I have discussed reading on Bibliophilic Monologues time and again. I have talked about reading from a personal perspective and from the perspective of a writer. And today I introduce another perspective into this mix, that of an academic, a critic so to speak. I am taking this class on critical theory, that is, ways to approach children’s literature from a critical perspective and though I have taken a lot of literature courses, this may be the first time I’m taking one which deals exclusively with theory. So I figured that if I was so unaware of the existence of these nuggets of information, there are certainly other people out there in the world who are too and who may be just as interested in these things as I am. Anyway, convoluted sentence aside, what I’m going to talk about in the next few paragraphs are reader-response theories!
So you can either run for the hills or buckle in and lean forward with a fascinated look on your face. Just saying’.
When an academic says what is your “reading” of this particular text, she means something very different than what you would think. A “reading” is how one perceives and decodes the text. If you have ever taken a college level English literature class, you will (probably) be aware of the term “New Critics.” These are people who remove the author and reader from the table and concentrate exclusively on the text. Everything comes from the text. All discernible meaning and substance are gleaned from the book almost as though the book is completely independent from its creator. The reader-response theorists, on the other hand, are more concerned with the reader portion of the reading experience. The author does not have as much import in this branch of theory as the reader does. Even the text comes in a necessary second.
Stanley Fish, one of the more prominent theorists, describes reading as a lived experience. In Jane P. Tompkins’s words, Fish’s theory says that “[l]iterature is not regarded as a fixed object of attention but as a sequence of events that unfold within the reader’s mind.” I can certainly relate to that but the thing is, if you take this approach, the “meaning” of a text becomes problematized. Fish, again in Tompkins’s words, asserts that “meaning is not something one extracts from a poem, like a nut from its shell, but an experience one has in the course of reading.” Fascinating stuff. This means therefore that there is no one meaning of a text but as many as there are readers because no one experience is going to be identical.
Another theorist whose name escapes me at the moment theorized that when reading a book, a reader assumes an identity that is separate and distinct from their true identity. Walker Gibson is the theorist. Anyway, he says that there is a “mock reader” created while reading whose identity is constructed by the author who manipulates this textual reader to adopt the qualities necessary for the actual reader to enjoy the novel being read. It is when the actual reader rejects this mock reader identity that “bad books” are born. If the actual reader cannot agree with the morals and actions necessary in the mock reader, then they will fail to appreciate the novel as it was meant to. As Gibson states it, “a bad book is a book in whose mock reader we discover a person we refuse to become.” Kind of similar to this is George Poulet’s assertion that the reader must figuratively die in order for the book to live. In other words, a cessation of the individual self and a complete surrender to the narrative is the only way for a book to be completely alive.
According to William Iser, the reader is a co-creator of the text being read. That is, the text can only go so far to create meaning, everything else needs to be filled in by the reader. In other words, the author outlines the edges while the readers fill in these drawings with colour. Rather apt, I believe. Louisa Rosenblatt was one of the first reader-response theorists and she was the creator of the Transaction theory. Her work is a bit more complicated than I would like to get in in this medium but Rosenblatt believed that reading is a life experience and the “Poem” as she states it is the next text created when a reader reads (and responds to) a literary text. That is, a “Poem” is an event in the reader’s life. How a reader approaches literary work will determine what the reader takes away from it.
The truth is, there are many of these theories and if you are interested in them, you should totally look them up because they make sense! And they show that a great of work has been done about reading. It also reiterates that we as readers are not passive beings to whom literary work is pushed and that we do not simply absorb what is put our way. We have an active role in reading and creating meaning, we have more power as readers than we might have thought. I found this to be extremely fascinating. I hope you enjoyed this bibliophilic monologue. Until next time…