MFA student John Silvestro, studying structuralism for his English 600 class at Northern Kentucky University, sent me some of literary theorist Jonathan Culler’s musings on how readers respond to texts. Culler, quoted here in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, may help explain the appeal that literary nonfiction has for some readers and why memoir is so stunningly popular:
“As soon as we know we’re reading a piece of fiction or poetry . . . we read it differently than we would read a real letter or journal: we know we’re entering a fictional world, and this creates a fictional distance, so to speak, that carries with it a kind of impersonality that would not be present if we knew we were reading a factual account of a human being’s personal experience.”
John wrote, “It is obvious that his main intention was to speak about the mental state a reader assumes when he dives into a work of fiction. But indirectly he is showing that literary nonfiction gets the dual effect of having its readers assume the ‘fictional’ mind-state while simultaneously remaining in the real world. My guess is that this creates in the reader an added level of intimacy.”
Culler’s books include Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.