On Friday, November 5th at the ALSCW conference in Princeton, NJ, Patricia Hampl, Mark Edmunson, Mark Halliday and Phillip Lopate sat on a panel to discuss “The Common Reader” and the common, contemporary experience of reading.
Hampl focused on the relationship between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind, specifically in personal forms of writing. She cited Fitzgerald’s collection of essays, “The Crack-Up,” as a series of psychological breakdowns between story and poem that marked a shift from omniscience to an autobiographical and personal voice.
Mark Edmunson found that the common reader is one who reads for pleasure and easy enjoyment; with many people working a 40 hour work week and needing two incomes to get by, Edmuson explained, the common reader does not wish to undertake the strenuous effort required to understand complex texts. The media, also, no longer strives to shape tastes as it once did. If it took this approach, Edmunson hypothesized, the common reader would feel dumb. Taking a somewhat cynical approach to the topic, Edmunson saw the common reader as a kind of narcissus, not looking for a challenge so much as instant gratification.
Poet Mark Halliday spoke of the use of accessible versus difficult language in poetry, and his own inclination as a poet to identify with the common reader. Citing the tendency of common readers to conceive of poems as characterized by non-transparent, obscure language, Halliday argued for the power of simple, accessible language to convey complex ideas. He spoke of clarity and obscurity not as binaries, but rather as different methods of approaching a poem. Language with surface simplicity can convey an underlying difficulty, he related, while seemingly inaccessible language can convey the simplest of ideas. Phillip Lopate, the final speaker, called himself a common reader, one looking for an understanding of the way things are, what he called wisdom, or, the loss of innocence.