Reading Reader, Reading Readers
As published in Reader 43 (Spring 2000), -51
Back in the paradigm where I come from, it was worth your career to suggest that the eminently fallible, unpredictable, inconsistent and (the most serious challenge) inaccessible and unverifiable responses of individual readers were a matter much worth thinking about. As an undergraduate -- and as a graduate student -- I'd internalized not just the texts (Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Affective Fallacy" being central) but the spiritual convictions of classical New Criticism.
Those of us who bought that set of assumptions about the status of texts knew that there was a perfect matched response to each perfect textual object, and that our job was to elicit that perfect match, by showing how inadequate responses didn't account for everything in the text (and, as scholars and critics, by discovering for ourselves how our own responses didn't measure up). It was a very scientific-sounding endeavor -- like testing successive hypotheses against the resistance of nature. It was especially attractive to a segment of society moving from the financial bonanza of the second world war into the child-rearing and upward-aspiring preoccupations of the fifties and early sixties; it seemed to render the arcane mysteries of literary and artistic sophistication ("taste") accessible and reasonable. What had, for instance, seemed the naiveté of the closing couplet of the "Grecian Urn," once you added in Cleanth Brooks' suggestion of the possibility of ironic distancing, was suddenly revealed to be a new level of perfection.
A few years in the classroom trenches began to erode that easy confidence, however. Through the seventies I tried desperately to understand why it was that my students didn't seem able to see (to take one example) irony or narrative distancing in texts. I couldn't see what was going on when they didn't know, and accepted only on faith and as a result of my authority (or, more exactly, of my power) that, for example, Swift was not in favor of eating babies. I didn't understand why so many of them thought that John Updike was a condescending sexist pig because the young protagonist of his "A & P" had complicated faux-chivalric attitudes toward the young woman in the pink bathing suit in the cat-and-dog-food aisle.
And explaining didn't help. It began to seem clear that the phenomenon was parallel to the fact that telling them about grammar and usage didn't help. Just as it didn't do to tell them that "alot" wasn't one word (today, even though my word processor won't let me type it as one word, they still do it), or that "weather" and "whether" were different words, it didn't help to lay out for them an "accurate" reading of Gulliver or "A & P," because the next time they encountered a text with a narrator in whom one might not have entirely full confidence, it made no difference. Those who didn't get it the first time, didn't get it the next time, either. As I was beginning to see about writing instruction (with the help of Mina Shaughnessy's assumption-shaking Errors and Expectations), the Lamarckian theory that if you cut the tails off rats for enough generations they'd stop growing them wasn't working any better than it did in biology.
What was happening, I now see, was that the messy, complicated and recalcitrantly inalterable -- that is to say, empirical -- experience of the classroom was poking holes in what I'd thought of as the seamless, perfect fabric of my critical stance.
It's hard to remember clearly, a quarter century later, just how liberating it was, as the seventies turned into the eighties, to realize that this wasn't just some isolated individual experience. Others not only shared the experience but were busily building an entirely new (and entirely radical) theoretical structure to begin to account for and include these phenomena. The way reader-response theory, springing out of classrooms and out of the structuralist revolution, leaked insidiously into the academic journals and into our assumptions was my first experience of a paradigm shift -- and for me, in the eighties, it all came together as a new way of connecting what was happening in my classroom with what was happening in my life as a scholar and writer. Semiotics, early language development, reader-response theory, composition theory, emergent literacy and reading development theory, all conspired to point my thought -- and my practice -- in new directions, and assured me that I wasn't simply deluded in rejecting the old dispensation.
The Alice's Restaurant sense that there might be enough of us singing this new anthem to make up a movement was fed for me by the advent and development of Reader, which offered a venue for people exploring parallel paths, even in the heart of the MLA and the pages of New Literary History -- people like David Bleich, Walter Slatoff, Stephen Mailloux, and especially Robert Crossman, whose work in the late seventies was central in helping me see that there was a community of interest in attending to the phenomenon of literature through the affective lens. By the early eighties, when I attended the Indiana University conference on connections between educational and psychological theories of reading and literary ones, and then spent a sabbatical year in Bloomington exploring those issues and others, the direction of my career had altered profoundly. Though the publication of Reader was sporadic during that period, the newly refocused Poetics, under the direction of Siegfried Schmidt, had begun the work of trying to make the word "empirical" acceptable in North American literary circles.
Within a couple of years, my psychologist colleague Doug Vipond and I had begun the project of trying to unite our concerns and interests in an attempt to deepen our understanding of just what it was that readers engaged with literature were doing, and published pieces coming out of that work both in Poetics (1984) and in Reader (1985).
As Beth Flynn has pointed out in a recent essay on " Reader Response' in the Nineties," though, something has seemed to happen to dampen that first flush of excitement about reading readers, and it's more than merely the settling in from paradigmatic revolution to normal science that Thomas Kuhn characterizes as the standard pattern.
For myself, what has happened is that it has become increasingly clear that the range of foci possible within reader response criticism -- Flynn identifies them as choices among focusing on (a) "the subjective reactions of individual readers or groups of readers," (b) "an interactive process involving both reader and text" or (c) "the reader as a textual feature" -- seemed more and more clearly not to fit what my experience, both as an observer of "real-world" readings and as an empirical investigator of the process, was telling me. As Vipond and I pursued the elusive rabbit of empirical evidence about "literary" reading (1991), I became increasingly convinced that neither the laboratory nor the classroom (as currently configured) were places where it was likely to be found -- indeed, the "it" we were looking for has, over the past few years, changed out of recognition.
Through the nineties, my own attention -- and, it seems clear, that of many others who began studying "reader response" -- has shifted to the phenomenon of literary reading as a unique event inextricably entwined with an immediate social context. The editors of Research in the Teaching of English have recently drawn attention to the change toward that they call "the role of culture," meaning not culture in the traditional global sense but culture in the immediate sense of the context of situation.
It has become more and more difficult to see how to extract "reading" from the dialogic social relationships in which any instance of it occurred, and clearer and clearer that every reading act -- literary or otherwise -- is shaped fundamentally by the circumstantial minutiae of the rhetorical and social situation. What a reader does has become much more clearly a unique, individual activity, much less a generalization across instances of reading. Among the things this has meant for me has been that I have become more concerned with narrative understanding of individual cases of reading, and less with looking for larger patterns -- as, for instance, in my attempt (1999) to come to grips with the social context of a set of readings of an obscure poem by Owen Wister.
It is possible that this represents not a further paradigm shift, but simply a continuation of an overall movement away from the "scientific" orientation of the dear dead days of New Criticism, and toward an acknowledgement that the methods of the study of literature are essentially similar to the practice of literature itself: the understanding of the universe in a grain of sand. In that case, the future of Reader will entail a rethinking of the meaning of the title: not Reader as generalization, but some particular reader as socially constructed and culturally embedded individual.
Brooks, Cleanth. "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes." The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947. 139-152.
Flynn, Elizabeth A. "Review Essay: 'Reader Response' in the Nineties." Reader, No. 41 (Spring 1999), -89.
Hunt, Russell A. "Conditions of Reception, Conditions of Construction: The Strange Case of 'Mons, Anzac and Kut'." Poetics 26:5-6 (1999) -468.
Hunt, Russell A., and Douglas Vipond. "Crash-Testing a Transactional Model of Literary Reading." Reader No. 14 (Fall 1985), 23-39.
Hunt, Russell A., and Douglas Vipond. "First, Catch the Rabbit: The Methodological Imperative and the Dramatization of Dialogic Reading." Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research, ed. R. Beach, R. J. Green, M. Kamil & T. Shanahan. 69-89. Urbana, Illinois, National Conference on Research in English, 1992. Repr. Poetics 20 (1991): 577-595.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Smagorinsky, Peter, and Michael W. Smith. "Editors' Introduction: Questions of Cultures." Research in the Teaching of English 34:3 (February 2000), 345-349.
Updike, John. "A & P." The New Yorker 37 (July 22, 1961), 22-24. Repr. Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. 187-196.
Vipond, Douglas, and Russell A. Hunt. "Point-Driven Understanding: Pragmatic and Cognitive Dimensions of Literary Reading." Poetics 13 (June 1984), 261-277.
Wimsatt, W. K., & Beardsley, M. C. "The Affective Fallacy." In W.
K. Wimsatt, ed., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.
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