In the critical text, Crime Fiction, John Scaggs uses Roland Barthes’s distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” as a way of understanding why certain forms of crime fiction, such as the hard-boiled novel, allow for a greater openness of interpretation from the reader, and why others, such as the Golden Age whodunit, often close interpretation off.
Scaggs writes: “In Barthes’s schema the two types of texts invite distinct reading practices, with the ‘readerly’ text inviting a passive reader who tends to accept the text’s meanings as predetermined and already made.” Essentially, the readerly text resists interpretation; the reader merely swallows what is given him or rejects it. The writerly text, however, lets the reader participate in the text. “Because the goal of literary work … is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text,” Barthes writes in S/Z.
When I teach, I encourage my students to approach the texts we read, whether it’s Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot, as producers. They often want the “one right answer,” but I push them to realize that, if they apply themselves and become good critical readers, they will discover many right answers in any particular text.
As a writer, I set out to create a novel which borrows from some of the more readerly conventions of crime fiction—such as clues and puzzles which serve as metaphors for a central character’s attempt to restore his chaotic mental state to order after returning from WWII—but resisted being closed or readerly.
Readerly texts reassure us with answers, and writerly texts ask us to struggle with the human mysteries they offer us. At times, I’ll admit, I want to be reassured. I want everything tidied up. Like the character in my novel (and my students), I want chaos brought to an orderly conclusion; I want the one right answer. But then, once I get it (if it’s that type of story), I’m always disappointed, because it seems flimsy, fake even. Tidy endings rarely happen in reality.
As I grow older, I’m learning to balance my craving for order with my passion for mystery. It’s always a struggle, and it infiltrates all aspects of my life. But, when I reach for a book now, I want something that’s finely orchestrated, carefully sculpted, but not closed off. I want to create as I read, not merely absorb.