By Catherine Lee

Photo courtesy of wpwend42

Last semester, as part of my honors thesis seminar, I had to read a lot of Roland Barthes: Mythologies, S/Z, Camera Lucida. I am sorry to say that a lot of Barthes was simply lost on me. Unfortunately, my brain was unfit for his genius. Sometimes I speculated that he was a literary alien, speaking a different language than the one I was majoring in. I don’t think I wasn’t cut out for theory. However, the bits of Barthes that somehow managed to find their holds inside my brain have had a big influence on the way I view literature and life.

A very fascinating concept that I would like to introduce to you and attempt to explain by extensively borrowing Barthes’ words is the concept of readerly (French: lisible) and writerly (French: scriptible) texts, which appears in the opening sections of S/Z.

On the one hand, there is what it is possible to write, and on the other, what it is no longer possible to write: […] which texts would I consent to write (to re-write), to desire, to put forth as a force in this world of mine? The writerly. Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. [The reader] is plunged into a kind of idleness – […] instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the […] the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum. Opposite the writerly text, then, its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.

Barthes explicitly shows which he favors, and of course I want to side with him because he is Roland Barthes. But in any case, I think the two concepts are easy to understand, or at least easier than what comes after in S/Z. The readerly text would be comparable to a professor that simply reads out recycled lecture notes to you (hence the “classic”), whereas the writerly text would be comparable to a professor that has open discussions with students or picks on students and makes them really work for it during class.

What Barthes’ explanation of the writerly text did for me is to motivate me to become a producer of texts, or at least respond actively to what I read. Barthes does not give a list of works that he considers as writerly texts. Perhaps it is something that happens on an individual basis, a special relationship that the reader forms with the text. Sarrasine, of course, is the writerly text that Barthes responds to by writing S/Z.

Have any supplementary information or explanation on Barthes and/or the writerly text? Want to tell us your special relationship with a text? Please do share in the comments! For more posts on literature, click here.