DOI link for Reader-response criticism
Reader-response criticism book
From the Great Depression to the onset of the Cold War, American critics tended primarily to focus either on literary texts, or on the historical and cultural contexts of literature, or on both. During the early years of the Space Age, the focus of concern for many leading critics and theorists shifted to the activities of reading and readers. The rise of reader-oriented criticism manifested itself more or less forcefully in numerous and varied critical projects, including those carried out by literary phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, deconstruction, and feminism. While an interest in text reception appeared before World War II in the works of I. A. Richards, Maud Bodkin, D. W. Harding, Kenneth Burke, and Louise Rosenblatt, it was not until the late 1950s and shortly afterwards that a veritable landslide of studies started to concentrate self-consciously on readers and reading, initiating a broadbased movement opposed to earlier text-dominated and context-dominated criticism. Among the many critics in America contributing to the development of a reader-centered criticism were David Bleich, Wayne Booth, Jonathan Culler, Paul de Man, Judith Fetterley, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Simon Lesser, J. Hillis Miller, Richard Palmer, Mary Louise Pratt, Gerald Prince, Alan Purves, Michael Riﬀaterre, Walter Slatoﬀ, and William Spanos. Signiﬁcantly, half of these critics associated themselves with speciﬁc schools rather than this broad movement: Wayne Booth with Chicago formalism; de Man and Miller with phenomenology, then with deconstruction; Palmer and Spanos with hermeneutics; Prince and Riﬀaterre with structuralism; Culler with structuralism, then with deconstruction; Fetterley with feminism; and Pratt with speech-act theory, then with Marxism. As a result, the roster of leading American Reader-Response Critics, established by the peak of the movement’s vitality in the early 1980s, was limited arguably to Fish, Holland, and Bleich-listed here in order of their chronological entry into the ﬁeld and treatment in this chapter. Whether or not the membership of the movement is construed narrowly or
broadly, certain tenets characterized reader-response literary criticism during its heyday from the late 1960s to the 1980s. It argued against the text-centered
criticism of formalism, advocating instead a reader-oriented approach. It often stressed the temporality of reading, resisting tendencies toward spatial hermeneutics and toward organicist poetics. It pioneered accounts of textual discontinuity over doctrines propounding literary unity. It investigated the epistemological, linguistic, psychological, and sociological constraints on the activity of reading and the labor of readers. It often ignored explicit questions concerning aesthetic value and the role of history. It did not tamper with the canons of scholarly style, and it pushed critical inquiry toward pedagogy, typically locating the text and reader in the classroom. Not surprisingly, it fostered various didactic poetics. It tended toward a politics of liberal pluralism, which advocated the rights of readers against the prescriptions and dogmas of doctrinaire methodologies. Focused tightly on the reader, it developed a rich panoply of types of readers-informed readers, ideal readers, implied readers, actual readers, virtual readers, superreaders, and “literents.” Like other schools and movements during the Vietnam era and after, it cast New Criticism as a scapegoat responsible for many of the ills and errors of contemporary literary criticism. Unlike some other groups, Reader-Response Critics did not constitute a tightly knit cadre or circle of colleagues with access to certain journals, presses, institutes, and universities. Instead, the movement had an increasingly broad geographical and intellectual basemore so than all other schools of American criticism from the 1930s to the 1980s except feminism and leftist cultural criticism. Given the wide scope of the movement, reader-response criticism was
characterized by numerous diﬀerences and disagreements. As the movement expanded, many explanatory articles and essays appeared, increasing exponentially the bibliography in this ﬁeld of inquiry. Whereas reader-oriented criticism did not dramatically alter literary canons or textbooks nor engender specialized dictionaries or handbooks, it did generate a large number of special sessions at conferences and special issues of journals. The proliferation of helpful published materials reached a high point in 1980 with the publication of two exemplary anthologies of reader-response criticism, complete with useful introductions and lengthy bibliographies: (1) The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, edited by Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman, published by Princeton University Press, containing sixteen original articles; and (2) Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to PostStructuralism, edited by Jane Tompkins, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, reprinting eleven key texts of the movement. Sponsored by major university presses and frequently reprinted, these anthologies signaled a certain culmination of the shift from text-centered to reader-oriented criticism within the ﬁeld of literary studies in American universities. In her extensive introduction, “Varieties of Audience-Oriented Criticism,”
Susan Suleiman surveyed six approaches to receptionist criticism, including rhetorical, structuralist-semiotic, phenomenological, psychoanalytical, sociological-historical, and hermeneutical modes. She argued that “audienceoriented criticism is not one ﬁeld but many, not a single widely trodden path
but a multiplicity of crisscrossing, often divergent tracks that cover a vast area of the critical landscape.”1 Unlike Jane Tompkins in “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism,” Suleiman allotted considerable space to European critics who played a signiﬁcant role in the “revolution” set oﬀ by reader-oriented theory. Her canon of important American critics included Bleich, Booth, Fish, Holland, Prince, Riﬀaterre, and certain Yale deconstructors, namely de Man, Hartman, and Miller. While Tompkins too presented reader-response criticism as heterogeneous, observing it was “not a conceptually uniﬁed critical position,”2 she nevertheless argued that the movement exhibited a “coherent progression” over its two decades of growth and displayed a “main line of theoretical development” (ix, xxvi). According to this account, two stages characterized the internal history of the movement as it progressed from formalism through structuralism and phenomenology to psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. First, reader-response criticism envisaged the reader’s activity as instrumental to the understanding of the literary text without denying that the ultimate object of critical attention was the text. Second, it conceived the reader’s activity as identical with the text so that this activity became the source of concern and value. This “revolutionary shift” from text to reading, from product to process, opened new areas of inquiry, resituated theories of meaning and interpretation, and reconnected criticism with ethics and eventually with politics. The key American critics in this development, in Tompkins’ view, were Prince, Riﬀaterre, Fish, Culler, Holland, and Bleich. Unlike Suleiman, Tompkins left out of account the works of European sociological and historical Reader-Response Critics and of Continental and native Hermeneutical Critics. Both editors omitted consideration of feminist reader-oriented critics. Perhaps this was so because feminist criticism did not reach a peak until the mid-1980s, evidently some years after the reader-response anthologies were ﬁrst planned. As with other historians of reader-response criticism, Suleiman and Tompkins disagreed about the actual scope of the heterogeneity and disunity within the movement. That it constituted a more or less fragmented site of inquiry was never in question. Usually presented as a cultural paradigm shift, the new focus on the reader seemed to preoccupy an era rather than one school or another.