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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Shut Up and Read

Literary theorist Roland Barthes developed a distinction in literature between readerly and writerly texts. He believed most texts are readerly texts, defined as those where meaning is fixed so that the reader is called upon to essentially read.

(Whiny voice—"Question, Mr. Big Shot. What else would you do with a book, except read it?”).

In readerly texts, standard representations and structure are used to hide any elements that would open the text to multiple meaning.

(You got to answer my question. You promised).

Very well, if you’ll just listen. A writerly text, in contrast, reveals those hidden elements, so that the reader must become a more active participant in meaning-making.

(More pretentious double-talk, is what I call it).

But you see, despite your annoying interruptions, best beloved, you are demonstrating my point. You are actively making meaning of what I’m saying.

(Then I’m going to be quiet. I refuse to continue being a part of this reckless caper! And I’m not your best beloved).

The last novel we examined, A Sport and a Pastime, is, I believe, a fine example of a writerly book. The reader is presented with an ambiguous situation and must draw her/his own conclusions. Are Dean and Anne-Marie real or are they creations of the lonesome narrator? The story offers no clear yes or no. The reader must decide for themselves, and this is different than reading a story that offers answers.

So, yes, best beloved, let’s say there are different kinds of reading.


“Dick and Jane watch Spot. Run Spot, run!”

Here, the reader approaches a brief narrative. There are three actors; two of them, one with a historically male name, one female, observe the third, who has a name often given to a dog. Especially if the reader is familiar with the Dick and Jane stories, the readerly interpretation is simple. There is little ambiguity.

However, there is a hidden narrator observing the actors, who are opaque, their motivations for watching Spot and his for running, unclear. Without further context, the lack of information would cause many readers to make meaning of what they’d read, creating explanations for what the characters were doing. Dick and Jane could be happily playing with the family dog, or they could be trying to catch an animal in order to kill and eat it.

Much is determined by context

I believe Now We Will Be Entirely Free is essentially a readerly text, which is not in any sense a criticism. It is a classification. Apples are not better than oranges, only different. The text is a beautifully written story with a strong plot and interesting characters. But as one reads, the meanings are gently well-defined and closed to interpretation. The narrator of the story is assured; there is never a sense that she/he is unreliable. She/he tells the story as if it really happened.

Of necessity, the story must begin in more open fashion. It takes time and page-space to establish what’s going on and to close off possible alternative meanings. Lacroix is shown as blaming himself for the atrocities that occurred in Spain. It is not till quite a ways into the book that Lacroix tells the story of what happened, confessing it to Emily. Up to that point, the reader is shown Lacroix’s guilt and self-recrimination; the reader doesn’t know whether or not it’s justified.

Lacroix thinks of his father’s funeral, his sister’s grief. “Was that what had happened in Spain? He did not know, he did not know. In his effort to understand, he had worn language thin but made it no sharper. He was bitterly tired of thinking about it, thinking and a minute later beginning again with the same bare and terrible facts. That was almost the worst of it, not being able to stop the thinking. Or not until the world broke in with hunger, a fist, stars above the sea. Then for a breath or two, he went free.” (An interesting reference to the title, I think).

At the moment of confession, there’s a possibility of the reader being asked to judge for her/himself, but that is quickly closed off when Lacroix and Emily make love, and Lacroix thereby realizes Emily doesn’t think he’s a monster. (checks out, Lacroix. She likes you). He lets himself off the hook, or she does.

There’s a beautifully done set-up here, wherein Emily is gradually revealed to have poor and deteriorating eyesight. Lacroix accompanies her to Glasgow to have eye surgery to correct the problem. Is the surgery a success? Will she be able to “see?” After Lacroix’s confession, she “sees” very well, offering redemption.

And the story takes a while to establish that Calley is a monster. Is he misunderstood? The story presents some explanation as to why Calley is such a sociopath (troubled childhood). But his behavior as an adult closes off much meaning making and/or forgiveness. Throughout the novel, his character becomes less complex and more one-dimensional.

The story frames Lacroix as good and Calley as evil. Lacroix acts heroically to protect the British sailor who is on the run from the Royal Navy. Calley brutally assaults the hapless Nell and William Swann to get information on Lacroix’s whereabouts. He becomes increasingly deranged in his pursuit of Lacroix and eventually, assaults another likable character and murders his own companion Medina, thereby compromising the success of his mission.

The reader is shown a side of both characters that makes the narrator’s unspoken case. Sides that might contradict this case are omitted. The “deck is stacked” for Lacroix and against Calley.

Lacroix’s actions in Spain are not admirable, but in the context of other “good” deeds he does and his general behavior, I think most readers would be willing to forgive him. This is what is meant by closing meaning.

What might be an alternative that would tilt the text more toward “writerly?” Perhaps, if the narrator was shown to be fallible. Let’s say if Calley suddenly did a noble deed, (rescuing Spot?) and the narrator “stepped into” the action as a character who admitted he’d misjudged Calley. That would shake things up.

But in Now, I appreciate the narrator’s confidence and reliability.


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