The Parallel Socialization of Reading Research and Literary Theory
Russell A. Hunt
[as published in Beyond Communication: Reading Comprehension and Criticism, ed. Deanne Bogdan and Stanley B. Straw. 91-105. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1990. ]

Gaps between disciplines — like sociopolitical borders of all kinds — are more difficult to bridge than it might seem they ought to be. In a panel discussion at a conference on theories of reading in 1981, for instance, I heard a well-known literary theorist casually observe that, as everyone knew, after all there really were no theories of reading. Had that conference not been determinedly and aggressively interdisciplinary (that is to say, had its organizers not dragooned into it three or four people from disciplines other than literary theory), I am convinced that no one would have challenged, or even much noticed, that observation.

As it happened, however — and has been recounted elsewhere (Hoetker, 1982) — on the same panel there happened to be a reading specialist from Indiana University, Robert Carey, who pointed out that there were indeed a number of elaborate, thoughtful, and useful theories of reading, and observed that the creator of one of the most important, Louise Rosenblatt, happened to be present at the conference. It was not clear from the ensuing discussion whether the literary theorist was convinced that Rosenblatt's (1978) theory of reading — or those of Kenneth Goodman (1967) or Philip Gough (1972), for that matter — really met his criteria for what might constitute such a theory. It was clear from the conversations over coffee afterward, though, that the almost complete lack of comprehension was mutual. As Carey argued, none of the literary theorists in the room seemed to be aware of the mammoth effort in psychological and educational circles toward understanding the reading process. Neither did they appear to see that it might have anything to do with their own attempt to understand the nature of the literary experience. But by the same token, the few lonely education people at the conference simply did not understand what the literary theorists were doing — how, for instance, they could possibly have such a lack of interest in generalizable conclusions about common patterns, or such a disdain for the hard work of empirical observation and experiment, or why they would show such an interest in unique, individual, irreproducible, and peculiar interpretations of particular texts. It was apparent, in other words, that neither group had any clear idea what the other meant when they used the word "theory."

Since that time (and before it as well), there have been many calls for more communication between the two domains (for one particularly persuasive one, see Weaver, 1985). And some steps have been made: a conference at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1984, for example, celebrated the institution there of a formal program intended to straddle the borders between empirical and purely humanistic, between educational/psychological and aesthetic/literary, between practical and speculative approaches to the understanding of how people deal with written texts (Waller, 1985; McCormick, 1985).

Even so, any look at the history of this activity makes clear that large gaps remain. Linguists have not, in general, been aware of the work of educational theorists, and vice versa; cognitive psychologists studying reading processes have not known about (or have held in contempt) ethnographic case studies of literacy learners, and vice versa (see Guthrie & Hall, 1984); reader-response critics working in literary theory have rarely heard the names everyone working in discourse theory cites daily, and so forth.

It is hardly surprising that disciplines arising out of such different fundamental sets of assumptions, occupying such different positions in the social structure of universities and the scholarly community, and with such superficially different histories, should have a difficult time establishing regular and fruitful contact. In some ways, it is only an instance of the mutual incomprehension between what C. P. Snow (1959) labeled the "two cultures" of empirical science and humanism. As a graduate student in English literature in the 1960s, I — with all of my colleagues —was imbued with a healthy, dismissive New Critical contempt for the narrow, trade-school practicality of schools of education, and a hostile skepticism toward the behaviorist, rat-maze experimentalism of psychology. I infer that my colleagues in departments of education and psychology were absorbing a symmetrical set of attitudes toward the fuzzy, self-absorbed, and dilettantish aestheticism of the snobs in the English department across campus.

From a more inclusive historical perspective, however, this tradition of mutual incomprehension and hostility is surprising indeed. To study the history of anyone of these disciplines over the past third of a century or so is to be struck with some remarkable parallels and similarities. Historically, it is no accident that the two fields in the late 1980s have come to exhibit the similarities so persuasively outlined by Constance Weaver (1985) and by W. John Harker (1987, 1988/1989), among others. And, of course, some similarity between their histories is only to be expected. Neither field exists as an island unto itself: both are firmly situated in an intellectual geography whose large geological shifts and political upheavals are felt in every principality, however isolated it may think itself.

It is not, for example, merely an innocent coincidence that two books that had revolutionary impacts on the field of literary theory and language understanding respectively — Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures — were published in the very same year, 1957. Each of these books can be said to have brought the structuralist revolution home to its discipline (though in quite different ways). The subsequent history of reading-comprehension research, through the gradual abandonment of behaviorist principles and methods, the cognitivist revolution, and the rise of computer modeling and psycholinguistics, parallels in a surprising way the gradual decline of the New Criticism on the one hand, and the rise of deconstruction, semiotic criticism, and reader-response theory on the other.

It is instructive to trace those parallels, paying particular attention to the continuing similarities between the disciplinary revolutions occurring in these two fields in the late 1980s. As reading comprehension moves toward a social model of written language, literary criticism moves toward what is being called "The New Pragmatics." It is equally useful to speculate on some of the benefits likely to ensue as this pair of long-separated twins is at last finally brought together.

The stories of the two disciplines are not unfamiliar ones, but are worth retelling — in part because both are not often equally well known to the same people. If you know much about literary theory and how it has developed in the last half-century, you're probably not very familiar with developments in studies of reading comprehension — and, of course, vice versa. And to contemplate the two stories together is, I think, to encounter some remarkable parallels.

I should make clear that in recounting these stories, I am not attempting an exhaustive literature review; rather, I want to describe some broad patterns with a few illustrative examples. There is a wealth of examples of research studies that fit the pattern I am describing — and there is also, naturally enough, a wealth of examples of other kinds of research going on at the same time. I believe, however, that the general pattern is obvious and powerful.


The history of studies of reading comprehension is in many ways the sketchier of the two, largely because for many years, there virtually were none. It is a common observation among scholars of reading research that following a burst of activity just after the turn of the twentieth century, which included the work of James Cattell (1885), Edmund Burke Huey (1908/1968), and E. L. Thorndike (1917), most reading research was concerned with issues like comparing the outcomes of various instructional strategies (see Gibson & Levin, 1975). In part, this was because a dominant model of reading suggested that there really was not much to understand: it was assumed to be essentially a pretty unproblematic matter of decoding from visual stimuli to aural, and then comprehending that. The central questions seemed to concern the nature of that process of decoding (or recoding, to use Kenneth Goodman's [1971] term).

More important, the overwhelming hegemony of behaviorist models and stimulus-response research in psychology during most of the middle third of the century meant that questions about what might be going on in readers' minds as they read prose were, in effect, simply not askable. In 1960, as Gibson and Levin (1975) sum it up succinctly in their classic text The Psychology of Reading,

[E]xperimental psychologists had shunned this vital field for nearly sixty years. It is true that when Woodworth's classic edition of Experimental Psychology appeared in 1938, it contained a brilliant chapter on reading. But S-R psychology won the day, and when the 1954 edition by Woodworth and Schlosberg appeared, reading was out. Few experimental psychologists had touched it in the interval, and there was nothing new to say (p. xi).
In the same connection, it is interesting to consider Bartlett's work on memory (1932), introducing the notion of mental “schemata” used for organizing ideas in memory. His work was drastically neglected during the ensuing years, and, as van Dijk and Kintsch observe (1983), his ideas only began to experience a revival in the 1970s. What dominated the field in the middle third of this century were studies of single-word processing, word recognition, and assessments of such external and more "empirically verifiable" matters such as reading speed, accuracy of oral reading, and so forth. Questions such as those, involving measurements of behavior rather than speculations about hypothetical mental states and processes, were deemed eminently askable; more "'mentalistic" ones were not (Neisser, 1982; see also Bruce, 1985).

What triggered the demolition of the ancien regime and opened the door to speculations about what language understanders were doing in the secrecy of their minds was the publication of Syntactic Structures and (perhaps more directly) of Chomsky's celebrated review (1959) of Skinner's Verbal Behavior. In it, Chomsky thoroughly demolished — or at least substantially crippled — the behaviorist contention that stimulus-response psychology could account for language learning. There is no point in adding here to the overwhelming consensus that the ideas Chomsky's work made suddenly relevant radically affected every branch of scholarship, research, and science that had anything to do with language (the one possible exception being literary theory). It is, however, worth indicating areas in which this "cognitivist revolution'" had a particular impact on studies of reading and comprehension. Perhaps the most important of these areas was the discipline of psycholinguistics.

Psycholinguistics was in the air in any case, as Frederick Gollasch has pointed out: "during the mid-1950s, there was a revival of interest in language by psychologists who came to see that human language is very closely linked to understanding, and thus to cognitive processes'" (Goodman, 1982, p. xiv). But Chomsky's work was particularly important. He legitimized going beyond observable behavior to study the cognitive principles and mental processes underlying and driving it. This argument was so powerful because his theory of language had built into every joint and connection the assumption that behavior could not be understood in isolation from theories about such mental processes. Indeed, Chomsky's famous distinction between performance and competence — he argued that what people might actually say or write was linguistically important primarily as evidence of what they mew or were capable of — was founded precisely upon that assumption.

Chomsky's theory promoted the invention of the new discipline of psycholinguistics in part, then, because it was so powerfully predictive of mental states, and supplied so many tempting hypotheses which could only be tested by exploring cognitive states and processes. For example, his notion that actual complex sentences represented "transformations" of the "deep structure" of simpler sentences with the same meaning suggested almost immediately that if such structures were actually operating in the minds of language users, it should take proportionately longer to process sentences that represented more complex transformations (Miller, 1962, 1964).

It was through the medium of psycholinguistics that Chomsky's ideas had their most powerful effect on theories of reading. For instance, the influential ideas of Kenneth Goodman (1967, 1982a, 1982b) about reading directly parallel much of the work of psycholinguists with comprehension of oral speech (cf. Cambourne, 1976-1977), and Goodman himself has characterized his technique of "miscue analysis" as "applied psycholinguistics" (1969). Goodman helped us see reading as a profoundly active and constructive activity, in which the reader constructs meaning by hypothesizing, predicting, testing, and sampling from the graphophonic display of the text — and, especially, argued that oral reading miscues offer a "window" on that process. So "cognitive" or "mentalistic" a conception could hardly have evolved without the Chomskyan assumption that there indeed is a mental or cognitive "competence" that underlies the visible behavior, or "performance," of individual language users.

It is apparent, further, that Goodman's work — especially his early work with miscue analysis — shared one important limitation with Chomskyan linguistics: it assumed that language was a set of sentences, and, therefore, that to understand the structure of sentences was essentially to understand language. Just as earlier theorists had held the tacit assumption that language was fundamentally a set of words, so this new view held that it was fundamentally a set of syntactic structures — in written text, structures that were bounded by the capital letter beginning a sentence and the period ending it.

Almost imperceptibly, however, the movement toward considering larger and larger units as fundamental elements of analysis and understanding continued. (Just as it had become clearer with Chomsky and the psycholinguists that words could not be understood outside their syntactic functions in sentences, so it became apparent that a sentence was determined by the discourse and the social situation around it.) This process reached a crisis point somewhere around 1970. De Beaugrande (1980, p. xii) remarks that "around 1968," two related changes had powerful consequences for the way in which we understood written discourse to function: the idea of a linguistics "beyond the sentence" arose, and dissatisfaction with the "transformational" paradigm increased markedly. Within a few years, entirely new, alternative theories of language — examples include the text grammars of writers like van Dijk (1972), the sociolinguistic approach of a William Labov (1972), and the new interest in the pragmatic or "speech-act" theory of John Austin (1962) — were being generated, theories that attempted to obviate what de Beaugrande calls "the context-free abstractness" of the older methods, and to take account of "the importance of social interaction in language groups" (1980, p. xiii).

Similarly, van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) have nominated 1970 as the watershed year, with the recognition about that time that "language studies should not be restricted to the grammatical analysis of abstract or ideal language systems, but rather, that actual language use in the social context should be the empirical object of linguistic theories" (p. 2).

What all these changes meant in practice was that there was a great deal more room for detailed studies of text structure and discourse theory. This included, for example, a revived interest in "story grammars," a concept similar to analyses of Russian folk tales by Propp (1928/1968) and employed (by, e.g., Mandler & Johnson, 1977, and Stein & Glenn, 1979) in the same way transformational grammar had been used, to predict and test mental processes in the understanding of language. It also included text linguistics (as, e.g., the work of van Dijk, 1972), and studies like those of Meyer (1975) on the way in which the structure of the text affects readers' memory of the information "contained" in it.

There was also a new interest in reversing this perspective and looking at the way in which the structure of knowledge and understanding in readers affects their understanding of texts — for example, the way in which text understanding depended on readers' activation of relevant knowledge structures (scripts, frames, or schemata) to make the inferences and connections necessary to understand texts, whether narrative or expository. Such cognitive structures seemed to have little to do with the processing or understanding of individual, isolated sentences (much less isolated words), but to have great power over the way readers understood and remembered texts (Anderson & Pichert, 1978).

In other words, the basic unit of understanding came to be not merely the discourse or text, but the dyad of text and reader. It was clear by 1980, as de Beaugrande announced at the beginning of his influential Text, Discourse, and Process, that "we cannot treat texts simply as units larger than sentences, or as sequences of sentences. The prime characteristic of texts is rather their occurrence in communication" (p. xi, emphasis in original). And, as might be expected, the expansion did not stop there, but continued: the current consensus is clearly that because readers act as participants in social circumstances influencing their goals, expectations, and strategies, any specific instance of reading — and thus, reading in general — cannot be understood except as part of an entire social situation. As James Heap (1980) and David Bloome (1986) have argued, for example, reading in classrooms is as much a function of the social situation of classrooms as of either the structure of the text or the psychological makeup of individual students. Studies by Douglas Vipond and myself have suggested that readers of short stories understand them differently in different social contexts and when the goals of their understanding are different (Hunt & Vipond, 1986; Vipond & Hunt, 1987; Vipond, Hunt, & Wheeler, 1987).

The pattern, then, running all the way from tachistoscope studies of word recognition to observation of how readers make sense of short stories when they are reading them aloud to convey them to listeners who do not know them, is clear: the units of study get larger and the social context becomes more important. The socially communicative function of language becomes more and more a matter of primary concern and not something to be factored out or dealt with later, after the "simpler" problems are solved.


The tale of literary theory is a slightly more elaborate one. Virtually anyone whose graduate training in English occurred in the middle third of the century came of age in an intellectual context that can perhaps best be compared to the middle stages of the Roman Empire. Although there were many pockets of local culture that differed from area to area (one example was the cadre of neo-Aristotelians around Chicago; cf. Crane, 1952), there was a common language, a very deep and widely shared set of common assumptions about how the world worked, and — most important — a sense of common cause against the barbarians beyond the walls of civilization. When there were disagreements — and there were lots of them, heated ones — they took place within a set of boundaries that we can now see, with the advantage of a generation's hindsight, were remarkably narrow and clearly defined. Everyone, at bottom, was a New Critic.

The construction of the New Critical set of assumptions and strategies, which has endured in classrooms and studies right down to the present day, began as early as the 1920s and 1930s, with the work of T. S. Eliot (e.g., 1920) and I. A. Richards (1925, 1929), though it did not, as Applebee (1974) notes, become the dominant mode in universities until after the Second World War. The specific character of New Criticism owed a great deal to its institutional context; that is, it developed as it did because most of its practitioners were engaged in the business of education, usually in university departments of English. It seems clear, for example, that its most notable feature — the elevation of "the text" out of contexts, the attempt to disconnect it from author, reader, historical situation, and universe and contemplate it as a perfect empedestalled object d'art — was conditioned in part by the need to deal with wave after wave of less academically sophisticated students who were ignorant of the author and the historical situation and who were not readers whose responses an academic critic would want to take with a lot of seriousness. William Dowling (1987) has recently noted the way in which New Criticism made the teaching (though not the scholarship) of eighteenth-century literature possible in the sort of context, by downgrading the importance of all the historical and social background that otherwise would have to be directly taught, often displacing the literature itself altogether.

The fundamental nature of the New Critical dispensation has been described (generally with a good deal of hostility) by a number of recent theorists, most notably Frank Lentricchia (1980) and Terry Eagleton (1983). At the risk of summarizing and simplifying outrageously, the fundamental tenets of New Criticism may be said to run something like this: The work of literary art (prototypically, a short poem) exists as an object that can be apprehended, understood, and responded to on its own terms. To assess, understand, properly cherish, and celebrate such a work, one cannot have reference to its creator's intentions or background, because (as was explained most uncompromisingly in Wimsatt & Beardsley's classic essay, "The International Fallacy," 1946b/1954) the only evidence we can possibly have of the creator's intentions are there in the work. If they are not in evidence there, they are not relevant, regardless of what we may know of the author's privately expressed intentions. The test is the text. To study the author and his (very rarely her) intentions is to study something other than literature —biography, history, or psychology. "Critical inquiries," they conclude, "are not settled by consulting the oracle" (Wimsatt & Beardsley, 1946b/1954, p. 18).

Similarly, the individual reactions of actual readers are of little interest. Wimsatt and Beardsley made this point, as well, in a companion piece titled "The Affective Fallacy" (1946a/1954), but its most powerful expression was probably Wellek and Warren's famous warning in their Theory of Literature (1949); to study such responses empirically, they asserted, would be to abandon literature in favor of psychology. The text could be evaluated and understood, then, not with reference to any real effects in the world outside it, or to the author's own perhaps grandiose plans and programs, or to its truth or falsity, but on its own, in and of itself. In practice, this focused attention on the verbal structure of the work, requiring a single-minded employment of what Stanley Edgar Hyman (1947) called the "armed vision,'" and meant that inevitably certain elements of discourse —predominantly, irony (Brooks, 1947), ambiguity (Empson, 1947), and texture (Ransom, 1941) — came to be seen as central.

This in turn, as T. S. Eliot (1920) had noted very early on, meant that the entire canon of literary history had to be rethought. A text not amenable to such close, attentive, analytic reading seemed less important; conversely, a text that had in a previous generation been found to be a powerful expression of a writer's sensibility or of the spirit of an age might suddenly seem less rewarding. Ironic and intellectual writers like Donne replaced in importance more direct and passionate writers like Milton. And those direct and passionate writers were reread to show their ironic complexity, as Cleanth Brooks did so brilliantly with Keats in The Well Wrought Urn (1947).

It is paradoxical that although the New Critics were, in general, passionately and sometimes stridently opposed to a scientific-technological worldview, their approach to literature is solidly positivist in its assumption that there is an exterior, theoretically knowable "truth" (the text) out there. It is also paradoxical that what was originally seen as a way of making literature available to a wider audience than the historically and culturally initiated became (and was attacked as) an elitist and exclusionary practice engaged in during sophisticated graduate seminars by verbal acrobats. But the most strenuous recent objections to its hegemony have been to the way in which its account of what literature is and how it works left history, human society, and practical considerations entirely out of the picture.

Frank Lentricchia (1980) has argued persuasively that the intellectual coup de grace was applied to New Criticism by Northrop Frye in 1957, just as Chomsky and the cognitivists were storming the Bastille of behaviorism in language and psychology. Nonetheless — and in spite of the immediate popularity of Frye's work — graduate students in the 1960s, and undergraduates into the 1980s, and high school students on into the foreseeable future continue to absorb the principles of New Criticism as "common sense. '"

In the 1920s and 1930s, a teacher who claimed to have no "theory,'" but to be just "teaching literature," actually embraced an elaborate set of post-Romantic assumptions about literary history and the centrality of the artist's sensibility. In the same way, today a teacher who rejects "theory'" and embraces "common sense'" — that is to say, almost every teacher of literature — is almost certainly a New Critic. Among those who consciously avow theoretical positions, however, it is difficult to find a practicing New Critic in the 1980s.

What happened? Simplifying again, we can say that the limitations of an approach that was not only centered on, but restricted to, the text, began to be felt among various constituencies. As the New Critical empire collapsed, the invading barbarians reconnected texts to the world in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most powerful force behind the collapse, and the reconnection, was the increasing influence of structuralist thought, then gaining strength in Europe, across a wide variety of academic fields (Culler, 1975; Gardner, 1974; Hawkes, 1977). Just as Chomsky's ideas were clearly part of the fundamental structuralist work in linguistics (Pettit, 1975), so in a sense at least, Frye's work is an application of structuralist "scientific" principles to literary criticism, representing a reconnection of literary texts to each other, if not to the social and physical world, and an attempt to see all of literature as one structurally coherent phenomenon.

Another milestone was the publication in 1961 of Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction. Taking an approach usually thought to be well within a broadly defined New Critical paradigm (it arose out of Chicago neo-Aristotelianism), Booth's book nonetheless signaled a new direction for criticism and theory. It offered two new (and related) directions: it suggested that, as an object of sophisticated, theoretically driven critical scrutiny, narrative was as important as poetry; and it suggested that narrative had a rhetorical dimension. The idea that narrative was rhetorical — that is, embedded at least conceptually in socially structured situations — was, if not new, often new to the academic audience Booth's book addressed, and its publication was in the long run to have dramatic consequences.

These initiatives were overshadowed, however, as Eugene Goodheart (1984, pp. 4-5) notes, by the advent in literary studies themselves of European structuralist ideas, in the work of writers such as Roland Barthes (1970) and Gerard Genette (1966). This was in part because they were prepared to go all the way toward instituting a "science of literature," abandoning altogether the focus on the valuation of individual works of art and looking for larger patterns among art objects as phenomena. As Goodheart phrases it, "structuralism changed or tried to change the goal of literary study from the interpretation of the meanings of literary works to the knowledge of the conditions of meaning" (p. 5). In order to define or understand those conditions, however, it became clear that one had to go beyond the set of meaningful objects (the individual works of art) to consider the circumstances under which meaning was made, and the human beings who made it. One result of this was that structuralists found that it was necessary to consider literary works of art not just in connection with each other, but with all discourse. (This had the ultimate effect, as Frank Lentricchia has pointed out [1980, p. 103], of denying special privilege to literary discourse.)

As the search for general principles of meaning generation continued, it became necessary to make connections even beyond those among written texts. This led to a further fragmentation of critical theory. The attempt to see and understand texts in connection with language in general, for example, produced what has been called semiotic criticism, and, ultimately (and perhaps more important), under the philosophical influence of Jacques Derrida and others, the deconstructive criticism of writers such as Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Geoffrey Hartman (Arac, Godzich, & Manin, 1983). The feminist movement, with its compelling argument for acknowledging the connections between gender issues and literature, literary theory, and literary study, has had a remarkable and transforming impact on the field of literary theory (Brown & Olson, 1978; Diamond & Edwards, 1977). Further, the attempt to connect literature to broader social concerns and history has produced what has been termed the neo-Marxian perspectives of writers such as Frederic Jameson (1981) and Terry Eagleton (1976).

The attempt to connect texts with their readers also precipitated the most recent notorious succés de scandal in English studies (and perhaps the most compelling force toward making connections with reading comprehension research), the reader-response criticism of writers like Norman Holland, David Bleich, Stanley Fish, and others (for a full sampling of the range of this work, see Tompkins, 1980, or Suleiman & Crosman, 1980). What these critics and theorists have in common is that they deny that texts can be understood without reference to readers. Whether, like Wolfgang Iser (1978), they assume that what the reader does is pretty much at the behest of the text and its structure, or, like Bleich (1975) or Holland (1973, 1975), argue that it is ultimately the reader who controls what the text will be understood to be, all of them agree that texts cannot be understood without readers — that, in fact, texts cannot really be said to exist without readers. In this, if nothing else, virtually all theorists who call themselves poststructuralists would agree: the work of literature can no longer be assumed to exist, sufficient unto itself, in a world separate from the practical, everyday considerations of human action or other forms of discourse.

Most recently, there are hints in a nascent movement sometimes called the "New Pragmatism" (Kamuf, 1986) that literary theory is moving even further in the direction of connecting literature to the social transactions of actual human beings. There is a growing acknowledgment that generalizations about readers are as risky as generalizations about texts: how a reader will understand and respond to a work of literature depends, it is suggested, on his or her own immediate social situation and goals as much as on any characteristic of the text or of the individual reader. Hassan (1987), for example, argues that literary theory should embrace the "comeback" of American pragmatism and deal with literary texts as William James and Richard Rorty (1982) argue we should deal with all sense data: acknowledge that, like the "truth" about natural phenomena, the "truth" about what texts mean is a social construction, socially arrived at. As James says, "our faith is faith in someone else's faith" (quoted by Hassan, 1987, p. 454). Statements about literary meaning, like statements about other aspects of the universe, can be validated only according to their usefulness to the society in which they are made. Some pragmatists go so far as to reject literary theory altogether (Knapp & Michaels, 1982; see also Mitchell, 1986) on the grounds that "no one can reach a position outside practice" (Knapp & Michaels, 1982, p. 742). They argue that any attempt to treat literature and literary theory in abstraction from the give and take of everyday social relations is doomed by definition.

Here again, the underlying pattern should be obvious: the focus of the lens has widened inexorably for a half century, moving outward from the isolated work to take in other works, other genres, readers, writers, and the social contexts in which readers and writers move, act, and relate to each other through the medium of text.


It seems clear that both these rather complicated historical narratives can be summarized as parallel movements toward what we might call "socialization."

From 1957, both fields moved decisively away from the positivist notion that the objects of their study (texts, words, language as object) could be understood or dealt with in an artificial isolation from the rest of the world. Both began this movement, under the influence of structuralist thought, by connecting the object of study to other similar objects: words to other words in the case of Chomsky's transformational grammar, literary works to other literary works in the case of Frye's mythic/archetypal criticism. As that structuralist influence grew, both fields began to see that simply widening the focus of study to include more objects of essentially the same kind was not going to offer significant advance. By the beginning of the1970s, both disciplines were moving to consider the cognitive activities of the perceiver of their language objects; and within a decade, both had begun to move significantly toward taking into account the larger social matrix in which individual language learners conducted their activities.

Both these histories follow patterns that can be extrapolated into the immediate future. To venture such an extrapolation, then: it will become increasingly widely acknowledged, both in reading-comprehension research and in literary theory, that people only read and understand written texts —literary or not — in social contexts and for social purposes, and that what any reader does while reading, and how he or she does it, is heavily influenced — if not determined — by that context and that purpose.

I believe it will become increasingly clear that in order to understand any reading, we need to understand the most complex and engaged, the richest forms of reading — for example, engaged reading of texts that afford literary, aesthetic experience (Vipond & Hunt, 1987). As that view becomes more widely accepted (cf. Dias on reading education, in this volume, Chapter 12), it will become obvious that reading-comprehension research will need to tap the expertise of literary theorists. For example, as reading researchers become increasingly concerned with the reader's construction of the situation and the task, they will realize that they need to study readers engaging in tasks for their own purposes, with naturally occurring, whole texts. This will have a powerful impact on experimental, laboratory-style studies of reading; it will also have radical implications for the processes by which we generalize the results of such studies. It may be that researchers will have to take into account the traditional reluctance of literary theorists to generalize from one instance of reading to another, and their productive sense of the potential richness and variety to be found in occasions when people read will become a rich source of hypotheses to drive research (Hunt, 1987; Hunt & Vipond, 1987).

Similarly, it should become apparent that as literary theory increasingly acknowledges the importance of the pragmatic contexts in which literature is "consumed," the strategies, insights, and assumptions of reading-comprehension research will become more and more important to critics and theorists. As it becomes clearer that reading is a transaction that must be seen not only in, but as part of, a larger context that includes the reader's immediate social situation and goals, and the larger social context, the strategies that educational and psychological research is developing for taking such matters into account will become more important (Vipond & Hunt, 1989; Vipond, Hunt, Jewett & Reither, in press).

As literature comes to be thought of and understood as a social system itself — as Schmidt (1982, 1989) and others in Germany have argued it must — more attention will need to be paid to the actual social circumstances of the creation and consumption of literary works. To look at writers writing and readers reading in productive and useful ways, it is necessary to come to an understanding of the traditions of empirical observation in fields like reading comprehension and the sociology of language.

Whether the two fields manage to stay apart in the face of such similarity of aim, subject, and method will be as much a matter of politics as of substance. And even if a new synthesis eventuates, there is no guarantee that everyone will be happier for the change. Ideas and practices in both fields may suffer and die. The tachistoscope word-recognition test and the interpretive, analytical "literary essay" may die the same death together. Fortunately, however, in matters intellectual, such suffering is rarely altogether bad. Unlike people, there are some ideas and practices we may be a good deal better off without — however difficult it may be to part with them.