In the last week or so, there have been interesting discussions about the pros and cons of “cozy” fiction by Justin Landon (here) and on Sam Sykes (here). Those exchanges made me think of Roland Barthes’ distinctions between the “readerly” and the “writerly” text. Said distinction is summarized here. According to Barthes in S/Z, the readerly text is one where the reader is passive, “plunged into a kind of idleness […], left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text,” whereas the writerly text’s goal is “to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” The writerly text places greater demands on the reader, forces an active engagement with the text. It is disruptive and destabilizes the reading experience.
Barthes is unequivocal in seeing the readerly text as entirely retrograde. The distinctions are, furthermore, usually deployed in a way that would see “readerly” and “cozy” as nearly synonymous. I find, however, a certain use in doing some violence to Barthes’ project and using the terms in a more descriptive, rather than prescriptive fashion, at least in the context of the aforementioned discussions. One reason for my caution is that the usual schema of “readerly=easy to read” and “writerly=hard” says little about what the reader is bringing to the text in the first place.* For example, texts that are ideologically in sync with the reader might well be experienced as being more readerly than those coming from the other end of the spectrum, regardless of stylistic challenges.
And here is where I’d like to bring horror back into the picture.** I do, on balance, feel that horror requires the reader’s immersion in the fiction to achieve its full effect. The text must be sufficiently readerly to engage our emotions. But that in no way eliminates horror’s power to disturb and disrupt. This is not to say that a horror text cannot have an extremely conservative project (as is the case with both novel and film versions of The Exorcist), but the opposite is also true.
Consider Lucy Taylor’s short story, “Making the Woman” (from her collection Unnatural Acts and Other Stories). I apologize if I am slightly coy here, because the story is so powerful that I would hate to rob anyone of the solar-plexus-blow that comes from reading it for the first time. Stylistically, it is very accessible with its colloquial, profane, first-person narrator. It is a perfect example of the horror tale that gathers power by making entry into the story for the reader extremely easy. But what follows is as merciless, appalling and unblinking an anatomy of patriarchal violence in its myriad forms as one is likely to encounter, culminating in an ending that lingers and lingers and lingers in the reader’s mind. Does Barthes want a destabilizing text? Here it is. And its destabilizing (dynamite) charge is detonated in no small part by means of its inviting, even “cozy” construction.
The point that I am trying to make here is that the accessibility of the narrative and its destabilizing potential are not inherently mutually exclusive. In horror, accessibility can, in fact, be the necessary precondition to salutary emotional savagery.*** Or, to put it another way, the stories are kind in order to be cruel.
*I should add that the real emphasis in S/Z is the demonstration of a productive act of reading (Barthes’ concepts here might, it seems to me, have some very interesting applicability to fanfic, but I should leave that to those who know much more about that realm of endeavor than I do).
**See? I’m on topic after all!
***I do not, of course, see this possibility as being exclusive to horror. To take just one recent example, Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade deploys familiar Sword and Sorcery tropes, romps about with them, but also subjects them to some serious questioning.