Archive for the 'reader-response theory' Category


Flaubert and his Parrot On Reading

Traditionally, reader response theory focuses on abstract or generic readers and tends to brush over some of the more human elements of reading. This includes the reader’s relationship to the author, and so it is quite refreshing to read an account of just such a relationship: Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot recounts the story of Geoffrey Braithwaite, an avid reader and amateur-scholar of Gustave Flaubert, who is visiting the writer’s home in France to search for clues about the significance of a parrot Flaubert once used to write one of his stories.

Barnes’s Parrot has  a lot to say on authors and readers, and on critics, too. Neither Flaubert nor Braithwaite make bones about what they think of the latter’s breed. In a chapter on Emma Bovary’s eyes, for example, the amateur-reader Braithwaite takes a professional Flaubert critic to task for chiding the Frenchman for sloppiness, and offers a poignant simile of the reader-author relationship for the professional reader, on the one hand, and the common readers on the other:

I must confess that in all the time I read Madame Bovary, I never noticed the heroine’s rainbow eyes. Should I have? Would you? Was I perhaps too busy noticing things that Dr Starkie was missing (though what they might have been I can’t for the moment think)? Put it another way: is there a perfect reader somewhere, a total reader? Does Dr Starkie’s reading of Madame Bovary contain lal the responses which I have when I read the book, and then add a whole lot more, so that my reading is in a way pointless? Well, I hope not. My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism; but it’s not pointless in terms of pleasure. I can’t prove that lay readers enjoy books more than professional critics; but I can tell yo one advantage we have over them. We can forget. Dr Starkie and her kind are cursed with memory: the books they teach and write about can never fade from their brains. They become family. Perhaps this is why some critics develop a faintly patronising tone towards their subjects. They act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn’t said anything new for years. … Whereas the common but passionate reader  is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers,  come back and be entranced again. (75-76)

Very apt, methinks, although we should not forget that common readers can get quite obsessed and obsessive about their choice authors as well.

Gustave Flaubert

The Parrot also contains snippets from Flaubert’s letters and Madame Bovary that often broach the topic of reading, and make me want to read Flaubert, albeit not so much for the master’s portrayal of the human condition as for what doctor Braithwaite dubs Flaubert’s “confident scraps of wisdom, hand-me-down summaries for those in a hurry”. To wit:

Les livres ne se font pas comme les enfants, mais comme les pyramides, avec un dessein prémédité, et en apportant des grands blocs l’un par-dessus l’autre, à force de reins, de temps et de sueur, et ça ne sert à rien ! Et ça reste dans le désert ! Mais en le dominant prodigieusement. Les chacals pissent en bas et les bourgeois montent dessus, etc., continue la comparaison. (Gustave Flaubert, cited in Albert Thibaudet’s Gustave Flaubert, 136)

Or in translation from the Parrot:

Books aren’t made the way babies are: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.



William Hazlitt, On Reading Old Books

“I have more confidence in the dead than the living”, writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the eminent English essayist of the Romantic Era, in his essay “On Reading Old Books”. This may come as a bit of a surprise. A critic and acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt was witnessing the poetic sea change of the Romantic period first-hand. He was immersed in a contemporary literature scene that must have been amongst the most thriving, exhilarating and inspiring in the history of English literature. And yet even Hazlitt found himself abandoning the literary rumpus of his day for the quiet meditation of an old book:

All these contradictions [of reading contemporary authors] and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.

For Hazlitt, old books are familiar books. New books, he says, are like “a strange dish”: “There is a want of confidence and security to second appetite.” An old book, on the other hand, is the trusted plain slice at the pizza corner, the burger and fries from your local pub, or a tasty home-baked quiche from a well-tried recipe: you know what you’re in for, and you know it’s going to be delicious. Of course, with old books, you get the additional advantage that, like an old and trusted friend, you can always learn something new. And you can take your time, too, without having to worry about rushing to the end; you can linger, or skip and skim, for you’ve been there already.

But Hazlitt rightly points out that the familiarity of old books extends to another level, namely the history shared by the book and the reader:

I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of he work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.

In this passage Hazlitt sums up what I believe to be one of the most essential parts of the reading experience and one of the most sorely neglected parts of reader-response theory — the individual’s own history of reading. This history includes not only our thoughts and ideas, but also the physical journey we undertook to obtain a book, or how we happened to come upon it. Hazlitt, for example, recounts the delight he experienced when he received Cooke’s pocket edition of Tom Jones, and sniffs at the cheap novels from the Ballantyne brothers or the Minerva Press. Cooke’s Tom Jones, he remembers, “broke the spell”, and “Cooke’s edition of the ‘British Novelists’ was to me a dance through life, a perpetual gala-day. The sixpenny numbers of this work regularly contrived to leave off just in the middle of a sentence, and in the nick of the story. With what eagerness I used to look forward to the next number, and open the prints!” Hazlitt ends on the romantic note:

To what nameless ideas did they give rise, — with what airy delights I filled up the outlines, as I hung in silence over the page! Let me still recall them, that they may breathe fresh life into me, and that I may live that birthday of thought and romantic pleasure over again! Talk of the ideal! This is the only true ideal — the heavenly tints of Fancy reflected in the bubbles that float upon the spring-tide of human life.

From Reading in Bed, collected by Steven Gilbar.


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.


Imagination and the Reading Memory

Each time I talk to friends about books, watch critics discuss books on television, or read a book review in a newspaper or on a blog post , I am struck — baffled, often — by how much readers seem to remember from their readings. The critic, of course, is paid to remember. Yet even compared to lay readers my recollection of books is shoddy and fragmented at best. Often when trying to remember passages or details from a book, I am dumbstruck, and a frustrated and slightly disgruntled grimace creeps on my face, not unlike the expression of Dante Rossetti’s Mmenosyne:

Thus the question How and what do readers remember? fascinates me both in its own right and as a means towards self-improvement. In my estimation, and this might be stating the obvious, the best aid to memory is anything in a book that touches you, emotionally or intellectually, on a personal level. Whether a character feels and thinks the way you do, whether an incident reminds you of a significant episode of your life, or whether you share an opinion with the author (or rail against the author’s opinion, for that matter) — solipsism is a marvellous hook for memory, because it anchors details in a strong emotion  or a strong opinion of your own.

But we also seek out books for new rather than familiar experiences. How do we remember those? At least as far as fiction is concerned, the answer is: imagination. And arguably the most easily imagined aspect of a book is plot. It needs less effort on the part of the reader’s imagination than, say, descriptions or characters, because plot is more structured and more readily summarized than the latter. We can structure plot according to cause and effect or chronology, and we can summarize it by incidents and episodes. We can of course summarize descriptions and characters as well, but we lose much more in a character summary than a plot summary, and there’s little in the way of structure available in descriptions of characters and scenes. If nothing else, plot is always linear, meaning dynamic, and never static. Admittedly, I am talking out of my ass here. Then again, how come common readers (except the French, but they don’t count) tend to prefer plot-ladden books to plot-less ones? Isn’t that due to the fact that plot sticks more easily? (This, of course, is not to say that plot is more important or more valuable than characters or descriptions, despite Aristotle’s assertion to the contrary; plot, he said, “is the basic principle, the heart and soul, as it were, of tragedy”. One can certainly question such a stance, as Nigel Beale does at his Nota Bene Books.)

However, it is one thing to remember the basic plot of a book and another to recall the various incidents that contribute to it. Here, as with characters and descriptions, a vivid imagination is key. Everybody knows that memory works best through association. It is much easier to recall things when we can connect them to memories which are already firmly planted in our mind. Since Simonides and his memory palace, memory coaches have taught audiences various such association-tricks. Such feats, however, while well-suited for remembering your shopping list, are not all that helpful when it comes to remembering a novel or essay. But our imagination does something very similar when it creates association-clusters that connect the verbal representations of events, characters and descriptions with vivid images, be they auditory, visual, or physical (“scrotum-tightening sea”, anyone?).

I still marvel at the apparent ability of some readers to create such vivid images of a book’s universe when I think of the few fleeting impressions I myself retain from my reading. Meanwhile, I wonder how much an active imagination is the result of active reading. Does an active imagination encourage the reader to pay closer attention to the text, or does active reading stir your imagination? Are the two separate entities, or are they linked? Is one a prerequisite to the other? And while we’re at it, what about the ontology of it all: what’s the relationship between the memory of what is written and the memory of what is imagined? If a reader reads sloppily and his imagination of a book’s character or event or description is, consequently, equally sloppy, is that memory justly called a memory of the book or is it just a memory of the reading experience?

Finally, one could ask normatively: What should we remember from our readings?  After all, even those readers who immediately after the reading recall a lot of details tend to forget more as time goes by. What should readers retain from their readings: Words? Ideas? Images? Of course, the final decision is the reader’s to make. But the critic could play a part in it, too. His or her job is to compile a detailed memory — plot, characters, descriptions, arguments — and construe from it a coherent whole — the interpretation — that serves as a point of reference for remembering a book in the future. This mnemonic definition of criticism might be too reductionist for some, too traditional for others (the critic as the arbiter of what’s best to be remembered in the world). I believe it merits thought, nonetheless; after all, what worth has reading without memory?


Reading Experiences

A recent post at OnFiction presents a study claiming that certain readers and writers experience characters in works of fiction as though these characters had a mind of their own. Of the 50 writers interviewed, “[a]ll but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency.” Dan Green’s response at The Reading Experience criticizes the assumption (implicit in the OnFiction piece) that we can somehow isolate the characters from the work of art and invest them with meaning outside the realm of fiction. What sparked my interest was not so much the arguments about the nature of characters, criticism or works of art, but the posters’ descriptions of their respective reading experiences.

The OnFiction piece, for example, claims that “readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to.” The experience of literary characters is even linked to the experience of imaginary companions observed in children; characters are imagined as real people with real motives that defy the author’s or reader’s control and can assume a life beyond the story. Dan, on the other hand, experiences characters only to the extent to which they are in the story; he imagines characters based on the information provided by the author (and the occasional “reading between the lines”) and thinks about them primarily with respect to how they contribute to “the whole work of fiction”. Concerning my own experience, I do find myself contemplating characters outside the work of fiction and often amuse myself by imagining how they would react in situations that have little to do with the story’s original context.

The question, of course, is whether such an experience has anything to do with the reading experience. Does it truly constitute a reading experience when I ponder whether Hamlet’s taste buds would approve of my garlic rosemary pasta? I actually think it does. Dan doesn’t. As far as I understand it, he regards a contemplation of a character removed from the contemplation of the story as a departure from the reading experience. And understandably so: Dan’s understanding of the reading experience, I think, is closely tied to his understanding of the work of art, in particular the assumption that the work of art possesses a formal unity that in the reader’s mind translates into an experiential unity. I do not question the practicality of such a philosophy of art; it has certainly produced some great and insightful literary criticism.

However, I doubt it paints an accurate picture of the reading experience of most readers. Take the purported unity of the work of art, for example. Readers certainly do achieve some kind of unity in their experience of an art work (at the most basic level, they realize that a work of fiction starts at the first page and ends at the last), but I wonder how much of that experience corresponds to the unity that was crafted into the work by the author, or the experience he or she envisaged for the reader. Most readers do not grasp and retain much of that unity to begin with, and even among ideal readers, whose grasp and recollection of a work’s form and content is complete, reading experiences are likely to vary because the unity they have arrived at differs according to their emphasis and arrangement of the work’s parts (not to mention their differences in taste, ideology, personality, etc.).

Moreover, we as readers do not want to make the constraints of the work of art the constraints of our own reading experience. We certainly welcome the way these constraints stimulate and shape our experience of a work, but we also want to expand on that experience and confront it according to our own needs and preferences. Thus the reading experiences comes alive, instead of remaining an exercise in figuring out what experience the author had in mind when he or she put pen to paper. Therefore, I consider the reader’s contribution to the work of art — including his or her departure from the author’s plan — a meaningful part of the reading experience.

While I do think that there are intersubjective reading experiences that reflect a work’s nature better than others, I also believe that if we take a reader-response approach seriously, we must acknowledge a tendency among readers’ to appropriate works of art according to their own designs and limits, consciously and unconsciously, and I find exploring such appropriations or even promoting your own appropriation (some, I take it, would prefer to call them “instrumentalisations”) a legitimate avenue for literary criticism.


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.