncle in Nigeria has left me a multi-million-dollar inheritance, but I need your help to get it—those messages are full of grammar and spelling mistakes. The mistakes are deliberate because the messages are designed to target people who are less educated, who cannot read well enough to detect the mistakes, and are therefore more susceptible to the fraud that the senders are attempting to perpetrate.
Understand What a Text Is Trying to Do to You
Other than going incommunicado and surrendering to the life of a recluse, the only defense against online frauds and fakes and misinformation in general is the ability to read. Usually when people talk about reading they mean the ability to interpret alphabetic symbols marked on paper or a screen—and that’s what I mean most of the time when I talk about reading. However, we also “read” images, numbers, people, situations, in fact, the entire world around us. Anything we can read—which is just about everything—can be called “a text.”
I would habitually tell university students that when you are reading a written text it is important to realize, at the outset, that someone is trying to do something to you. The text might be designed to persuade, convince, enrage, shock, seduce, insult, confuse, convert, appease, hypnotize, pacify, inform, educate, or discourage you—and there are a thousand other possibilities. As a practiced and skilled reader, you need to constantly consider what is being done (or attempted to be done) to you. An educated reader begins her engagement with the text with an attitude of skepticism. The attitude of an educated reader is to doubt, but if you are going to engage with or even enjoy a text to some degree you must consent, you must accept, as least provisionally to what is being done to you.
Suspension of DisbeliefThis process has long been recognized in literary studies. It even has a name: “suspension of disbelief.” If you are going to enjoy a work of fiction, you must allow yourself to read as if it were all true—which, of course, invites the question of how to enjoy a postmodern novel where the author constantly intervenes to remind you that you are reading fiction. The sophisticated reader is supposed to know how to believe in just the right degree. There is even a threadbare old joke to make the point: a country bumpkin announcing in a loud whisper as the ghost of King Hamlet appears behind Prince Hamlet: “Ohh, he’s gonna shit when he sees that ghost!”
In contrast, postmodern feminism has given us the “resistant reading” whereby unwary women are instructed to approach the slippery ideological seductions of Andre Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress” and Leonard Cohen’s “As the Mist Leaves No Scar” with caution.
That’s the fun stuff—the situations where the possibility of salutary readings are at least possible to imagine. How do we deal with a digital universe in which 40% of what we read are outright lies and another 49% are out-of-context fibs, shadings of the truth, conspiracy theories, sales pitches and spin-doctoring? (Please don’t quote my made-up percentages, but note that I have left 11% of space for facts, intelligent discourse, captions about cats and vacuity.) The only viable countermeasure to being lied to, fooled, misinformed and defrauded is the ability to read.
The Antidote to Fake News Is Reading. . . which returns me to the information which I cited in a previous post (How Many Americans Believe that Planet Earth Is Only 6000 Years Old) that 14% of Americans are illiterate and 21% of adults in the USA read below a grade 5 level. Even as I quoted the article I found myself wondering if I wasn’t promulgating bogus statistics. If I am going to post on the malaise of “fake news” and the antidote of effective reading, I have to make some effort to ensure that I am not spreading “fake news.” I take as a basic truth underlying claims about illiteracy rates in both the USA and Canada that the reading skills of the population as a whole are well below where they should be—even though definitions of “illiteracy” are much debated and the measurement of reading skills always in question.
Why Reading a Book MattersI also take the ability to read a book as the true measure of the capacity to read. Having the skills and acumen required to hold on to the coherence and pattern of a text over hundreds of pages is the ultimate test of reading. This coherence might be the connection between a hypothesis and statistical evidence, or the ongoing inductive and deductive reasoning that supports an argument, or details of plot, character and setting. Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, this level of reading ability also means being able to spot inconsistencies, incongruities, outright contradictions, lacunae, logical fallacies, flawed writing and rhetorical smoke 'n' mirrors.
Fake News Is the News We Want to Believe
"Fake news" is news that is oddly familiar; moreover, it is typically news that we would like to believe. Every conspiracy theory contains a spattering of irrefutable facts; every fiction large chunks of reality. The ability to read is not just being able to identify words on a page; the key to reading is understanding how the words connect together, and how collections of words work together and beyond--or don't. More than the words themselves, it is the space between words that matter. Making connections is making meaning. Making the right connections--and spotting the disconnections--is getting the meaning right.
Fragments of News Convince Us that We Are Right and Knowledgable
However, we live in the age of headlines and captions and twitter. We are bombarded with fragments of information on the assumption that we cannot or will not read sufficiently to question the ersatz. As a result, we are all becoming lesser readers every day, more entrenched in the dogma of whatever we happen to believe at the outset, convinced of whatever panders to our current convictions and outrage, and unwilling or unable to read further.
I may think myself a pretty good reader, but this bit of "fake news" fooled me. It fooled me for a few of the typical reasons. I'd heard it a couple of times, then years later I got this image, which looks convincing, emailed to me. It is fake,
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