I read Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn reminds me of this time I went to a baseball game with my father. Therefore, Huckleberry Finn is about me going to a baseball game with my father.
If reader-response theory means that a work of literature is about however its reader receives it, the teacher argued, then Huck Finn or anything else can be about someone going to a ball game with his dad or anything else, which is just absurd.
Now all right, I don't know what "reader-response theory" technically means or says, and I don't care, but I think the particular approach that was criticized, reader-response theory or not, was criticized rather uncharitably. In fact, I think something of the approach criticized is very much in keeping with how we intuitively approach art and deserves a place alongside the more high-falutin' "theories."
Art is associative. It calls up memories and meanings that are deeply personal. Of course, it doesn't follow that a work of art "means" it's about my personal recollections or what I find significant, but it's perfectly fine if I choose to associate a work of art with a very personal thing. It's perfectly fine if Huck Finn reminds me of going to a ball game with my father. Furthermore, if I can make the personal connection clearer to a reader of listener of my account, all the better as an approach to art. It's possible, for instance, I could have just read the chapter in Huck Finn where Huck goes home and we're introduced to his alcohol-addicted father whose alcoholism has led to depression and this depression inclines the father to abusive behavior to his son. This could get me to thinking about the moment when I sat in a baseball stadium alongside my smiling father and contrasted the nice moment with my whole history with my father and realized this might have been the most peaceful and meaningful experience I've had with my father in comparison with other times my father's addiction and depression inclined him toward verbal abuse. Again, it doesn't follow that Huck Finn is about my experience and memories, but it's perfectly fine, even valuable, for me as a reader to follow out this kind of associative emotional logic.
Not only is this natural and perfectly legitimate to do, this was precisely the approach that the inventor of the modern essay took to topics and books. Virtually every one of Michel de Montaigne's essays did just that. You might read an essay of his titled "On Vanity" in which Montaigne begins with a quote from a Latin source about pride but by the end of the essay you will be reading about the difficulty of Montaigne's bowel movements. How did he get there? Well, you have to follow out the emotional logic.
All this digression is here because I'm trying to contextualize my attitude toward this album, Sixteen Stone. I think my attitude has changed because as I've gotten older and changed, I've begun to make different emotional associations with the album as a work of art.
I have a fond memory of buying Sixteen Stone on cassette in Walmart. I was a sixth-grader. I brought the cassette home, broke the cellophane, and studied the liner notes, reading the lyrics on the inside of the sleeve along with each song as it went on. I was amazed at how simplistic some of the lyrics were, but how these simplistic, almost-nonsense lyrics seemed to work well with the big rock'n'roll sound of the band. I think I realized, however inarticulately, that the bulk of popular rock music is shallow words with lovely support. In this case, crunchy guitars. I was delighted by that thought and still am. Popular music is all on the nose.
The trouble now is that the me that could lie on the bed in my bedroom and read liner notes and listen to a cassette all day is very much different from the me now. The insight, perhaps a superficial one, I had when I was a sixth-grader doesn't do much for me as a person in my late thirties. That's okay. I'm fine with that. I wouldn't get along with that sixth-grader, anyway. If he were my son, I would probably have a more difficult time raising him than my father had.