Archive for the 'literary theory' Category


Appreciating Fiction

Dan Green critizes Nigel Beale’s seeming stance on the role of fiction, manifest in Nigel’s suggestion that “the essential question to ask” of fictional characters is “is this fictitious entity relevant to me and my life?” A lot of Nigel’s statements in his post and his follow-up commentary have my eye-brows raised, too, but I think his comment on “lifeness” as a function of literature harbours an important point. He writes:

So, ‘lifeness’ I think is a function of the degree to which readers can relate their lives to the lives of those depicted in fiction.

“Lifeness” is in fact a crucial step in the reader’s development towards appreciating fiction. Generally, the first stage of reading apprecation concerns “unconscious delight” — suspense, beauty, heroism, action, what have you. Next follows, you guessed it, “lifeness”:

Toward the beginning of adolescence and moving through adolescence, readers are concerned with having vicarious experiences along with seeing themselves in the literature they read […] At this point readers seek situations that parallel their own life situations and issues. Readers also identify with characters in the story; they can test new roles, new feelings and new responses to challenges through reading experiences. (Bushman and Haas, Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, 22)

In the final stages of appreciation, the reader widens the perspective to philosophical and social problems, and finally, at the last stage, shifts attention to the level of aesthetic delight and matters such as style, structure, subtlety, harmony, etc.

What is crucial, though, is the fact that higher stages of appreciation do not replace lower ones. Rather, each new stage incorporates the preceding one, which results in a “birthday cake” of reading appreciation:

Birthday Cake

This means that Nigel’s emphasis on “lifeness” and Dan’s emphasis on the novel “as a form of literary art” are both part and parcel of a reader’s appreciation, even though one tends to be developed later than the other. Therefore, in our evaluation, discussion and appreciaton of fiction, lifeness can and should play as much a part as aesthetic delight. Or in other words: You can have your cake and eat it, too.


Definitions of the Common Reader

Some scattered thoughts on the notion of the common reader. We can approach the definition of “the reader” — common or otherwise — from various angles, basing it upon, for example, what kind of person the reader is, or what his or her reading are, or what he or she reads. Richard Altick (see previous post) employs the first approach. He explains his use of the term as follows:

The reading public studied in this book is the one composed of what the Victorians were fond of calling “the million.” It is not the relatively small, intellectually and socially superior audience for which most of the great nineteenth-century authors–the readers of the quarterly reviews, the people whom writers like Macaulay, the Brontës, Meredith, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill had in mind. Here we are concerned primarily with the experience of that overwhelmingly more numerous portion of the English people who became day-by-day readers for the first time in this period, as literacy spread and printed matter became cheaper. The “common reader” studied in these pages may be a member of the working class, or he may belong to the ever expanding bourgeoisie. In preceding centuries […] some hand-workers and some members of the lower-middle class had been readers; but not until the nineteenth century did the appetite for print permeate both classes to the extent that it became a major social phenomenon. (Altick, 6-7)

Altick defines the common reader quantitatively (common=numerous) and qualitatively (common=lower class). The common reader is therefore defined by his or her social stratum. Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader” takes the second route. She defines the common reader with regards to his or her reading habits:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of a whole […] He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out […] (Woolf, 2-3)

Woolf’s definition says little about the social status of the reader or his character, but it tells us quite a bit about the way he reads. I am not sure what to make of the “instinct to create for himself …” passage, although I believe what Woolf is getting as is the seeming lack of purpose or direction in the reading of the common reader, as contrasted by the critic, who reads for evaluation and edification, and the scholar, who reads for knowledge.

We could also tackle the definition of the “common reader” based on features of the text that’s being read. The search for a definition and elucidation of the reader based on texts are perhaps the most complex but also, at least from the point of view of literary criticism and theory, the most rewarding of the three approaches, and I shall devote a separate post to that at some stage.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Common Reader”. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953.