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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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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