02 October 2009

MCT: Stanley Fish

I’ve started looking at the chapters in Modern Criticism and Theory, the key text book for the Modern Literary Theory syllabus, and turned to the section on Stanley Fish. He’s a representative of “reader-response” criticism – an approach I hadn’t come across before (which is why I read it).

The text here is “Interpreting the Variorum”. Not really a helpful title, but it is based on close examination of some poems by Milton, and was first published when the Variorum was published. In that book, Fish sees critics arguing over close interpretation of Milton’s texts, based on a formalist approach, and sharing the assumption that the poem contains a meaning, which the reader/critic can more or less successfully extract.

His view is that the reader actually creates the text, and his detailed analysis of the Sonnet 20 (“Lawrence of virtuous father virtuous son”) shows how the readers expectations shift as the poem unfolds, but also that the poem itself seems to be refusing to give a clear meaning. The last two lines are:

He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

and the debate has always been about the interpretation of the word spare. Does it mean avoid or spare the time? (I remember briefly discussing this with a tutor back at Cambridge.) He says that what ever it means, the closing phrase (not unwise) throws the whole question back into doubt anyway.

The second sonnet under discussion is “Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints”, where he closely analyses the way the expectations of the reader are built, then satisfied or baffled, and the sense therefore changes as the poem progresses. He seems to focus particularly on the poem as having a duration – not being a single event, but a stream.

This is good, but I can’t help thinking it is actually very similar to formalist textual analysis. It is the way the words are chosen and arranged that enables the reader to construct their meaning.

He goes on to say that the reader creates an intention, and further to say that the reader (only) defines what the poem is: so it is the reader (with the benefit of prior knowledge) who decides that line-ends are significant places in 17th century sonnets; it is the reader who defines what is and isn’t a poem at all.

In the final part of the essay, Fish posits interpretive communities to account for the fact that many readers have very similar readings. This seems reasonable – and his description of these communities as multiple, overlapping, and mutable seems entirely right. We read Milton in a different way today from the Victorians, for example. But poets and writers are themselves part of interpretive communities, aren’t they. And what they write is therefore affected by them. Milton wrote in a way that to some extent complied with the expectations of the 17th century, so his poems are particularly marked by that community. They aren’t completely rebuilt by each new age’s reading.

But it’s interesting that Fish is in a broadly anglo-saxon tradition. This kind of negation of the priority of the text is quite French, I think, but even so I think he takes it too far. Anyway, it’s a start. I may have a crack at Helene Cixous next. She looks engagingly batty.

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