Theoretical Points of Contact Among Reader-Response Critics

    This is Arnie Sanders' attempt to respond to the variety and complexity of Tyson's description of reader-response theory. 

    In Chapter 6, we're obviously witnessing, in rapid summary, several decades of wild growth in reader-oriented theoretical challenges to New Criticism.   The banishment of the reader's "Affective Fallacy" and its prescription of a set of "correct" interpretive behaviors (locating irony, ambiguity and paradox, finding the organizing theme that produces organic unity, etc.) inevitably led others to point out what New Critics had lost by so severely "cleansing" the interpretive process of its living participants. Mastering some notion of how "reader-response" theories work will require you to meet and understand a group of new critics and their analytical assumptions.  Some of these people knew, or at least knew about each other, but others worked in apparent isolation, generating amazingly similar ideas by reacting to the state of things at the height of New Criticism's control of academic interpretive theory.  Then, a second and even a third wave of reader-response critics revised the theories of the earliest ones.  By now, "reader" has become (as they say) "problematized" by gender studies and cultural studies, but for now, let's go back to the New Critics at the height of their powers, especially after Hirsch allowed them to let the author's intention back into evidence.  The text and author reign.  But some critics begin to disagree, asking from a wide variety of theoretical positions, "what role do readers play in making meaning?"  (Because some of these critics had long careers, they even changed their answers to that question as their theory developed, so sometimes you'll see me referring to "early" or "later" forms of the same critic's thinking.)

    What do all these reader-response theories seem to have in common?   They see interpretation as "transactional," a bargaining between reader and text, and they describe reading as a "process."  New Critics, by contrast, often referred to "readings" of texts, static products rather than dynamic experiences.  That helped them to isolate interpretive evidence from the messy details of what goes on in readers' heads, but it also prevented them from seeing texts' authors as "tale-tellers," involved in an ongoing process of manipulating their readers' minds.  So most of what distinguishes one reader-response critic from another is how they describe the process in which the interpretive transaction takes place.

    Rosenblatt's "stimulus" and "blueprint" functions of the text, and her notions of "efferent" and "aesthetic" reading put her on the road to the psychoanalytic critics like Bleich and Holland.   However, she stops short of allowing into the interpretation some things they admire literature for producing.  Compare her "aesthetic" response with Bleich's experience-oriented restatement of the text.  Is he describing readers in aesthetic or efferent reading modes?  The same can be asked of Holland's readers.

    Iser's "determinate" and "indeterminate" meanings in texts are nicely linked by Tyson to Rosenblatt's blueprint and stimulus functions.  Because he thinks the text "prestructures" meaning, it must therefore anticipate the existence of his "implied reader" whose reading behaviors it seeks to manipulate.  This is also the situation imagined by Wayne Booth, who gives us a further layer in the manipulative process in the "implied author," for pseudonymous works like those by "Mark Twain," whose identity creates expectations in the readers' minds they wouldn't have were they to pick up books by "Samuel Langhorne Clemens."  The early Roland Barthes gave us "inscribed reader" to describe texts in which the telling of a tale is given a character who is in the tale at the same narrative level as the audience of characters who respond to it as we read it, like the Canterbury pilgrims who applaud, quarrel with, and that "inscribed audience" may attempt to out-do tales told by other inscribed readers.  That notion of a struggle between the text and reader/hearer for control of meaning also informs "affective stylistics" and Fish's notion of what sentences "do" to the reader who makes meaning from them. 

    This Rosenblatt-Iser-Booth-(early)Barthes brand of reader-response criticism was very influential in the '60s and '70s, and helped shape a second wave of reader-response critics' approaches to the text, especially Stanley Fish.  However, the "early Fish" of Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967), looked at readers as somewhat simplified linguistic operators of the text, and he didn't consider a very wide range of their possible emotional involvement.  By 1972's Self-Consuming Artifacts, he had begun to widen his sense of the text's expectations of and effect on the reader, and by 1980's Is There a Text in This Class, he had declared the reader the complete master of the struggle, able to make and unmake literature according to the "interpretive community" to which the reader belonged.  (A grad school classmate astutely observed that Fish is the only famous practicing critic who made his career by writing books exposing the weaknesses of his previous books, but I preferred to see it as a refreshing instance of a critic able to grow by admitting what he'd gotten wrong.)  That late 1960s to late 1970s shift to complete reader-centered meaning roughly coincided with the rise of psychoanalytic critics like Bleich and Holland, who gave the reader mastery over meaning from another direction.

    Bleich's distinction between "real" and "symbolic" objects wouldn't have alarmed New Critics, but they would have been disturbed by his description of interpretation as "resymbolization" of the "text that is in our mind."  They had sought to free interpretation from its association with real but messy "minds," and from any time-dependent notion of community.  Bleich's notion of "community-produced knowledge" about texts logically leaped far beyond the New Critics by describing exactly what they had been doing in the name of philosophical accuracy as yet another instance of "a community producing knowledge in competition with other communities."  He's still trying to exclude mere "affect" by saying reader-oriented response statements are less valuable than those oriented to the experience of the text, itself, and he also says reality-oriented responses (e.g., that historical and biographical material) also are less valuable than those which bring us back to our struggle with the text to make meaning.   However, he'll allow readers' text-produced affects (associated memories, emotions, etc.) to play a role in interpretation if the affect is analyzed in negotiation with the community and leads to better understanding of the reader's experience of the text.   Like Fish, he sees meaning as the reader's product, not the text's--a game that's never over, but endlessly debated by those communities of meaning and never determined by a "most probable interpretation" like the New Critics sought.  This was the state of psychoanalytic reader-response criticism in the early 1980s.  (Hirsch, having published Validity in Interpretation in the same year [1967] as Fish's reader-centered interpretation of Milton, now flees in horror to work on the theory which eventually was published as Cultural Literacy [1987].)

    Holland's view of interpretation arises from his study of Freudian psychoanalysis, and in some ways he's more a psychoanalyst than a literary critic.   That's because he defines interpretation mainly in Freudian terms, rarely referring to it as a linguistic or aesthetic or sociological phenomenon.  For Holland, as we read, we react to the text's content with "coping processes" which respond to the text's challenges to the our psychological defenses, producing readings containing "identity themes" we disguise intellectually to express defenses or fantasies we ordinarily don't acknowledge having.  The critic/teacher becomes the therapist to the readers/students, helping them to understand themselves in terms of the ways their identity themes have led them to misread the text.  That's where Holland sees the tell-tale signs of our unconscious drives and memories and fantasies reshaping the textual artifact so that it will fit comfortably within our mental world.  For Holland, like the later Fish and Bleich, there is no "correct" reading of the text outside what readers make of it, but for Holland, the readers' errors are the most important evidence.

    Fish's 1980s assertion that Bleich's "communities of interpretation" always already exist, and that our interpretations are enabled by our membership in those communities whose rules we follow, was a neat fusion of the sociological and psychological world-views to create a logically complete view of interpretation.  It's a major reason Hirsch sought to affirm the existence of a single brand of "cultural literacy" in 1987.  The theory scandalizes conservative critics because he says we can follow those communities' rules even when we're unconscious of their existence, and those rules actually make the work's meaning (vs. anything necessarily in the text, itself).  It's Bleich-Hollandian interpretive anarchy reinforced by social forces bigger than we are.  Because rule-following behavior has to be learned somewhere, even if it's unconscious, texts need "informed readers," though misinformed readers also are allowable in "late Fish" interpretation.  He did, however, suggest that better readings required "literary competency," though this is a term susceptible to a wide range of definitions--e.g., if you don't know what a sonnet is supposed to be, you'll be unable to read one well; if you don't know what jealousy is, you probably will misread Hamlet; if you don't understand how big a sperm whale is, you'll probably misread Moby Dick, and hey, isn't that a nice explanation for those darned "interchapters" on whaling?  The study of readers' expectations brought to the text has led to the anonymous but commonly referred to "educated reader," "ideal reader," "optimal reader," and "super-reader."  All are attempts to describe how varying types of readers would make meaning out of texts, but also, we might see in them the return of the texts' power in the great "reader-response smackdown."  That is, the texts might be programmed to stimulate known knowledge and behaviors in the readers they're designed for.  Consider the differences among the original audiences for the oral-formulaic composition of the Odyssey, the literate public readers of Dante's Divina Comedia, Sir Thomas Wyatt's literate but secretive readers of "They Flee From Me" or "Whoso List to Hunt," or Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.  Which is "the reader"?  We can specify but we dare not generalize without care for the readers' typical capacities of performance (did they know Homer?; were they also literate in Latin?; were they hostile toward or tolerant of Catholics?.; did they include women?).

    What cautions should the novice reader-response critic observe?  First, it's usually a mistake to generalize about communities of interpretation which are, by strict sociological definitions, unknowable.   E. T. Donaldson famously observed that attempts to generalize about "the medieval reader" were akin to creating that camel which was designed by the committee assigned to make a race horse.  There may be "kinds" of medieval reader (e.g., conservative clerical, radical aristocratic) and kinds that are nearly impossible (e.g., literate, radical medieval peasant--William Langland, author of the late C14 Piers Plowman, is a radical thinker with roots in peasant life, but he is clearly multi-lingual literate).  You can talk about readers in terms of known characteristics, like "devout Catholics" vs. "agnostics" or teen-aged readers vs. elderly readers, and you can introduce evidence the text "inscribes" about its expectations of the readers (i.e., appeal to its ideal or intended readers).   Second, it's hard to do both a text-centered interpretation and a psychologically-centered interpretation without getting confused about what evidence is legal and what is not.  Though they all may be considered students of "reader response," those who give the text the power to do things to readers are looking at evidence differently from those who give readers the power to do things to the text.   Which side do you think has the more compelling explanation?