Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘Not reading in conflict: the status of The Satanic Verses during the Satanic Verses controversy’. Paper to be presented at Reading in Conflict, the Open University in Milton Keynes, 13.30-14.00, 24 June.
Especially in studies influenced by the ‘reader response’ school of literary theory, much attention has usefully been paid to the different ways in which readers interpret precise textual details. The classic study here is perhaps Fish’s (1976) analysis of interpretative disagreements among members of one of the most meticulous groups of professional readers, i.e. editors of critical editions. Similarly, historians of reading often look for very detailed records of textual interpretation, with the classic work probably being Ginzburg’s (1981) micro-historical study of the 16th century heresiarch, Menocchio. While one of the key achievements of reader response theory has been to emphasise the agency of readers, the aim of these more empirically-inclined studies has been to provide historical explanations for specific acts of interpretation, as in Feely’s (2010) analysis of how a socially isolated Marxist came to find the imperative to take up dancing in the writings of Joseph Dietzgen. Both these types of study are of immense value in helping us to understand certain types of highly engaged readers, but the general approach becomes problematic when applied those who read less carefully, or who pronounce upon books without having ‘read’ them, in the ordinary sense of the word.
This difficulty is of particular importance when we consider the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Especially in the early years of that explosive cultural, political, and religious conflict, the book’s status as an object of controversy appeared wholly to eclipse its status as an object of reading: many commentators on The Satanic Verses made no claim to have read it, and at least some of those who made such claims may have done so untruthfully (as we see from the inaccuracy with which they discuss the book’s content), while accusations of non-reading were often used to discredit both supporters and detractors of the book. In contrast to reader response-oriented studies of the controversy (e.g. Fowler 2000), this paper eschews the study of specific interpretations, first examining the centrality of non-readers of The Satanic Verses to the reception history of that work and then analysing representations of reading and non-reading as contributions to the controversy that shaped that history. This raises important questions about the status of text in reception study.