Constructed Reader, Real Emotion

An Essay by Adrienne Lamberti

At first, the reader’s situation was typical. She was procrastinating, looking for distraction from a pile of student papers. She was weighing her options—she’d just seen mention of Mary McCarthy’s essay “The Fact in Fiction,” in a collection (1) of correspondence between McCarthy and Hannah Arendt. She was no less contented than usual, and there was no reason to expect that she would be more so. It was her usual situation, which meant Reader was her usual self when she looked up McCarthy’s essay, one of a trilogy published in The Partisan Review in the early 1960s, and began to read: a Gen Xer-turned-academic, a forty-something postmodernist.

But the essay was hard sledding, and she plowed into the metaphorical tree (aware that such hyperbole conflicted with McCarthy’s “just-the-facts” approach to writing). The reader’s difficulty was not in the essay’s tone (a pinball between acerbic and evangelical) or the references McCarthy name-checked, but in the distance between McCarthy’s 1960 stance that texts qualify as a novel only if they handle “the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics,”(2) and postmodernist disregard for empirically knowable Reality. Reader understood herself, the world, all things, to have been constructed—the word a rock- throw at the concept of unbiased facts. The tree she’d slammed into was the belief that anything can be absolutely known. It was too much of an obstacle to steer around.

It wasn’t that she discounted McCarthy for the warrant that certain things are “actual” absolutes. The reader knew some people believed in Reality. Circling around McCarthy at the time had been critics’ promotion of texts representing the true and the probable, those written “to cleanse the vision of prepared or culturally conditioned understanding; to correct roseate (2) conviction with hard fact.”(3) It was as if a writerly focus on physical detail could stiff-arm the instability of sentiment: authenticity as inversely proportional to affect. The reader further knew that Reality could be embodied in writers’ agendas as much as in a text’s explicitness of detail— Rabbit, Run’s handling of controversial behaviors as authorial strategy to alert U.S. readers to the repressive threat of McCarthyism, for instance. The Real was confirmed, whether deluging an audience with description, or exercising “the realistic enterprise” with “redemptive ardor”4 in order to promote an ideal, such effort a Platonic legacy.(5)

How easy it would have been to leave it at that, to be relativistic and essentialize McCarthy’s stance as in keeping with a mid-20th century sensibility, but the reader was aware that Reality even then was in play within the literary intellectual landscape. While McCarthy was working on a definition of the novel as indubitably facts-only, Philip Roth was warning that ubiquitous media spin-doctoring was making Reality ever more elusive. In his chronicle of the televised, journalistic, and even musical bedlam generated in response to the murder of two teenaged girls in Chicago, Roth pointed out how in the middle of these media events “suddenly there is a thought that comes flashing into the mind of the spectator, or newspaper reader: is this all Public Relations? But of course not—two girls are dead,”(6) and worried that the “actuality” of America was “continually outdoing” [writers’] talents” in portraying it.(7) If writers didn’t hold the line and keep focus on Reality, however it may be a moving target, they risked in their handling of subject matter an insincere tone and navel-gazing—what Roth viewed as subpar authorship.

Decades after McCarthy and Roth, Reader witnessed during her graduate education and academic career how scholarly cage-fights over the Real continued. When it came to syncing with “The Fact in Fiction,” though, she gained only context from latter-day criticism of Realism, which tended to finger Romanticism as a psychological trauma; it had rendered people unprepared for the fundamental socio-cultural alterations of industrialism and rural-to- metropolitan migrations.(8) Early 20th-century texts “show[ed] the effects of ‘future shock’… Electronic and mechanical developments … produced rapid change. [One] was not alone in feeling … violently propelled into a future that frightened [him/her].”(9) This psychic unsettledness, Reader had learned from the critics of her own time, had been bequeathed to McCarthy and mid-20th century contemporaries. As McCarthy wrote to Arendt in 1962, “Being in France makes one feel, even more than in America, that industrialization is really a cancer, spreading more rapidly than anyone could or can imagine, and absolutely inoperable.”(10) By then, the nature of Realists’ unease had evolved; theirs was not a case of believing in the ability to fully know something called Reality, but rather an authorial anxiety about the consequences of believing too unquestioningly in certain social constructions of reality. The unfixedness of signification amplified their nervousness, and so they doubled-down on writing about the substantiality of things.

This type of critique felt more familiar to Reader, yet did not entirely remove her suspicion. After all, exploring the constructive ability of a text considered Realism seemed mostly to just empower the concept of Reality (11)—a dubious action, considering that realistically portraying the perceived commonplace, as Naturalists were known to point out,(12) risked “symbolically conquer[ing] and coloniz[ing]” those being portrayed.(13)

So as the debate and conflict continued from without and within, the reader reached towards learning something from McCarthy, but was handcuffed. The frustration lay in her inability to reconcile her 2016 headspace with Reality as others were defining it. As Reader continued with McCarthy’s essay, her thoughts deteriorated into a series of “Yes, but…” objections. How, for instance, could she take anything from McCarthy’s disqualification of 1984 as a novel, because “the novel does not permit occurrences outside the order of nature” and therefore “a novel cannot be laid in the future?”(14) The premise ran up against the very theories that’d built the reader. Michael Cole and Yrjö Engeström, key cheerleaders in socio-cultural construction, could be heard in her protests with their statement that

[o]nly a culture-using human being can “reach into” the cultural past, project it into the future, and then “carry” that (purely conceptual) future “back” into the present in the shape of beliefs that then constrain and organize the present sociocultural environment.(15)

The voices that’d constructed Reader intellectually were face-palming Reality in toto. She could not find clarity from McCarthy & Co. or more recent understandings of Realism. And frankly, she shouldn’t have had any problem with Reality at all. She’d grown up on a farm, for God’s sake, where it was not uncommon to put a bullet into something that hours later would be dinner. Food prep utensils had included a rifle and a bone saw. All quite inarguably real, physical conditions. Still, in scrambling for mental purchase with McCarthy’s Real, she felt how far she’d been removed from it, how the fingerprints of time, texts, and scholarship had so denaturalized the idea, that nothing—not her past, not criticism’s past, not her present or its—could help her navigate “The Fact in Fiction.”

She was on her own.

Perhaps that wasn’t the worst place to be. Granted, Reader might have been unconsciously continuing to reject Platonic idealism; in this case, refusing (as much as she was consciously able) to work her way towards an understanding of McCarthy via mimetically reconciling written expressions of the Real16; but in responding to “The Fact in Fiction,” she  leaned towards a different Platonic influence. She was Reader, after all—an identity borne of recognition of what is lost by, say, reading interlocutors’ Dialogues rather than experiencing them live.(17) A trained rhetorician, she knew that the more methods to experience a message, and the tensions among those methods, the better.

And so, in order to believe in McCarthy’s Reality, Reader splintered into then-and-now interlocutors. She froze, then rewound, a part of herself—a 1960 interlocutor. This creation was in the tradition of an “invoked” audience, developed by the “writer’s knowledge of the social situation that has brought the audience into being.”(18) As McCarthy’s contemporary audience, this interlocutor could not yet know certain things. The volume of chatter contesting the nature of Reality was increasing; but she could not know to what degree Reality soon would be in play, that soon all would be left was “reality.”

It is 1960. The back of my mind intuits but the front of my mind fends off what is coming: fundamental cultural, social, economic, global changes that will split and fuse generations. The college kids will scream things against “the Establishment.” Neighborhoods will burn. People will burn. They’ll be shot right in front of us. They’ll be shot overseas. “Race,” “sex,” “class,” “freedom,” out the window. I used to know what every word meant.

As the tether between Reader’s 1960 and 2016 interlocutors stretched, it screeched, then keened. The 2016 interlocutor stood a powerful contrast to 1960; it was a synthesis of “invoked” and “addressed” audiences, an agile, empowered being that skittered nonlinearly across a text according to its needs, built by “‘the multiple tasks or multiple reading behaviors [an audience] may require.’”(19) The dialectic between 1960 and 2016 was mitochondrial more than logical, and that surprised Reader. There was no rationalizing the tension away, no harmonizing her interlocutors’ perspectives through Socratic inquiry. All she did was feel—the shock of having

Reality’s teeth pulled out, then the fear of general floundering, then the terror of desperate scrambling, for what once had been the comfort of absolute certainty. How horrible it must have been for some Realists, for what already had been disintegrating into sea legs to be absolutely cut off at the knees. The generalized anxiety largely attributed to birthing Realism’s lockdown on the true and the known, ultimately, for Reader mutated into heartbreak. She set down McCarthy’s essay.

Reader’s experience was not groundbreaking. Pain is nothing new. Roth had described how a hard look at “the connection between [a] writer and the times” could result in “a despair so great.”(20) Still, Reader did not wish to take her cue from McCarthy’s and Roth’s handling of such emotion—because they didn’t handle it. McCarthy had shielded herself with the empiricism of a clockface’s numbers, promoting chronological timeline in plot development as one hallmark of a true novel.(21) Roth had termed such despair a preventable tragedy, as it could paralyze writers from documenting Reality at all and instead self-pityingly turn to themselves as subjects.(22)

So was all this just wallowing? Or was there a way for the reader to nab her epiphany, what she finally was able to take from McCarthy’s essay, and save it from self-indulgence? Reader eyed the pile of student papers that’d kicked off her journey. In her class on the profession of editing, she often emphasized the need for editors not just to cavalierly “put themselves in the shoes of a manuscript’s audience,” but to sink into the audience’s identity as much as possible. This immersion process, though, was always guided by rather clinical procedures, a sort of CSI-style demographic profiling to best determine the target audiences’ reading patterns and contexts. Emotion in editing was restricted to a known quantity: the “sensitive nature” of working with authors who held personal “investment” in their work.(23)

There were research-based “principles” available to standardize what editors might otherwise regard as “good instincts” when navigating delicate relationships with writers.(24) But the editorial procedures for analyzing a manuscript’s audience, long taught by Reader, now struck her as a little pathetic, thinned by the lack of consideration given to the pathos of the analytic process.

She’d just felt how experiencing a cellular connection with an audience was not the same as analyzing it. If using “logical structure” and “tools of evaluation” during editors’ review of submitted manuscripts contributed to authors’ positive emotions,(25) it seemed obvious to Reader, not to mention ethical, to encourage among her editor-hopeful students a similar, kindly, link to audience. She scanned her pile of papers, sensed the thump of anxious hearts in them, as her students waited for their grades. “Some quite intelligent and discerning people still long for … sympathetic humanism;”(26) the first paper seemed a good place to start.


  1. Carol Brightman, ed., Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy: 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1995).
  2. Ibid., p. 439.
  3. James Nagel and Tom Quirk, “Introduction,” in The Portable American Realism Reader, ed. James Nagel and Tom Quirk (New York: Penguin Books, 1997),
  4. David E. Shi, Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 307.
  5. Plato, Republic, in Plato on Poetry, ed. Penelope Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 204.
  6. Philip Roth, “Writing American Fiction,” in Reading Myself and Others, ed. P. Roth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 119.
  7. Ibid., p. 120.
  8. Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 2007), 182.
  9. Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, eds., The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery: Volume II: 1910-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), xvii.
  10.  Brightman, Between, 129.
  11. Eric J. Sundquist, American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1982).
  12.   Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, et al., “Realism and Naturalism,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume: 2 / 1865 to the Present, ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, et al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2013), 548.
  13.  Robert Dowling, Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 7.
  14.  Mary McCarthy, “The Fact in Fiction,” The Partisan Review (1960): 441.
  15. Michael Cole and Yrjö Engeström, “A Cultural-Historical Approach to Distributed Cognition,” in Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations, ed. G. Salomon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
  16. A. K. Cotton, Platonic Dialogue and the Education of the Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 46.
  17.  Ibid., p. 45.
  18. Mary Jo Reiff, “Rereading ‘Invoked’ and ‘Addressed’ Readers through a Social Lens: Toward a Recognition of Multiple Audiences,” Journal of Advanced Composition 16.3 (1996): 409.
  19. Ibid., p. 416.
  20. Roth, Reading, 123.
  21. McCarthy, “The Fact in Fiction,” 441.
  22. Roth, Reading, 130.
  23. Jo Mackiewicz and Kathryn Riley, “The Technical Editor as Diplomat: Linguistic Strategies for Balancing Clarity and Politeness,” Technical Communication 50.1 (2003): 130.
  24. Ibid., p. 93.
  25. Esther Zaretsky, “Academic Logos to Ethos and Pathos” (paper presented at the 18th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics: WMSCI 2014, Orlando, Florida, July 15 2014).
  26. Shi, Facing Facts, 306.


Dr. Adrienne Lamberti works at the University of Northern Iowa, where she coordinates its Professional Writing Program and is an Associate Professor of Languages & Literatures—but she lives when with her loved ones in central Iowa and on her family’s Century Farm. Lamberti teaches workplace writing, and researches communication topics focused on the production side of agriculture.

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