Lynn explains on page 78 that reader-response criticism is closely related to the study of rhetoric (2018). What is rhetoric? How does the comparison to rhetoric help illuminate the reader-response perspective and how it diverges from New Criticism? Do you find this explanation of reader-response helps you understand the theory better? Or does it add to the complexity of the mode for you?
New Criticism as the Old Criticism
Reader-response criticism can be seen as a reaction in part to some problems and limitations perceived in New Criticism. New Criticism did not suddenly fail to function: It remains to this day a popular and effective critical strategy for illuminating the complex unity of certain literary works. But some works seem to respond better than others to New Criticism’s “close reading,” or perhaps we should say some readers seem to respond better to some works than to others. Much of eighteenth-century literature, for instance, has generally not been shown to have the sort of paradoxical language or formal unity that New Critics have found in, say, Donne or Keats. A second problem with New Criticism, at least for some readers, is that the approach seems to find roughly the same thing in whatever work one happens to read, if it is successful: “This work has unified complexity,” “So does this one,” “Yep, this one too.”
Further, if the work is indeed a stable object, about which careful readers can make objective statements, then why hasn’t there been an emerging consensus in criticism? Instead, the history of criticism seems to be one of diversity and change, as successive critics provide innovatively different readings of the same work. Developments in literary criticism seem more like changes of fashion than the evolution of science. Even in the sciences, however, the idea of an objective point of view has been increasingly questioned. Facts, as Thomas Kuhn famously argued, emerge because of a certain system of belief, or paradigm. Scientific revolutions occur not simply when new facts are discovered, but when a new paradigm allows these “facts” to be noticed and accepted.
Such ideas about the conceptual and constructed nature of knowledge, even scientific knowledge, call a fundamental assumption of New Criticism into question. In positing the objective reality of the literary work, New Criticism was arguably emulating the sciences; but in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s mathematics, and much else, it seems clear that the perceiver plays an active role in the making of any meaning and that literary works in particular have a subjective status.
In addition, by striving to show how great works balance and harmonize opposing ideas, New Criticism has seemed to some to encourage the divorce of literature from life and politics, indirectly reinforcing the status quo. By the standards of New Criticism, any literary work that takes a strong position ought somehow to acknowledge the opposing point of view, and criticism ought to point to that complexity and balance. Further, by assuming that literary language is fundamentally different from ordinary language, New Criticism may further tend to support the idea that literary study has little or no practical value but stands apart from real life (a poem should not mean but be, MacLeish says). New Criticism sometimes seems, especially to unsympathetic eyes, like an intellectual exercise.
The perception of these shortcomings of New Criticism—its limited applicability and sameness of results, the questionable assumption of a stable object of inquiry, and the separation of literature from other discourses—no doubt helped open the door for reader-response criticism (and other approaches). But reader-response criticism has its own substantial appeals beyond not being New Criticism, as we shall see.
The Reader Emerges
In 1938, while future New Critics were formulating ideas of the text as a freestanding object, Louise Rosenblatt prophetically called for criticism that involved a “personal sense of literature” (60), “an unselfconscious, spontaneous, and honest reaction” (67). Her Literature as Exploration was far ahead of its day, but by the time Rosenblatt published The Reader, the Text, the Poem in 1978, much of the critical world had caught up with where she was 40 years before. For instance, in 1975 David Bleich championed the creative power of readers in Readings and Feelings, which was followed in 1978 by his Subjective Criticism. Because “the object of observation appears changed by the act of observation,” as Bleich puts it, “knowledge is made by people and not found” (Criticism 17, 18).
This insight leads Bleich to embrace subjectivity. Writing about literature, he believes, should not involve suppressing readers’ individual concerns, anxieties, passions, enthusiasms. “Each person’s most urgent motivations are to understand himself,” Bleich says (Criticism 297), and a response to a literary work always helps us find out something about ourselves. Bleich thus encourages introspection and spontaneity, and he is not at all worried that different readers will see different things in a text. Every act of response, he says, reflects the shifting motivations and perceptions of the reader at the moment. Even the most idiosyncratic response to a text should be shared, in Bleich’s view, and moreover heard sympathetically.
It is easy to imagine that many students have found such an approach liberating and even intoxicating, and that many teachers have contemplated it with horror. In Bleich’s view of criticism “There’s no right or wrong,” as one exasperated teacher said to me; “students can say anything.” But Bleich actually does not imagine that the student’s engagement with literature will end with a purely individual, purely self-oriented response; rather, he expects that students will share their responses, and then through a process of “negotiation,” as he describes it in Subjective Criticism, they will as a community examine together their individual responses, seeking common ground while learning from each person’s unique response. As training to participate in the civil discourse crucial to democracy, this process seems quite empowering.
An especially striking illustration of the benefits of Bleich’s orientation appears in an essay published by Robert Crosman in 1982. Crosman recounts a student’s response to William Faulkner’s famous “A Rose for Emily” that is so eccentric, so obviously “wrong” (if it is possible to be wrong within this approach), that one must begin to wonder if the student really read the story with any attentiveness. The student’s response seems in fact to expose the absurdity of letting students say whatever comes into their heads, for she writes that Emily, the mad recluse who apparently poisons and then sleeps with her suitor, reminds her of her kindly grandmother. Crosman’s student thus ignores the horrible ending of the story, which implies that Emily has recently slept with the much-decayed remains of her murdered lover. Instead, the student writes about the qualities of her own grandmother—“endurance, faith, love”—that she also sees in Emily