A Lit Theory that Affirms Readers

George Braque, "Woman Reading"

When my Theories of the Reader course met one last time to look back over the course (I baked a whiskey cake for the occasion), they talked most about how they had felt empowered. I had worried that they would resent the highly abstract theory we were reading, but instead they said it affirmed them. They talked about how theorists like Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Wayne Booth, Georges Poulet, Joseph Campbell, and Hans Robert Jauss assured them that, rather than mere bystanders, they were vital participants in the process of literature. There response was everything I hoped for.

Listening to them talk, I realized that too often students feel inadequate in the face of literature. Even though we, their teachers, are not as bad as we were back in the days of the New Criticism, when we openly boasted that only literary professionals held the keys to the world’s master works, nevertheless too often we are still sending out that message.

This prompted me to rethink a story, probably apocryphal, that I heard years ago. A man visiting an art museum (let’s say the Museum of Modern Art) was commenting aloud that the works were overrated and he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. To which the museum guard supposedly replied, “The works aren’t on trial. You are.”

I used to like the story but now I wonder whether this visitor is voicing an anxiety rather than an arrogant judgment. Maybe he feels inadequate and fearful that he can’t engage with works that experts have deemed museum worthy, and his fears have taken the form of hostility. If so, then the museum guard, by putting him in his place, is not helpful. Rather, he is just confirming the man’s sense of alienation.

The theorists we read this past semester let the students know that there was a place for their “inadequate” responses. Iser told them that that the works depended on reader contributions as well as the author’s efforts. Holland told them that resistance to a work might have an interesting psychological explanation that would be revealing if they explored it. Jauss surmised that maybe their resistance arose from the fact that the work was challenging their horizon of expectations—in other words, they were right to feel frustrated because the work was inviting such a response—and told them that their horizons would be broadened if they figured out what the author was up to. Booth assured them that moral arguments could be made on behalf of their discomfort so they should further explore their uneasiness.

It was the kind of conversation one wants at the end of a senior seminar. My hope is that, when they encounter challenging works in the future, they will not turn away or complain to the museum guard. After all, they have new tools for understanding what the challenge means.

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  • philosophotarian

    this is just the kind of post I was hoping to find today as I prepare to teach my first class ever. Having often felt “kept out” of text and of, say, modern art, I understand the frustration. Today I will tell my students to try, as much as they can, to forget that the texts we will read (we begin with the Crito) are philosophical masterpieces and to read them as though they were reading some good story; to refuse to be afraid of the texts. But I wonder if I can spin that museum guard story. In my telling, the guard isn’t dismissive or judgmental; he’s quietly excited. “Don’t you see,” his eyes try to tell the visitor, “it’s you, the very core of you that must now give an account. You have the opportunity to examine your soul!”

  • A comment unrelated to the meat of this entry, but related to the whiskey cake that you made:

    Years ago when I took Reflective Practices in Human Studies with Julia, she brought the same whiskey cake for our last class. That day I had gotten to class, ready to do my presentation, when I found that inexplicably half the slides had been completely erased from my PowerPoint. I had to run to the library and try to replace them before my presentation started. When I got back Julia handed me a piece of cake (NOT telling me what it was!) and said it would make me feel better. I was so surprised when I tasted what was in it that I almost choked on it! Oh, what a sense of humor.


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