Didion's "Mock Reader" in "In Bogota"

Sarah Petrides, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In his essay, "Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers" (College English 11 (February 1950): 265-69), Walker Gibson suggests that all texts asks readers to take on a certain set of simplified attitudes and preconceptions: the persona of the "mock reader". To Gibson, the success or failure of a piece of writing is based largely on whether or not a reader will accept "that set of attitudes and qualities which the language asks us to assume" (265). In The White Album, Didion's voice of cultural criticism typically asks the reader to value the perspective of a privileged person who is embroiled in a world of wealth and facile celebrity and is yet somehow able to comment effectively on this world. But how effective (and acceptable to us as readers)is this voice when levied against other worlds? Witness the following passage, which appears in "In Bogota":

Until the Spaniards heard the story and came to find El Dorado for themselves. 'One thing you must understand,' a young Colombian said to me at dinner that night. We were at Eduardo's out in the Chico district and the piano player was playing 'Love is Blue' and we were drinking an indifferent bottle of Chateau Leoville-Poyferre which cost $20 American. 'Spain sent all its highest aristocracy to South America.' In fact I had heard variations on this hallucination before, on the coast: when Colombians spoke about the past I often had the sense of being in a place where history tended to sink, even as it happened, into the traceless solitude of autosuggestion. The princess was drinking pink champagne. High in the mountains the men were made of gold. Spain sent its highest aristocracy to South America. They were all stories a child might invent. (189)

Exactly what attitude is Didion asking her "mock reader" to assume here? An attitude of elitism? After all, Didion's white, educated, American speaker is asking her mock reader to believe she is able to recognize the "childishness" of certain stories of Colombian national identity (while drinking a bottle of wine that she can simultaneously note is only "indifferent"). How readily do we step into this role that Didion has prepared for us? Is she a writer we readers must caution ourselves against, in that she asks us to position ourselves as elites? In this particular case, one might argue that this essay ends by exposing the great damage done to Colombia by its colonial past, but how redeeming is this, really? Is Didion's work a success or a failure in Gibson's analysis?


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Last modified 6 February 2002