A Matter of Shared Knowledge

Article excerpt

abstract

The link connecting a reader to a text is so strong that we cannot consider the one without also looking at the other. All too frequently, literary reception is studied by focusing either on the textual features or on the reader's dispositional characteristics, which come into play in the reading process. The present paper proposes an integrated approach: reader and text carry different kinds of knowledge in reading, which cannot be easily separated. This knowledge may differ according to the extent to which it is shared among readers, but it all contributes to construct the final literary meaning. Consequently, literary reception can be seen as the result of the action of both widely shared and less shared knowledge, which together produce nomothetic and idiographic forms of meaning.

A matter of shared knowledge. Possible theoretical integrations in the study of literary reception

Introduction

In 1975 Norman Holland wrote 5 readers reading, trying to shed light on one of the most controversial questions of literary studies: why do people interpret the same text differently? The question might appear of little importance; one might quickly provide several possible answers. But behind that simple interrogative statement, there are fundamental aspects that regard various disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, cognitive and literary studies.

Literature is probably one of the most ancient form of mass communication; even today it is an appreciated form of art and is often used, by other disciplines, as an impressive example of an explanation (or rather, a description) of our world, our feelings, relationships, shared meanings and ideas. Thus, literature must be considered a significant part of our sociality and therefore, a relevant issue for all who are interested in studying the world and the people that live in it.

A literary work and the person/s who will receive it are connected by an indissoluble link. This means that to study one of the two elements, the other must also be studied because reading is essentially a process that regards both the reader and the text in a work of cooperation (Eco, 1979). Information that enters the interpretation process and contributes to form the reader's complex representation of the literary work derives both from the text (and its features) and from the reader's personal characteristics: the literary meaning is constructed as function of these two variables.

But even if we accept this perspective (and this is all but given!), we need to pay attention to the way the two parts come together and construct the final, specific, and maybe idiosyncratic result, that is the literary fruition. What is the "weight" of the text and of the narration? And how important is the role played by the reader in this interpretation process? If we want to study literary perception, literary criticism or if we want to use literature in our field of study, we need to answer these questions more precisely.

The two faces of literature studies

Coming back to the initial question posed by Holland, most probably if we asked one hundred people to read Joyce's Ulysses and then asked them to give us a summary, we would probably obtain something close to one hundred different plots. This is because, as various authors have pointed out, every person has a personal experience of what s/he reads (Nemesio, 1999).

Some might say that each reader receives the text differently: others will say that readers re-construct the story in a personal way, while yet others will probably argue that different individuals will read the same book differently because the text is substantially undetermined and indeterminable. And, most probably, there will be further positions as to the causes that can explain the reception process.

Looking back on literary studies of the last decades, we might imagine an ideal continuum that goes from "text", at one end, to "reader", on the other and which represents how different approaches have defined the relationship implied in the construction of literary meaning. …

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