Musings reading

Reader-Response Theory

I seem to change my mind often about my reading plans. On Tuesday, after finishing Wordsworth, I decided to read Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism, on the theory that I could contextualize C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, perhaps in ways I could write about productively. I wasn’t able to finish the book today, as I’d hoped to (I’m giving myself through Tuesday, and even that will be a challenge).

As a result, I’m going to put off a longer post (perhaps a response to Stanley Fish) until I get through the book, but now I’ll give you a brief survey of what I’ve read so far.

The anthology is edited by Jane Tompkins, Fish’s wife. Her clear introduction gives helpful synopses of the articles, and I admire her ability to condense this complex subject matter into manageable discussions, though I cannot share her approval of the process whereby theorists dissolve reader and text both into an all-consuming sea of language (although I find Jonathan Culler’s “Literary Competence,” in which Culler locates the source of literary meaning in deep familiarity with the quasi-linguistic codes established for interpreting literature, possibly the most congenial article I’ve encountered in the book).

Another highlight is Gerald Prince’s concept of the narratee—the implied fictional character to whom we imagine the narrator relating a story, as distinct from the actual reader and even as distinct from the actual reader the author imagines for the work. I want to be more conscious of and playful about the narratee in my own fiction.

I also like Riffaterre’s idea of attending primarily to the aspects of literature that readers notice, and learning through experiment which aspects readers notice most often, rather than focusing on patterns (in the case he discusses here, grammatical and linguistic patterns) that would be found only by someone well-versed in that area of knowledge who is specifically looking for such patterns. Not to say that other analyses can’t be interesting and profitable—they just seem of less direct importance to understanding what a given work of art is.

I enjoy too Walker Gibson’s idea that literature helps readers create themselves by compelling them to try on the identities of a variety of “mock readers” set out by different texts and Poulet’s suggestion that the literary work causes the reader’s very consciousness to be hijacked by the author’s or the work’s consciousness, giving the reader the real experience of being someone else—though I share editor Tompkins’s skepticism about the possibility that the text has the power to create a single mock reader that real readers can become or the ability to enslave a reader’s consciousness to the degree that Poulet suggests.

On the question of whether text or reader controls a reading, I tend instead toward the middle ground that Wolfgang Iser proposes: a text gives a reader jumping-off points but also gives a reader space to make original interpretations. Reading is a process of collaboration with the author. I don’t agree that this creative process, in particular, the creation and destruction of illusion, is the root of most literature’s value, though it can be, and it is, I think, often an important component of that value. Still, Iser resonates with me much more strongly on this point than either the previous theories, which tend to argue that the text can have complete control over the reader, or the later theories, which suggest that the reader finds in the text mostly what is already in the reader’s psyche (Norman Holland) or (at least, according to Tompkins; I’m mostly not there yet) that there is no objectively existent text at all to have any effect whatsoever on the reading.

I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll just say so far, so interesting.




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