The Reader’s Role in Literature

Mary Cassatt, "Young Girl Reading"

I am currently putting together a new senior-level seminar entitled “Theories of the Reader” and am still somewhat unsure of what all to include.  Please excuse me as I foist upon you some of my brainstorming.

We will probably begin by exploring the role of the reader in literary interpretation.  The issue interests students because they’ve all had the experience, occasionally if not frequently, of failing to understand why a teacher was taking a certain approach to a work. Many have encountered instances where their own ideas were dismissed.  They want to know who gets to decide, not to mention the basis upon which grades are awarded.

Stanley Fish, who has made his reputation by being provocative, pushed the issue to the extreme in his book Is There A Text in this Class?, which we will look at briefly.  There he argues that a work differs from reader to reader. Such extreme subjectivity cannot long be credible—communication becomes impossible when everyone operates according to a different set of standards—and Fish himself later modified his idea to talk about different interpretive communities rather than different individual readers.  In communities, people share certain assumptions about the world and therefore can arrive at common interpretations. Furthermore, with a community there can exist agreed upon criteria for judging whether an interpretation is good or bad. In a sense, Fish’s emendation of his original theory all but brought us back to where we were already  but with one significant change: the standards that English Departments used to think were universal are now seen as the product of a certain system.

Other theorists have been less interested in whether we can arrive at an absolute right interpretation and more interested in what people do with their interpretations. Freudian theorist Norman Holland, for instance, focuses on how our interpretations reflect our personalities.  There are a couple of fascinating things that arise out of his ideas. One is the notion that readers replicate their own identity dramas as they read a work, essentially seeing themselves in it.

The danger with replication (a danger that I don’t recall Holland mentioning) is that readers risk reducing the work to themselves.  But while this is a potential problem, that is also something important about feeling therapeutically affirmed by a work.  It is no small thing to discover that others have felt what you have felt; if makes you feel less alone.  (“What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is how Alexander Pope puts it.)  Finding themselves in a work also opens readers to the possibility that they will see themselves from the outside and therefore attain more control over their lives.  Once one has knowledge about oneself that one didn’t have before, positive things can happen.

Holland’s approach also provides good material for a therapist or a teacher, who can glean information about readers from how they respond to a work. I do this all the time with my students’ interpretations, learning about them through their reactions. I use this knowledge to help them deepen their engagement with the works we read.

Contra Holland, some theorists prefer that readers feel alienated by a work rather than replicated in it.  This perspective owes a lot to poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, who worries that readers prefer to have their prejudices confirmed rather than challenged by the works they read.  In his plays, therefore, he often makes his readers uncomfortable, therefore pushing them to think outside conventional boundaries.

A theorist like Hans Robert Jauss, one of my favorites, picks up on this idea.  While a lesser work of literature, Jauss argues, merely confirms what he calls our “horizon of expectations,” a great work expands the horizon.  Lesser literature is like junk food, greater literature is like a nutritious meal.

Jauss is particularly interested in negative initial responses to works that we now see as great, such as the criminal proceedings brought against Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  Jauss argues that sometimes a work has to teach us to see the world differently and only after it has done so can we appreciate it.  To switch mediums for a moment, Picasso once said, “I am too busy making something new, I don’t have time to make it beautiful.”  Jauss, I imagine, would say that we come to see Picasso’s “new” as “beautiful” after he had expanded our horizon.

I’ll mention one other idea before wrapping up today.  Theorist Wolfgang Iser talks about how every work has an implied reader and that we are invited to play the role of this reader as we read the book.  Often this role invites us to be our best selves.  For instance, when we read the immortal opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, we are called upon to step above our petty, insecure selves and laugh at those who think that the marriage game is the be all and end all of a woman’s existence.  The narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones continually goads us to be better that those “reptile critics” that he scorns.

My own amalgam of these different theories guides this blog.  Like Fish, I think we operate out of interpretive communities. Like Holland, I think we respond most deeply to versions of our own dramas in the works that we read.  Like Iser, I think that the very act of reading great works prompts us to step into better versions of ourselves.  Like Brecht and Jauss, I think we need to be challenged—although sometimes seduced is a better word—to let go of the comfortable and familiar and open ourselves to new possibilities, both within ourselves and in our relationships and our society.

What is clear to me is that literary formalism—which is the approach to literature that focuses on the text and pretty much dimisses the reader—ignores some of literature’s most fascinating dimensions.  Since I write daily about some of these dimensions, I want to set up a course that encourages students to explore them as I do.  Expect to hear more about my brainstorming in the upcoming days since the class begins Tuesday.

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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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