Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory

By Ballam, John D. | Style, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory

Ballam, John D., Style

Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack. Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory. New York: Palgrave, 2002. x + 192 pp. $65.00 cloth; $21.95 paper.

The general editor's preface to this volume from Palgrave's Transitions series characterizes the series' aims in this way:

The writers . . . untold the movements and modulations of critical thinking over the last generation, from the first emergence of what is now recognised as literary theory. They examine as well how the transitional nature of theoretical and critical thinking is still very much in operation, guaranteed by the hybridity and heterogeneity of the field of literary studies. The authors in the series share the common understanding that, now more than ever, critical thought is in a state of transition and can best be defined by developing for the student reader an understanding of this protean quality. (viii)

Certainly tracing the "movements and modulations" of such a complex nexus of associations is a process fraught with difficulty, and the results are unlikely to he satisfactory to a reader whose own bias on this historical process differs. Yet what differentiates this particular study from similar ones is that for the most part it glides through the straits bounded on either side by polemics and reductiveness, by maintaining a steady focus upon the book's pragmatic worth to student readers. Without avoiding polemics altogether, Todd Davis and Kenneth Womack's main success here is in demonstrating that the key ideas of formalism and reader-response theory are like so many spinning batons and that, regardless of who is juggling them, they remain in the air.

For the most part, the authors' only explicit formulation of a stance toward their material is confined to their introduction, and as expressed here, it is a viewpoint that, in its idealism, is altogether winning. While acknowledging the practical reasons for its emergence and perpetuation, they plead eloquently for some release from the competitiveness that accounts for the partisanship in so much contemporary critical writing. As they say, "That there are winners and losers in the act of interpretation seems strange indeed" (10). And much of what they have to say in the succeeding chapters stresses the extent to which cooperation, collaboration, and the revivifying of earlier modes of thought can be seen as a stimulus to literary, critical, and, by extension, cultural reappraisal and creativity.

It is an optimistic program, and its own success would seem to be linked to the way in which it undertakes to make the key premises of these methodologies accessible to the generation of student readers it seeks to inspire. The authors are in top form when they can explain positions and processes with the same clarity that one might expect from an instructor addressing a class face to face, such as in this example, outlining Cleanth Brooks's stance in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947):

Perhaps the best way to describe Brooks's emphasis upon the practical implications of doing literary criticism is by way of analogy. When one uses a hammer to drive a nail into a board, it is difficult to break down into distinct or separate categories the many movements involved-the swing of the hammer; the way it rests in the hand of the carpenter; the manner in which it strikes the head of the nail; the success or failure as the nail either enters the wood or bends above it. (25)

From the standpoint of teaching, such an explanation will at least result in a nod of understanding.

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