The Author, the Text, and the Reader

a study of reader-response theories, and some views on how the objectivity of the literary text is or is not distinguished from the subjectivity of the reader's response

by Clarissa Lee Ai Ling

In the academic study of literature very little attention has been paid to the ordinary reader, the subjective individual who reads a particular text. David S. Miall and Don Kuiken, in their paper The form of reading: Empirical studies of literariness state,

Almost no professional attention is being paid to the ordinary reader, who continues to read for the pleasure of understanding the world of the text rather than for the development of a deconstructive or historicist perspective. The concerns that an ordinary reader seems likely to have about a literary text, such as its style, its narrative structure, or the reader's relation to the author, the impact on the reader's understanding or feelings - such concerns now seem of little interest.

In this paper I should like to study a few kinds of reader and the subjectivity of their responses to the objectivity found within literary texts, quoting some views found within reader-response criticism.


Before I begin, I should like to consider what is meant by the term 'literary text', and what is meant by the objectivity of it. According to Terry Eagleton, [1] the definition of 'literary', as advanced by the Russian formalists, (who included in their ranks are Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Osip Brik, Yury Tynyanov, Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky), is the peculiar use of language. Literature is said to transform and intensify ordinary language, deviating from the everyday colloquial tongue. The literariness of the language spoken could be determined by the texture, rhythm and resonance of the words used. There is a kind of disproportion between the signifier and the signified, by virtue of the abstract excesses of the language, a language that flaunts itself and evokes rich imagery. Eagleton argues that what distinguishes the literary language from other forms of discourse is the way it 'deforms' ordinary languages in various ways.

Under the pressure of literary devices, ordinary language is intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out and turned on its head. [1]

According to Wolfgang Iser, [2] a literary work has two poles; the aesthetic and the artistic. The artistic pole is the author's text, and the aesthetic is the realisation accomplished by the reader. Hence the literary work cannot be considered as the actualisation of, or identical to, the text, but is situated somewhere between the two. Iser speaks of the text as a virtual character that cannot be reduced to the reality of text or to the subjectivity of the reader, and it derives its dynamism from that virtuality. Readers passing through the various perspectives offered by the text relate the different views and patterns to one another, thus setting the work and themselves in action.

Objectivity in literary texts had been discussed since the days of Aristotle, for he originated the literary theory that emphasises the objective features of the text and the authorial intentions revealed by those features. His Poetics analyses the objective features of Greek epics and dramas as means that are more or less appropriate to the full realisation of various literary intentions.

The idea of objectivity in the text is also analysed in the first chapter, Theory before theory of Peter Barry's Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. [3]

1. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. The best way to study the text is to study the words on the page, without any predefined agenda for what one wants to find there.

2. The text will reveal constants, universal truths, about human nature, because human nature itself is constant and unchanging. People are pretty much the same everywhere, in all ages and in all cultures.

3. The text can speak to the inner truths of each of us because our individuality, our "self," is something unique to each of us, something essential to our inner core. This inner essential self can and does transcend all external social forces.

4. What critics do is interpret the text (based largely on the words on the page) so that the reader can get more out of reading the text.

But can readers, each having their own subjective view, reconcile their responses to the grandiose generalisations above?

To begin my discussion using reader-response theory, I should like to start with Stanley Fish's concept of phenomenology. In his books Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost and Self-Consuming artefacts: The Experience of 17th Century Literature (1972), Fish focuses on the reader's experience of reading literature. Fish argues that a work of literature becomes reality for the critic through the act of reading, a process he terms 'reception'. As reading occurs through time, the experience of literature involves a continuous readjustment of perceptions, ideas and evaluations, with the meaning of the work encountered in the experience of it. Literature becomes a process in which its criticism involves the processing of phrases and sentences in a slow sequence of decisions, revisions, anticipations, reversals and recoveries. This view reflects Fish's definition of phenomenology as defined in the preface to his book Surprised by Sin -

Meaning is an event, something that happens not on the page, where we are accustom to look for it, but in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating of the reader-hearer. [4]

This means that however subjective a reader's response is to the text, it is the continuous shaping of the events of the reader's mental process that slowly adjusts the thoughts to finally reach an understanding of the actual meaning of the text. Hence according to Fish's phenomenology theory, what starts out as a subjective process of the reader ends up in the reader achieving the objective of the literary text. According to Fish, the objectivity of the text is no longer distinguishable from the subjective inferences of the reader in the process of reading. To him, meaning and form are co-extensive with the reader's experience, and the phenomenology of time determines the meaning and form of a work.

Fish breaks the traditionalist mode by making the work disappear into the reader's experience. Fish regards the text as a rigorous, authoritative controller of the reader's developing process, with meaning created in the reader by the author as the text develops during the reading process. The kind of reader he is aiming at is the 'informed reader', one who not only possesses a mature grasp of language, but is also able to deal with literary conventions, to make appropriate choices concerning connotations, implications, suggestions etc about the text while reading it. [5] This enables the objectivity of the literary text to be retained throughout the process. This view bears a resemblance to Husserl's idea of phenomenology, when the critic/reader is asked to empty his mind of all pre-conceived ideas and to respond directly to the text, hence discovering in the process, the unique mode of consciousness of the author. Interpretation of the text is possible, as the reader's consciousness melds with the author's, as described by Georges Poulet in his lecture, Interiority and Criticism.

Take a book, and you will find it offering, opening itself. It is the openness of this book that I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled up as in a fortress. It asks for nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it. In short, the extraordinary fact in the case of a book is the falling away of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside. [6]

Poulet goes on to describe the significations grasped by his mind when the object (the book) he holds is no longer a mere object, when it becomes animated. He becomes aware of the consciousness found within the book, the consciousness of the author.

Hans Robert Jauss, an exponent of the reception theory, coins the term 'horizon of expectation' in describing the criteria readers use to judge literary texts. These are the criteria that would help the reader judge between a poem, a drama, an epic or a tragedy. One example is that of judging a poem in accordance to the period in which it was written, for example whether it is a Spenserian love poem or a poem by Pope from the Augustan period. But it does not tell us the true value of the poem. Hence the objectivity of the poem is distinguishable from the subjectivity of the reader's response, because the reception of different groups of readers from different ages and periods would differ. Taking again the example of a poem by Pope; during the second half of the eighteenth century, commentators began to question whether Pope was a poet at all and to suggest that he was a clever versifier who could put prose into rhyming couplets but lacked the imaginative power to create great poetry. Yet today, we appreciate Pope's poems for their wit, complexity, moral insight and renewal of literary tradition. [7] This is because the 'horizon of expectation' only tells us how the work was valued and interpreted when it appeared, but does not establish its full meaning.

According to Jauss, it is equally wrong to say that a work is universal, that its meaning is fixed forever and open to all readers of any period. Hence, there is no single predetermined 'adequate' reception of a given text on which the literary theory needs to focus. Instead, all actual receptions in the past and present are valid, with their particular characteristics becoming the objects of study. Thus historical knowledge is of importance to the reader. This approach contradicts what the phenomenologists have to say about the universability and openness of the text. He goes on to elaborate that a literary work is not an object that could stand by itself, nor is it a monument which reveals its timeless essence in a monologue.

Iser, another major proponent of the German reception theory, who, like Jauss, also draws heavily on the phenomenological hermeneutics of Ingarden and Gadamer, decontextualises and dehistoricises the text and the reader, which means that the reader always reads the text in relation to his or her extra-literary norms, values and experiences. This brings forth the concept of 'concretization' in a text where the text is 'completed' in reading, meaning that the 'gaps' in the text are said to be 'filled' by the reader in the act of reading or producing the 'virtual' work referred to earlier. While Iser does not set the boundaries of the text's determinacy and the reader's filling of the 'gaps', the phenomenological aspect of his work calls for the reader's experience to be the central concept. Unlike Jauss, Iser's subjectivity of the reader's response becomes less distinguishable from the objectivity of the text. [8]

These views bring certain questions to mind. Whose opinion are we to accept? Would the opinion of the first readers of the text be questionable? (This question has actually been answered in cases where certain authors were not accepted by their peers but became regarded as literary greats posthumously). Should we work on the assumption of collective acquiescence? We could try using hermeneutics to find the answer.

Husserl thought of meaning as the 'intentional object'. By this he meant that it was neither reducible to the psychological acts of a speaker or listener, nor completely independent of the mental process. Meaning is not as objective as a table is, but neither is it simply subjective. It is an 'ideal' object that can be expressed in a number of different ways but retain its meaning. Hence, it is considered that the meaning of the literary work is fixed (or objective in its meaning, in accordance with the definition above), identical in every sense to the mental object the author had in mind, or 'intended', at the time of writing.

A slightly different position is taken up by the American hermeneuticist, E.D. Hirsch Jr., whose work Validity in Interpretation is indebted to Husserlian phenomenology. Hirsch does not see the author's intended meaning as his mental process at the time of writing, for that would nullify any attempt to determine the objective meaning of the text. By not getting into the consciousness of the author, your interpretation of the work is not influenced by it. One might take the view that this differs somewhat from the phenomenology theory of Fish, because the authorial intention or the consciousness is rendered invalid within Husserlian phenomenology. He also speaks of the 'intrinsic genre', where the sense of the whole is the means by which an interpreter could understand the text. This relates closely to the concept of horizon, which sets the boundaries of the text. Yet it goes further to specify that the genre is merely a rough guide to the meaning of the text, reached in part through educated guesses. Hence one can say that the subjectivity of the reader is indistinguishable from the objectivity of the text. This is because Hirsch's author-centred theory of meaning, in taking this rather strict sense of intention, considers verbal meaning as the will of the author. This allows for limitless 'intentional acts', which in the end would reach the same conclusion (or meaning).

Hirsch takes a referential view of the theory of meaning. He defines verbal meaning as 'a willed type'. Hence the idea of meaning is initiated personally, leaving the text to not exist outside the interpretation of the reader. An important facet of Hirsch's author-centred theory of meaning is his differentiation between meaning and significance. He found that these two have often been mistaken for each other, which led to the banishment of the author as the ultimate source of meaning for the text. When the disciples of the new hermeneutic refer to the meaning of the text changing for the author, they are actually referring to his change in 'response' to the text rather than some idea of a revising of his text. This clearly points to a difference between 'response' and meaning. This boils down to the need to differentiate between the meaning (what the text on the page represents) and significance (the relationship of meaning and almost anything else). [9] A change of significance does not lead to the change in meaning.

But the objections that some critics (and I myself) have are the fact that not all authors of literary texts are known (take Beowulf for instance). The second objection to this theory is as quoted by Pogemiller, writing of Hirsch;

Two possibilities are available as candidates for what makes up radical historicism: time and individual perspective. If time is the key ingredient, then the realisation must be made that each new moment brings with it a new perspective and new language, which will have to be accounted for with regards to interpretation. Given the argument by radical historicists that only the present texts are available for interpretation, this view of time must be ruled out. No text would be available 'in the present'. If individual perspective is the key, then historicist dogma reduces to simple psychologism: men in general, being different from one another, cannot understand the meanings of one another.

Heidegger also rejects the objectivity of the reader for he argues that the distinctiveness of human existence is that of 'givenness': our consciousness projects things into the world, and at the same time receives the thing from the world. We can never adopt an attitude of detached contemplation, and this is the facet of the theory that is adopted by Gadamer in Truth and Method. He says that the linguistic nature of all interpretation includes the possibility of a relationship with others. There can be no speech that binds the speaker and the person spoken to. Hence when understanding another person, we assimilate the point into our lives, living as much as possible in that person's contexts and symbols. Hence history poses no problems for interpretation. The interpreter interprets from within history with the gap filled by the 'continuity of custom and tradition, which determine the patterns of thought and language of the contemporary culture'. [10] Hence a bridge is built between history and interpretation.

Pogemiller writes,

Within his new approach to the gap problem, Gadamer takes the traditional position of the new hermeneutic in combining interpretation, understanding and application into one entity. He writes: "understanding always involves something like the application of the text to be understood to the present situation of the interpreter. . . . [we must regard] not only understanding and interpretation, but also application as comprising one unified process."

So the objectivity of the text is linked to the response of the reader, if we are to accept the implications of Gadamer's view.

In the introductory page of her book, Elizabeth Wright [11] writes of psychoanalytic criticism as contributing to the creative process, both before and within the language, hence leaving implications to aesthetics. To illustrate the idea in psychoanalytic theory that reading might be another form of rewriting the text by the reader (the virtual dominion created by the reader to temporarily store his/her perceptions and impressions), hence rendering the objectivity of the text to the subjectivity of the reader, I would like to quote Wright on Freud:

Freud detects three particular analogies between this writing apparatus and the perceptual apparatus, to which Derrida draws attention: (1) the celluloid corresponds to the protection that the psyche institutes for itself against an excess of stimuli from without; (2) the fact that the paper is re-usable represents the endless capacity of the perceptual system for responding to the sensory stimuli without becoming overloaded in any way; (3) the impressions that actually remain in the underlying wax-'legible in suitable lights', as Freud puts it (XIX, p. 230)- stand for unconscious traces which remain hidden in the unconscious. Derrida fixes upon the writing metaphor, especially through the third analogy, which brings out the continuous interaction of those hidden traces with the succeeding script. The unconscious is thus active at complex and profound levels as the marks of repression are inscribed. Blurrings and obliterations take place beneath the concealing paper. Derrida sees the possibility of the unconscious as thus active in all experience with the signifiers of the repressive order, which is only a form of rewriting, becoming 'legible in certain lights' (Wright p.136).

The seductiveness of a text involves it being slowly unveiled to the reader who is trying to grasp the textual and contextual meaning. Wright differentiates between 'structural' and 'post-structural' psychoanalytic theory by putting the former in the context of the reader of both literary and life texts, determined by a history that precedes the reader. So it is the reader who is transformed. This would mean that the objectivity of the text remains and becomes distinguishable from the reader. In the latter analysis, the reader engages in a dialectical play that moves the text to a new meaning, undermining the old power and exposing the text as being self-contradictory. She summarises the differences as being non-differentiable since -

the reader / writer distinction is no longer valid because making sense of the sign system implicates both: each is caught in a net of signs, is up against language. Reading, writing and criticism are part of a continuum whereby readers write in the act of reading and writers are shown to read in the act of writing. [11 p.122-123]

As to how the author impacts the consciousness of the reader through the use of narrative techniques, Iser proposes that the structures of the literary text are fixed but the lines joining them are variable. An author might try to influence the reader's imagination, but none worth their salt would lay the whole text bare before the reader, since it is by activating the imagination of the reader that the author can hope to involve him. [12]

David Bleich found fault with Hirsch's argument that when a reader shares the meaning of the words with the author, this makes the meaning of the words in the text objective and determinate. He also notes Hirsch's argument that literary forms and conventions also create meaning, which to him is a mere triviality in interpretation since it does not amount to a dispute. To Bleich, Hirsch's argument fails when there is verbal ambiguity. [13] Bleich says;

By deciding on a purpose in common and in advance, and by then pursuing this purpose in dialectic with the response statement, the knowledge developed is understood as one sort among many likely interests of each reader. The ethical precepts formulated from the dialectic between the reading experience and one's own life experience represent genuine, usable, consequential knowledge, as opposed to ritual locutions or sanctimonious declarations of having discovered the true moral purpose of the author. [Bleich p.158]

Hence, Bleich is inadvertently saying that there is no existing standard of right and wrong, with the reader determining the interpretation of the text most suitable to his or her needs. In this case, there is no clear distinction between the objectivity of the text and the subjectivity of the reader.

So what is the text? Iser feels that the text only takes on life if it is realised. This is another way of stating Poulet's position. So, if the text is in an object which the subject creates, there is no way one can differentiate the text from the reader. The paradoxical situation that we are encountering now is that there exist no 'text' before there is a reader.

This argument is further complicated by the idea of the implied reader being of a specific kind, an informed one, who can fill in 'textual gaps'. Would that mean that the objectivity of the author (and the text) no longer exists? According to most of the reader-response theories, they do not, except in the realm of the imaginary, until they achieve Konkretisation, to quote Ingarden. [14] But there exists also an ambivalent attitude of some theorists who initially tried to draw the line between text and reader, but eventually reached the similar conclusion of the text not being distinguishable from the reader. Perhaps the text would remain only a mere hypothesis. In which case, how would one critique the 'inspired text', such as the Koran or the Bible? The question remains as yet unanswered by the reader-response theorists.

1. Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory, 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996, p.3
2. Readers and Reading. Ed. Bennet, Andrew. Longman Publishing, New York, 1995, p.20-21
3. Barry, Peter. Chapter One, "Theory Before Theory. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory". Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 1995
4. Bennet p.35-36
5. Bennet p.237
6. The Structuralist Controversy: The Language of Criticism and the Science of man. Ed. Macksey, Richard et. al. John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1970. p.57
7. Selden, Raman & Widdowson, Peter. Contemporary Literary Theory. 3rd ed. University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky, 1993. p.53.
8. Selden and Widdowson. p.55
9. Pogemiller, Dwight. Hermeneutics and Epistemology: Hirsch's Author Centered Meaning, Radical Historicism and Gadamer's Truth and Method Premise. vol. 2, no. 8, Sept 27, 1995 p.10
10. Pogemiller p.10
11. Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice. Methuen: London, 1986, p.5
12. Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1974, p. 285
13. Bleich, David. Subjective Criticism. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1978, p.95
14. Iser p.274.

Aristotle. Poetics.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995
Bennet, Andrew. Ed. Readers and Reading. New York: Longman Publishing, 1995
Bleich, David. Subjective Criticism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996
Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost
Fish, Stanley. Self-Consuming artefacts: The Experience of 17th Century Literature (1972)
Hirsch, E. D. Jr. Validity in Interpretation
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1974
Macksey, Richard et. al. ed. The structuralist Controversy: The Language of Criticism and the Science of man. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1970
Miall , David S. and Kuiken, Don. The form of reading: Empirical studies of literariness
Pogemiller, Dwight. Hermeneutics and Epistemology: Hirsch's Author Centered Meaning, Radical Historicism and Gadamer's Truth and Method Premise. Verbatim 2.8 (1995): 10
Selden, Raman & Widdowson, Peter. Contemporary Literary Theory. 3rd ed. Kentucky:
University Press of Kentucky, 1993
Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice. London: Methuen, 1986

© Clarissa Lee Ai Ling, October 2002
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