"Those Who Have Had Trouble Can Sympathise with You": Press Writing, Reader Responses and a Murder Trial in Interwar Britain
Wood, John Carter, Journal of Social History
Scholars have become increasingly interested in how consumers of culture, as readers, listeners and viewers, make sense of what they read, hear and see, and quite elaborate theorizations of how messages "encoded" in cultural productions are "decoded" have been developed and debated. (1) Summarizing such approaches, David Morley states that the "audience" is now "conceived of as actively decoding the messages they receive from systems of mass communications, and interpreting them in a range of ways, drawing on the particular cultural resources which their social position has made available to them." (2) Gaining more insight into "reception" is important, requiring, as John Storey has put it, consideration of how a text's social meaning "is appropriated and used in the consumption practices of everyday life." (3) It is obvious that people actively interpret texts--Michel de Certeau has even referred to "consumer production" (4)--and that their interpretations might not necessarily accord with the aims of the texts' producers. As Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa have put it, "The reader reworks and re-interprets what is read; his or her contribution cannot be subsumed within the author's version of the meaning of the text." (5)
However, in analyzing the "active reader," some have emphasized the "ideological constraint" imposed by discursive systems. "For these theorists," David Paul Nord writes,
the turn to interpretation did not reveal an autonomous and empowered reader but rather a reader wholly dependent upon (indeed, created by) the patterns of language and culture--or perhaps even a reader who is the creature of the multinational media conglomerate. (6)
While the constraints of discourse are sometimes overstated, texts are not limitlessly interpretable: not only do they contain specific intended (what Stuart Hall calls "preferred") meanings, but there are also likely to be regularities in the ways that specific audiences interact with them. (7) Ultimately, people rather than "social structures" interpret texts, and they possess not only a social position but also a psychological make-up that is both shared (in terms of fundamental abilities) and individually distinctive (with regard, say, to preferences and temperament). Each person also has accumulated experiences that are particularized and at the same time patterned according to social position or group identity. Readers are neither absolutely "free" nor entirely "constrained," leaving an enormous middle ground that has only begun to be explored historically.
Historical sources for understanding cultural consumption are relatively rare, but some investigators have made the most of the evidence available. (8) As Jonathan Rose has argued (and demonstrated), the questions of what "ordinary readers in history" read and "how they read it" are no longer as unanswerable as they once seemed. (9) The work of Lawrence W. Levine has been exemplary in this regard, providing a vivid history of both "folk" and "mass" cultures in the United States of America and effectively confronting the stereotype of the passive audience. Not only are audiences selective about mass culture (choosing what to read, watch or listen to), but they also use it actively: "What people can do and do do," Levine says, "is to refashion the objects created for them to fit their own values, needs, and expectations." (10) Expressive works are by nature "incomplete" and "filled with interstices that need connecting, ambiguities that need resolution, imprecisions that need clarity, complexities that need simplifying." (11) Levine emphasizes how consumers of popular culture invest imaginatively in what they consume, even with regard to seemingly trite cultural products, such as radio soap operas.
One especially fruitful area of research into media narratives has been related to crime reporting, a key element in the popular press in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. …