Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Value Judgements: A Piece Of Toast

One of the terms that has come up a lot in my university study is intertextuality - the notion that all texts, of every sort, from every era, are all part of some greater literary body. Any part of this body is eternally affecting, and being affected by, the other parts - or, more accurately, by readers' standards, interpretations, and value judgements of those parts.

The idea of intertextuality does seem fairly nebulous, but I think there's a major case to be made for its importance in the life of every reader - and the fortunes of every book, too.

Recently, I was having a chat with a fellow scriptor - you know who you are - about our judgements on a book that I, after reading, had ecstatically recommended. The esteemed person and I then fell into a discussion about our opinions of the book and its sequel. The differences in our resultant verdicts led me to thinking about how our own intertextual value judgements can affect our reading of certain books at certain times.

And now allow me to confuse matters entirely by explaining myself with a food metaphor.

Let's start out with the staple of every student's life - a piece of toast. It's a very ordinary piece of toast; brown bread or white, depending on your preference, maybe with a little bit of butter or jam or jellified dragon, if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

If you were to eat this toast first thing in the morning, having eaten nothing prior, you would probably have the closest thing to an unbiased opinion of said toast. From eating it, you would develop an idea of what you liked: crunchy crust, warm golden brown colouring, and preferably a triangular cut, so it fits on your plate better.

Any piece of toast you eat after this, however, will be inevitably judged upon the standard of the first.

There are any number of elements that can come into play here.

On one hand, you may find that you are rather particular about the spreads you like on your toast - you really rather like jam, and while you're amenable enough to marmalade and maybe a little bit of Branston Pickle when the mood takes you, that nasty yeasty brown thing from Australia can stay well away from you, thank you very much.

Or, maybe, you are not so picky overall, but find there are certain things that will really spoil your toast irrevocably, no matter what else it has going for it - like those pesky sesame seeds that get stuck in your teeth between bites and make it look like you just ate a colony of sentient Rice Krispies.

Finally, though, if you're really lucky, you might by chance make a piece of toast that far surpasses the quality of the original piece, in texture, crunchiness, and how nicely it suits your favourite spreads. That first piece was still a good piece of toast, of course, but you really do think thick-cut slices suit your preferred jam much better than a thinner cut - and so you will adjust your standards and preferences for future toast.

This piece of toast, however, would not have seemed half so marvellous if you had not had the first piece for comparison.

Of course, this metaphor is not perfect. I am by no means suggesting that Joyce's  Ulysses would be any more digestible if you smothered it in Marmite, and genre, writing style, subject matter, thematic handling and other such variable factors are not directly analagous to cuts of bread or the condiments you spread upon them. Nonetheless, one's expectations of a book, be they based on blurb, cover, critical reception, or private comparison to one's own present standard, can have quite dramatic effects upon one's eventual verdict.

The book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was one I won in a competition some two years back. I approached it warily, as a result, ever-wary of surrendering my precious time to Not Another YA Paranormal Romance. However, when the book turned out to contain some elements I very much enjoyed, my delighted surprise meant I became far more enthusiastic about it, and focussed very much on these positive elements throughout my reading.

My esteemed colleague, however, came to the book through the standpoint of my recommendation. Thus, his standards were much higher (I like to think) than mine were at first inspection, and thus he may not have found the elements that so enchanted me quite so astonishingly pleasant.

The intertextuality of the individual reader is not quite as grand as that of, say, the centuries-old vaulted ceilings of the canon of Great British Literature, or the Shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize, but it is certainly no less important. We are the critics and governing forces of our own judgements, and those judgements can be make or break for that book if our opinions correspond with those of others.

Somewhere behind every piece of toast, after all, is the author, chewing nervously on their fingernails and desperately hoping we all have a fondness for blackberry jam.

~ Charley R


  1. Hm. Lots of interesting thoughts. I think our expectations and our previous reading experiences do make a difference in the way we respond to a new book. For instance, readers (myself included) will often criticize a book for being too similar to one of their favorites. But it seems arbitrary to like the first and not the second, unless you're sure that the second author was copying the first . . .

    Also, Cait and I have been discussing Vegemite and I'll be lurking here to see what she has to say about your "nasty yeasty brown thing" comment.

    1. Nuuuu, I love the nasty yeasty brown thing! Very tasty stuff. It just makes good grounds for emphatic negative comment, haha!

      That said, I think you have a point. However, there's being like a favourite in a good way, and in a bad. The bad ones are usually pale imitations of said favourite that lack key elements that gave the former its strength, in my experience.