Finuala Dowling

The common reader


Finuala Dowling blogs about Saplic, literary car crashes, the common reader, Charles Kinbote and Edward Casaubon.

While we debate the need for a more rigorous literary criticism in South Africa, the common reader remains silent and unnoticed, or, where noticed, disparaged.    The common reader is the person who buys or borrows a book to read in private.  Not as educated as the literary critic – or perhaps just as highly educated, but a refugee from academe – she reads for that scandalous thing called pleasure.

There would be no book industry at all without the common reader, who is also the only member of Leon de Kock’s Saplic (South African Publishing and Literary Culture) who actually pays for the book.  Whereas reviewers receive complimentary copies of books, and academics are (theoretically) paid to keep up with their reading and have access to astounding library resources, the common reader lays out what might be as much as 2 or 3% of her monthly income on a single book.   Yet this hero, this subsidiser of the entire trade (for how will rare or experimental works be published, if there is not a tandem bestseller?), is consistently underrated.

I have known academics who have not read the books they have prescribed for their students.  I have heard about literary judges who have refused to read all the shortlisted books, or who have insisted on awarding the prize based on the author’s personal value rather than the value of the work in hand.

Though I am by training a literary critic, I think I have lost my faith in literary criticism. I have read scholarly articles so dry, tedious, jargon-ridden and lacking in humour, passion, lucidity and sympathy, and so indebted to the thoughts of others, that I have wondered how these alleged masters came to their chosen profession at all.  Prodding and poking like an anorexic pretending to eat but merely fussing with a lettuce leaf, they seem to hate the very things that bring books into existence: imaginative reach, expressiveness, story.  Those excellent scholars that there are – I know them and I salute them, original researchers and dynamic thinkers who must share the same rusty tea urn as the charlatans – may perhaps join in me in laughing at the idea that their colleagues Charles Kinbote and Edward Casaubon have awoken from years of slumber to second the call for more rigorous literary reviewing in South Africa.

I see the book reviewer much more sympathetically.  The reviewer is poised uneasily between this dry-as-dust, in-turned, written-on-the-head-of-a-pin world of scholarship and the world of the common reader.  Schooled by the former but writing largely for the latter, the reviewer tries to strike a balance between simple plot summary and recommendation on the one hand, and more complex aesthetic considerations on the other.  When a book is reviewed, the Audi, VW, Merc and hooptie drivers are sharing a rally. A fun day out may result in one of the car crashes Leon de Kock describes at

Who reviews?  The reviewing fraternity is interesting because it draws its members from every corner of Saplic: reviewers include not only those old enemies, the browsing common reader and the moonlighting academic, but cash-strapped writers too.

Unlike the academic’s peer-reviewed article, a book review is likely to be widely read and understood. Even if the book reviewer has a postgraduate degree in literary studies, he or she must endeavour to see the new work from the point of view of the common reader; he or she must write for a curious and receptive audience of common readers who may actually buy, read and love the book.  If the book reviewer is also a writer, he or she will know that that is the only audience worth caring about.

Virginia Woolf acknowledged that the common reader is “hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose” and that “his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out”.  But, despite these drawbacks, she revelled in Samuel Johnson’s defence:

I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices... must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours.

What we really need in South Africa, before we worry too much about the state of reviewing, is more common readers.



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