Masturbatory Fictions, Masturbatory Reading

Précis: some thoughts on masturbatory v. sexual reading; the problem of genre fiction being taken “seriously;” an elaboration on Byung-chul Han’s Saving Beauty in a literary context. 

Insomnia is not uncommon for me these days, and its silver lining is that I often come up with interesting thoughts and questions while tossing and turning. A few nights ago I was tossing and turning and generally not having a great time when my thoughts turned to reading. In my sleepless lucidity, I came up with a term that I’m going to explore here because I think it offers something useful: masturbatory fiction and masturbatory reading. 

I’ve been thinking about reading a fair amount recently since being quarantined. Now that the semester is well and truly over and I have summertime freedom ahead of me, I’ve been taking more time to get to some of the backlog in my “to read” list. One of the items on my list is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. My wife gave me a copy of the entire series for our wedding anniversary, and I’ve decided to attempt a yearly re-reading. (See this post for more thoughts on this). I sometimes resist reading fiction because I get “sucked in.” Francis Spufford describes himself as a “fiction addict” in The Child that Books Built, and I think I share that sentiment. As I was tossing and turning, I stumbled on a question: what kind of pleasure does reading fiction bring? People talk about “important books” or “books that changed their lives,” but I’m sometimes skeptical that this actually results in real, i.e. physical, change. I suspect, and maybe this concept of “masturbatory” reading can shed some light here, that most often novels and the way that people read them just makes one feel good, rather than actually do anything differently. The only thing that changes is the readers’ feeling of themselves, not the physical speech and action among others that really constitutes their lives. 

I started re-reading Byung-chul Han’s Saving Beauty and I find his critique of “smooth” aesthetics relevant here. Han’s critique is that what he claims is the dominant aesthetic today, the reflective and smooth, has separated beauty and the sublime. Beauty, de-natured of its potentially disturbing, even destructive, sublimity, becomes something that “feels good,” that “goes down smooth.” He gives the art of Jeff Koons as an example of art that conforms to what he calls the “society of positivity,” in which any alterity or otherness is removed. Followers of Han’s work will no doubt recognize this concern from several of Han’s other works, including The Burnout Society, The Transparency Society, and The Expulsion of the Other. “Smooth” beauty, of which smartphone touchscreens are another example, for Han:

only conveys an agreeable feeling, which cannot be connected with any meaning or profound sense. It exhausts itself in a ‘Wow.’

Han, Saving Beauty, 3.

Han uses Koons’s work and touchscreens as examples for another reason: they are reflective. The viewer sees herself in the screen or the piece, being reassured of her own existence by herself. There is no other person or people to whom the viewer appears and through which she might be assured of her existence as a potential actor. (The second chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is relevant here.) Rather than shock or disturb the viewer into re-evaluating her self and what she does by creating a dissonance between the viewer’s sense of herself and how she appears to others, under the dominance of smooth aesthetics, 

Art opens up an echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence. The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.

Han, Saving Beauty, 5.

This has concerning consequences for the possibility of moral judgment as Hannah Arendt would see it, but that’s a post for another time. My concern here is that if visual art creates this closed echo chamber of the self reassuring itself of its existence in an infinitely autistic loop, does contemporary literature do so as well? If so, how? Does it operate differently than visual art? 

The short answer to this question is yes. I think much contemporary literature works in a way similar to Han’s description of the aesthetics of the smooth to close the reader off from genuine alterity and the possibility of new, better ways of thinking and living. My goal in this essay is to try and figure out how the concept of masturbatory fiction might be useful in thinking about the version of “smooth” aesthetics in a literary medium. I’m thinking of the problem in two parts. I’ll outline them here, then discuss them further individually:

  1. “Masturbatory fiction” (also “
    1. This is fiction that is not written with any intention of challenging the reader. It is fiction that “goes down smooth.” My initial thought was that this category could consist of genre fiction read for pleasure (especially series of novels like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files), but I’ve since thought about it some more and see titles like these as less of a problem. Masturbatory fiction that presents a real problem is fiction considered “serious” or “literary” that is written with “pure aesthetics” and “beauty” in mind, but that nonetheless fails to break the reflective loop of the reader’s reflection in the text. The social and cultural cachet of texts like these makes their smooth aesthetics a particular problem.
  2. “Masturbatory” reading as opposed to “sexual” reading
    1. Here I mean a reading practice in which the reader uses a text to feel good in themselves, that is, to masturbate, even if the text does not lend itself to such usage. There is no actual engagement, negotiation, or communication with the text from the reader – the text is approached as a passive reflection of the reader herself, thus creating the loop of the reader reassuring herself of her existence by seeing herself in the text and vice versa. I’m beginning to think that this reading practice is actually the bigger issue than the masturbatory texts themselves.

One qualification before I describe these problems in further detail is that I don’t think I’m arguing that one should not engage with masturbatory fiction. In fact, I’m thinking that the only way out of the impasse of the smooth is precisely to force these texts, which are written to be used/consumed for pleasure, to “stick in one’s throat” through critique and a more “sexual” reading. The idea that one can remain completely free from these problems is, I think, its own kind of masturbatory position, reinforcing the illusion of the Romantic “real self” in a way analogous to the aesthetics of the smooth, but oriented toward a more “critical” subject that, at least in her head, “knows better” than that. Insisting on only reading “The Classics” because modern literature is largely masturbatory doesn’t keep one from practicing masturbatory reading without realizing it.

Masturbatory fiction

Literature that lends itself to masturbatory reading (think “popular” fiction) uses language in such a way that a reader is likely to already be primed for or expecting. It uses language smoothly to reinforce what the reader already “knows,” but doesn’t speak. The reader will recognize herself (through her assumptions) in the text and, thereby, take pleasure in herself as she takes pleasure in the text and is “satisfied” at its conclusion. There aren’t any bumps in the road, or sticky-outy bits, the plot flows without any sense questions about what the characters are doing or why. 

One way that masturbatory fiction reflects the reader in itself is through the use of genre tropes that the reader can recognize in her identity as a “sci-fi reader,” or a “western reader,” or a “fantasy reader.” For example, potboiler detective novels have identifiable generic tropes that might include characterizations, plotlines, and assumptions. Even exemplars of this genre that do something new with it retain these generic elements which can be used to re-affirm the reader as a “reader of detective of novels.” For example, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files features a protagonist, Harry Dresden, who is a wizard. He works with the police as a consultant, and there is the familiar detective novel trope of “good” and “bad” (or incompetent, anyway) police officers that by turns ask for the detective’s help when they run into bureaucratic inertia or try to get him to scram so the real law can deal with the problem. Harry is a gruff, rather socially traditionalist figure who “knows right from wrong” and lives without the trappings of modern convenience. As the series continues, it is also revealed that he is an extremely powerful wizard who needed substantial training to use his powers effectively and responsibly, contributing to the affirmation of the reader seeing herself in the text as not only morally upstanding in a world of confusion, but also unique and special for something she simply is. She, too, is powerful but misunderstood! Harry Dresden acts as a way for Butcher to live out a fantasy that, if taken seriously, would likely seem uncomfortably retrograde and oppressive to many of his readers. By identifying with Harry uncritically, readers internalize their own sense of “specialness” and moral rectitude along the limited and traditionalist lines set by Butcher’s characterization. As the only wizard in Chicago, Harry is part of a special group that knows the “real” truth of the world: that magic and a whole host of spectral beings exist and operate just outside the ken of the merely human. 

The Dresden Files is clearly masturbatory literature. It makes use of genre tropes from fantasy and detective novels, “subverting” them in some sense but with a result that has an identifiable parentage in the genres that inform it. The novels present a problem, elevate tension, and resolve the problem in ways that do not challenge the reader or their assumptions about the world. For a “fantasy reader,” these novels reflect the self that is taken to already be there “inside.” The pleasure the reader takes from this masturbatory novel, then, is satisfaction in herself, reaffirming herself in an autistic loop that fails to consider what construal of the world the text itself offers and whether she thinks this is a construal worth having. Harry’s old-school gentlemanliness is naively charming in the novel, but also represents a host of repressive assumptions that the text discourages from being questioned. There’s nothing dirty about the sex that he and his love interest eventually have. Even that is pure as the driven snow. 

I don’t want it to seem like I’m just picking on Butcher and Harry Dresden. I quite enjoyed the volumes of the Dresden Files that I read, and found them quite useful to think with. I’ll return to this question more thoroughly in the conclusion, because I think it’s an important corrective to the idea that one should only read “serious” fiction. That notion is mistaken, for reasons I will turn to now. 

Masturbatory fiction that is clearly identifiable as such presents less of a problem when it occupies a position that is separate and distinguishable from “literature,” especially “serious” literature. Reading Crime and Punishment, for example, is not likely to make one feel “good” in the same way that reading Crazy Rich Asians is. That genre fiction is being taken more seriously by the academy is indicative of the fact that, as Han argues with visual art, this “serious” literature is being (further) dragooned into an ideological project to reinforce the reader’s pleasure in the self, as opposed to positioning the reader to find satisfaction in engagement with the world around her (that is in fact the condition of her being). Basically, it’s a way to keep things from changing. Literature claimed to be “beautiful,” especially anything described as “timeless” (more on this concept in another post) encourages masturbatory reading, even of texts that might actually, on a more critical reading, leave the reader not “feeling good.” The “serious” veneer of so-called “literary” fiction means that its masturbatory characteristics are more difficult to point out and potentially work against. Knausgard’s My Struggle is not embarrassing to read (to some) in the same way that Twilight is, simply meaning that those who might tend to read more critically because of a theoretically higher level of education or cultural cachet are given pleasure in the same way that the “masses” are in their stories. They are also thereby stymied in whatever attempts they might make at engagement with the world. Since they benefit more from the world as it is, or at least don’t suffer as much from it, masturbatory reading of “serious” fiction acts as further insurance that these people continue to avoid engaging with and changing the world. That they are in positions of relative power, where they might actually be able to make changes more easily than those at the very bottom, at least individually, makes the dominance of masturbatory reading especially tragic. 

It’s not the case that even novels that lend themselves to masturbation do so completely or necessarily. These novels tend to encourage a masturbatory reading, but there is another variable at play: the reader herself. The reader, by forcing herself to become attentive to the words of the text as a construal of the world can change the reading of any masturbatory text from an act of self-love, to an act of making love, which requires a partner and results in the challenge and potential that a partner brings.

Masturbatory reading

What I mean by masturbatory reading is basically a failure to read critically, but it’s not just uncritical reading. Taking a text at face value is actually less masturbatory because it might result in shocks (if the text itself is not masturbatory). Masturbatory reading also consists of assuming that the “pleasure” of a text is in its formal beauty, determined by those in positions of social authority. One uses the text to satisfy oneself by oneself, rather than challenging the text and drawing satisfaction from the novel possibilities that this challenge might bring into the open, even if the text itself was not written to “go down smooth.”

Masturbatory reading is a kind of corollary to masturbatory fiction, but I think tends to occur more frequently when one reads “serious” or “literary” fiction because of the cultural cachet that these texts have. Since they’re “real literature,” the idea that one such as my own lowly self could challenge them is anathema, arguments over canons notwithstanding. It’s like the only choices are completely uncritical reading that makes one feel good in oneself, or a disenchantment from the text so complete that it removes any possibility of pleasure or satisfaction from the reading exercise, thus leading to another kind of masturbatory pleasure: the pleasure of the ascetic. 

Genre fiction, again, like the Dresden Files, is fairly well culturally coded as “for fun.” Literature departments have insisted in recent years, however, that things like YA novels, science fiction, and comics are all topics that fall under the purview of academic literary studies, i.e. that can be “serious” and written about in a dissertation. On the one hand, they aren’t wrong. If we take literature or literary studies to mean “the study of texts,” then it seems obvious that comics, for example, would count as literature. On the other hand, however, the seriousness with which things like comics can now be taken, and the cultural cachet that surrounds them as “literature” exacerbates the problem of the smooth by removing the “guilt” one historically felt when reading masturbatory fiction. These formerly “guilty pleasures” now become something one can talk about openly and in public without shame. Han is relevant here as well.

For Han, a work of art that retains the sublime character of beauty offends its viewer:

A push comes from the work of art. It pushes the observer down. The smooth has an altogether different intentional nature. It adapts to the observer, elicits a Like from him or her. All it wants is to please, and not knock over.

Han, Saving Beauty, 6.

The desire to please, to not make any waves or stick in anyone’s craw eliminates the possibility of negativity, of the self being challenged. The possibility of experience, gained against negativity, “withers” (7). This has implications for masturbatory reading because the desire to please and its elimination of negativity removes the transgressive and excessive qualities from sex, leading to a situation in which

Dirty eroticism gives way to clean pornography.

Han, Saving Beauty, 9.

Eroticism relies on secrets, on transgression and excess, on not simply or only desiring to please. The sexual metaphor applies well here, I think. Consider the difference between a satisfying masturbation session and really satisfying sex. Sex is dirty (both literally and metaphorically), excessive, even dangerous. The possibility of being physically or emotionally hurt, even quite severely, exists much more strongly in a sexual encounter than in masturbation. One emerges from a satisfying sexual encounter physically tired or sore, with love-bites or even bruises to show for it. Taking masturbatory pleasure in self-inflicted pain is not the same because one inflicts the pain on oneself – it isn’t the result of a challenge posed by an Other who represents difference and negativity in the sense of “not-me.” It is not possible for one to “go too far” except by accident during masturbation – you only need a safe word with a partner. A partner may go too far, but intentionally, unaware that their action crosses a boundary. Such a challenge shocks and challenges the other partner, forcing communication and negotiation in which both partners gain experience of the other’s sexual proclivities and limits. Both partners change as a result of a sexual encounter. 

One reason that masturbatory fiction is less of a problem than masturbatory reading is that masturbatory fiction is, or was, marked as kind of embarrassing. It shared with sex the “dirty” or “guilty” element of pleasure. Sure, read Twilight in bed before going to sleep, but maybe not in a trendy coffeeshop, especially if you’re the kind of person who pretends to like French art films better than rom-coms. Pulpy sci-fi or detective novels, even when they are not themselves masturbatory in form, are culturally coded as “guilty.” They are, or were, to be greedily consumed in private. Paradoxically, this allowed for pulp sci-fi to express wide-ranging challenges to prevailing social norms and ways of thinking and acting. Social norms that took such texts as “less serious” or masturbatory paradoxically allowed sci-fi to encourage or even demand more “sexual” readings. 

The problem now, however, is that even works of “serious” or “literary” merit tend to be written and read in a masturbatory way. The bestselling books one “has to read” are increasingly, it seems to me, intended to “go down smooth.” They aren’t all like this, but as the quality of life and the possibility of the future continues to decline for those in the class of people who read New York Times bestsellers, it should come as no surprise that “beauty” should be a primary criterion of literary (and cultural) merit. 

That’s all on this for now. I’m still not sure if I have still have these concepts muddled. I’ll keep thinking about it.

Works cited and mentioned:

Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (I have the 2nd edition)

Butcher, Jim, The Dresden Files series

Han, Byung-chul, Saving Beauty

Spufford, Francis, The Child that Books Built