A shift of critical perspective - Reader-response criticism - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


8. Reader-response criticism


Michael Benton


The importance of reader-response criticism in the area of children’s literature lies in what it tells us about two fundamental questions, one about the literature and the other about its young readers:

• Who is the implied child reader inscribed in the text?

• How do actual child readers respond during the process of reading?

The main advocates of reader-response criticism acknowledge the complementary importance of text and reader. They attend both to the form and language of poem or story, and to the putative reader constructed there, acknowledging, as Henry James put it, that the author makes ‘his reader very much as he makes his characters ... When he makes him well, that is makes him interested, then the reader does quite half the labour’ (quoted in Booth 1961: 302). Equally, they attend to the covert activity of the reading process, deducing the elements of response from what readers say or write, and/or developing theoretical models of aesthetic experience.

Whatever the particular orientation of the reader-response critic, one central issue recurs: the mystery of what readers actually do and experience. The subject of the reader’s response is the Loch Ness Monster of literary studies: when we set out to capture it, we cannot even be sure that it is there at all; and, if we assume that it is, we have to admit that the most sensitive probing with the most sophisticated instruments has so far succeeded only in producing pictures of dubious authenticity. That the nature and dimensions of this phenomenon are so uncertain is perhaps the reason why the hunters are so many and their approaches so various. Accordingly, it is necessary to map the main historical development of reader-response criticism and, second, to outline the theoretical bases which its advocates share, before going on to consider how this perspective - whose concepts have been formulated largely in the area of adult literary experience - has been taken up by researchers interested in young readers and their books.


A shift of critical perspective


In the 1950s the criticism of literature was in a relatively stable state. In The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), M. H. Abrams was confidently able to describe ‘the total situation’ of the work of art as one with the text at the centre with the three elements of the author, the reader and the signified world ranged like satellites around it. What has happened since has destabilised this model. In particular, reader-response critics have argued that it is readers who make meaning by the activities they perform on texts; they see the reader in the centre and thus the privileged position of the work of art is undermined and individual ‘readings’ become the focus of attention. This is not to say that the emphasis upon reading and response which emerged in the 1960s was entirely new. It had been initiated famously by I. A. Richards forty years earlier; but Richards’s (1924, 1929) seminal work, with its twin concerns of pedagogy and criticism, influenced subsequent developments in criticism in two contrary ways. For, in one sense, Richards privileged the text, and the American New Critics, particularly, seized upon the evidence of Practical Criticism to insist that close analysis of the words on the page was the principal job of critic and teacher. Yet, in another sense, Richards privileged the reader; and subsequently, modern reader-response criticism has developed to give the reader freedoms that infuriate text- oriented critics. Hence, Stanley Fish writes: ‘Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems: they make them’ (Fish 1980: 327). Or, even more provocatively: ‘It is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description’ (152). As Laurence Lerner (1983: 6) has pointed out, perhaps the most important division in contemporary literary studies is between those who see literature as a more or less self- contained system, and those who see it as interacting with real, extra-literary experience (that of the author, or of the reader or the social reality of the author’s or the reader’s world). Reader-response critics clearly fall within this second category.

Reader-response criticism is difficult to map because of its diversity, especially in two respects: first, there are several important figures whose work stands outside the normal boundaries of the term; and second, there is overlap but not identity in the relationship between German ‘reception theory’ and Anglo-American reader-response criticism. On the first issue, two highly influential writers, D. W. Harding and Louise Rosenblatt, began publishing work in the 1930s which was ahead of its time (for example, Harding 1937; Rosenblatt 1938/1970) and their explorations of the psychological and affective aspects of literary experience only really began to have an impact upon educational thinking (and hence upon children’s experiences of poems and stories in school) when the educational and literary theorists began to rehabilitate the reader in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequently, Harding’s paper on ‘Psychological Approaches in the Reading of Fiction’ (1962) and Rosenblatt’s reissued Literature as Exploration (1938/1970) have been widely regarded as two of the basic texts in this area.

It is an indication of the diversity and loose relationships which characterise response-oriented approaches to literature that Harding and Rosenblatt are reduced to complimentary footnotes in the standard introductions to reader-response criticism (Tompkins 1980: xxvi; Suleiman and Crosman 1980: 45; Freund 1987: 158), and that writers in the German and Anglo-American traditions have, with the notable exception of Iser, little contact with or apparent influence upon one another. In a thorough account of German reception theory, Holub (1984) comments upon this divide and provides an excellent analysis of Iser’s work to complement that of Freund (1987), whose book summarises the Anglo-American tradition.

The development of reader-response writings since the 1960s has steadily forged a new relationship between the act of reading and the act of teaching literature which, as is illustrated later, has significant consequences for the way the relationship between young readers and their books is conceptualised. Prior to this time, during the 1940s and 1950s, the reader was hidden from view as the critical landscape was dominated by the American New Criticism, whose adherents took a determinedly anti-reader stance to the extent that, despite a concern for ‘close reading’, the major statement of New Criticism views – Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949) - makes no mention of the reader and includes only two brief references to ‘reading’. Subsequently, the development of reader-response studies has seen the momentum shift periodically from literary theory to educational enquiry and practice almost decade by decade.

The 1960s were dominated by education, with the most influential work published by the National Council of Teachers of English (Squire 1964; Purves and Rippere 1968), culminating in two surveys, one English and the other American (D’Arcy 1973; Purves and Beach 1972). The 1970s saw the full bloom of reader-response theorising by literary critics of whom Holland (1975), Culler (1975), Iser (1978) and Fish (1980) were perhaps the most notable figures, all of whom were well represented in the two compilations of papers that stand as a summary of work in this area at the end of the decade (Suleiman and Crosman 1980; Tompkins 1980). During the 1980s the emphasis moved back to education, where the main concern was to translate what had become known about response - both from literary theory and from classroom enquiry - into principles of good practice. Protherough (1983), Cooper (1985a), Benton and Fox (1985), Scholes (1985), Corcoran and Evans (1987), Benton et al. (1988), Dias and Hayhoe (1988), Hayhoe and Parker (1990), Benton (1992a), Many and Cox (1992) have all, in their different ways, considered the implications for practice of a philosophy of literature and learning based upon reader-response principles. In Britain, one of the more heartening results of this development was that the importance of the reader’s response to literature was fully acknowledged in the new National Curriculum as embodied in the Cox Report (1989) and in the official documents that ensued. Such has been what one standard book on modern literary theory calls ‘the vertiginous rise of reader-response criticism’ (Jefferson and Robey 1986: 142) that its authors see it as threatening to engulf all other approaches.

What are the theoretical bases that such writers share? Reader-response criticism is a broad church, as a reading of the various overview books demonstrates (Tompkins 1980; Suleiman and Crosman 1980; Freund 1987). None the less, a number of principles can be said to characterise this critical stance. First is the rejection of the notorious ‘affective fallacy’. In describing the ‘fallacy’ as ‘a confusion of the poem and its results’, and in dismissing as mere ‘impressionism and relativism’ any critical judgements based on the psychological effects of literature, Wimsatt and Beardsley (1954/1970) had left no space for the reader to inhabit. They ignored the act of reading. New Criticism, it could be said, invented ‘the assumed reader’; by contrast, reader-response criticism deals with real and implied readers. Iser, Holland, Bleich and Fish operate from a philosophical basis that displaces the notion of an autonomous text to be examined in and on its own terms from the centre of critical discussion and substitutes the reader’s recreation of that text. Reading is not the discovering of meaning (like some sort of archaeological ‘dig’) but the creation of it. The purpose of rehearsing this familiar history is its importance for children’s reading. The central concerns of response-oriented approaches focus upon

1 what constitutes the source of literary meaning; and

2 the nature of the interpretative process that creates it.

Both issues are fundamental to how young readers read, both in and out of school.

The works of Iser on fiction and Rosenblatt on poetry, despite some criticism that Iser has attracted on theoretical grounds, have none the less had greater influence upon the actual teaching of literature and our understanding of children as readers than those of any other theoretical writers. No doubt this is because they avoid what Frank Kermode calls ‘free-floating theory’ and concentrate, in Iser’s words, on ‘an analysis of what actually happens when one is reading’ (Iser 1978: 19). Iser’s theory of aesthetic response (1978) and Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of the literary work (1978, 1985) have helped change the culture of the classroom to one which operates on the principle that the text cannot be said to have a meaningful existence outside the relationship between itself and its reader(s). This transfer of power represents a sea-change in critical emphasis and in pedagogical practice from the assumptions most critics and teachers held even a generation ago. Yet it is evolutionary change, not sudden revolution - a progressive rethinking of the way readers create literary experiences for themselves with poems and stories. In fact, reader-response is the evolutionary successor to Leavisite liberal humanism. It is perceived - within the area of literature teaching - as providing a framework of now familiar ideas which are widely accepted and to which other lines of critical activity often make reference: the plurality of meanings within a literary work; the creative participation of the reader; the acknowledgement that the reader is not a tabula rasa but brings idiosyncratic knowledge and personal style to the act of reading; and the awareness that interpretation is socially, historically and culturally formed. All these ideas are ones that have had a sharp impact upon the study of texts and upon research into young readers’ reading in the field of children’s literature.