Reader-Response under Review: Art, Game, or Science?

By Wright, Terence R. | Style, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Reader-Response under Review: Art, Game, or Science?


Wright, Terence R., Style


One of the problems of the label "Reader-Response Criticism" is that it covers a multitude of different approaches. Jane Tompkins's anthology, Reader-Response Criticism, originally published in 1980 but reprinted many times since then and still used as a course textbook, includes essays that could equally well be labelled New Critical, Phenomenological, Structuralist, Psychoanalytic, or Deconstructive. Her introduction claims that Reader-Response Criticism "could be. said to have started with I. A. Richards's discussions of emotional response in the 1920s or with the work of D. W. Harding and Louise Rosenblatt in the 1930s" (x). Rosenblatt's later book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, first published in 1978 and now reissued with a new preface and epilogue, is one of the books under review here. But also under review are a number of books that might not normally be considered Reader-Response at all, including work by Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur, as well as new books by writers whose earlier work appeared in Tompkins's anthology - Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, and Wolfgang Iser.

What all these books have in common is a concern with The Act of Reading, to use Iser's title to name the process of responding to the black marks on a page. Whether this act is an art or a science, to be treated, as subjective and personal manner or regarded as a rigorous, objective discipline, has long been a matter of debate. Even the word "response" is a complex and controversial one. Fish happily describes himself on the back of his new book as "a founder of Reader Response Theory" but he is well-known for arguing that the text is the product of the reader rather than the other way round, so the term "response" seems problematic even in the case of its best-known exponent. Holland, as we shall see, adopts a position similar to that of Fish, rejecting out of hand the notion that reading is "a mere response to a stimulus" (226). Even Iser, against whom Holland is here arguing, appends a footnote to the preface of The Act of Reading, explaining that he reluctantly accepted the English word "response" for the German term Wirkung, "which comprises both effect and response, without the psychological connotations of the English word" (ix). Reader-Response, then, serves as an umbrella term for a variety of positions held together only by their concern with what goes on in the mind of the reader when he or she picks up and peruses a book.

Most of the present batch of books concerned with this process seem to consider it as an art, even a game, rather than a science. There is a widespread reaction against structuralism and the impersonal discourses it spawned, a return to the recognition that readers are people with all the properties that go with being human: gender, history, politics, and beliefs. They have hang-ups (and some let them all hang out); they are haunted by a range of ghosts (especially if they are Marx); they respond in personal and creative ways, and they are fed up with repressing these ways in their professional criticism (especially if they are women). It is not that there is a general clamor to return to the days of "Q" - Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, first professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge - though it is worth noting that even "Q" began his 1916 lectures "On the Art of Reading" with an acceptance that his responsibility was "to instruct young men how to read" (9). The study of English Literature has moved on since then, although not always, according to some of these recent books, in ways that have enlarged our understanding of the art of reading, or of literature, or of ourselves.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the contemporary literary critical scene is Norman Holland, who describes his book The Critical I as "a critical I-ing of current criticism, its practice and theory," with special attention to "what some of the practitioners assume about the I, the person engaged in the literary transaction" (xi). …

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