Reader Reaction criticism is a basic term that describes different methods of modern criticism and literary theory that focuses on the responses of readers and their reactions to the literary text. It also, in M.H Abrams’ words, “does not designate any one vital theory, however a focus on the process of checking out a literary text that is shared by numerous of the critical modes”( 268 ). Reader Action criticism is explained as a group of methods to comprehending literature that explicitly emphasize the reader’s role in developing the suggesting an experience of a literary work.
It refers to a group of critics who study, not a literary work, however readers or audiences reacting to that literary work. It has no single beginning point. They seriously challenge the dominancy of the text-oriented theories such as New Criticism and Formalism.
Reader Action theory holds that the reader is an essential third part in the author-text-reader relationship that makes up the literary work.
The relationship between readers and text is highly evaluated. The text does not exist without a reader; they are complementary to each other. A text resting on a shelf does nothing. It does not come alive till the reader conceives it. Reader Action criticism includes various methods or types. Of theses types is the ‘Subjectivist’ Reader Response criticism, which welcomes critics such as David Bleich, Norman Holland, who are my focus in this paper, and Robert Crossman.
Those critics view the reader’s action not as one directed by text however as one encouraged by a deep-seated, individual psychological needs.
They also are called ‘Lone wolves’. As they believe that the reader’s action is guided by his mental requirements, therefore a few of them, like Norman Holland, have a psychoanalytic view of that action. In the psychoanalytic view the reader responses to the literary work in a highly individual way. The genuine significance of the text is the significance developed by the person’s mind.
Lawrence Shaffer defines Psychoanalytic Criticism as “an approach to literary criticism, influenced by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which views a literary work as an expression of the unconscious- of the individual psyche of its author or of the collective unconscious of a society or of the whole human race” (44). Reader Response critics have applied the psychoanalytical view to their analysis of the experience of reading a work. Namely; they focus on the psyche of the reader. Prominent among those who applied the psychoanalytical view is the American critic Norman Holland. Born in Manhattan in1927, Holland is an American literary critic and theorist who has focused on human responses to literature, film, and other arts. He is known for his work in Psychoanalytic criticism and Reader Response criticism.
Holland began his Psychoanalytic writings with Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (1966). In which he made a survey of what psychoanalytic writers has said about Shakespeare. He urged psychoanalytic critics to study real people, the audience and readers of literature, rather than imaginary characters. His contribution to Reader Response criticism was great. He has written about” the way self (reader) interacts with world (text) in four books: The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968), Poems in Persons (1973), 5 Readers Reading (1979), and Laughing: A Psychology of Humor (1982)” (Berg 266).
According to Holland there are three explanation-models in Reader Response Theory. First, ‘text-active’ model, in which “the text defines the response”. The second model he calls “reader-active”, in which readers create meanings, and undergo the reading experience by exploring the text and all its items. “Word forms, word meanings, syntax, grammar, on up to complex individual ideas about character, plot, genre, themes, or values”(Holland). Thus the reader explores and interprets the text.
Most who pioneered this view like Holland are Americans such as David Bleich, Stanley Fish, and Louise Rosenblatt. The third model is a compromise, and Holland calls it ‘bi-active’, in which the text causes part of the response and the reader the rest. Holland thinks that a ‘reader-active’ model is right. He believes that it explains likeness and difference in reading. “Similarities come from similar hypotheses formed by gender, class, education, race, age, or ‘interpretive community'” (Holland). While the difference come from differing hypotheses that result from individual beliefs, opinions and values, i.e. one’s ‘identity’. Holland considers a ‘test-active’ model is wrong, and therefore a ‘bi-active’ model is also wrong as it is half wrong and consequently all wrong.
Holland suggests that “when we interpret a text, we unconsciously ” react to our identity themes. To defend ourselves against our ” fears and wishes, we transform the work in order to relieve psychic pressures” (Shaffer 48). Literature allows us to recreate our identities and to know ourselves as Holland deduced after the ‘Delphi seminar’, in which he worked at the State University of New York at Buffalo with other critics such as Robert Rogers, David Willbern and others.
The ‘ Delphi seminar’ was designed to get students know themselves. The reader’s re-creation of his identity could happen when he transact with the text in four ways: “defense, expectation, fantasy, and transformation, which Holland reduces to the acronym ‘DEFT’ ” (Newton, Interpreting Text 144). Defenses are ways of copying with inner and outer reality, particularly conflicts between different psychic agencies and reality. Holland thinks that we defend in many ways; we repress our fears and our painful thoughts or feelings, we deny sensory evidence or we isolate one emotion or idea from another. Expectations are our fears and wishes.Fantacies is what the individual puts out from himself into the outside world.
In the ‘Delphi seminar’ Holland and the rest of critics “help[ed] students discover how they each bring a personal style (identity) to reading, writing, learning, and teaching” (Newton, Twentieth-Century 208). The seminar discussed the texts and also their associations, but focused on the associations. Students mastered the subject matter, and also saw how people re-create or develop a personal ‘identity’. Each student had great insight to himself, and his characteristic ways with text and people. Holland thinks that ” just as the existence of a child constitutes the existence of a mother and the existence of a mother constitutes the existence of a child, so, in identity theory, all selves and objects constitute one another” (Newton, Twentieth-Century 208). So, I think the existence of a text constitutes the existence of a reader and vice versa, and the understanding of the text constitutes an understanding of self as well.
In The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968), Holland was interested in the fact that texts embody fantasies. Later on, his thinking about texts reversed and he inferred that it is the reader who makes fantasies which [s]he transforms or projects onto the literary text. “People internalize differently because they internalize … according to a core identity theme” (Berg 267). In Poems in Persons (1973), Holland explains that readers create the text, and he also questions the objectivity of the text. In this book Holland suggests that a poem “is nothing but specks of carbon black on dried wood pulp”, and suggests that these specks have nothing to do with people, yet “people who do thing to these specks” (Berg 267).
When we “introject literary work we create in ourselves a psychological transformation”, where we feel as if it were within the text or the work yet it is not. This takes us to Holland’s ‘transactional’ model in which the reader initiates and creates the response. Holland saw that reading is a ‘transactional’ process in which the reader and the text mesh together. And it is a “personal transaction of the reader with the text in which there is no fundamental division between the text’s role and the reader’s role” (Newton, Interpreting Text 142), so the roles of the text dovetails with that of the reader.
Holland has hired a group of students for an experiment. They read short stories and discussed them with him in interviews in which he asked questions and elicited associations. Their responses showed a more variety than he could explain. “Different readers might interpret a poem or a story differently at the level of meaning, morals, or aesthetic value. The text itself, however, was a fixed entity that elicited fairly fixed responses” (Holland). He regards the text as an objective entity and has no role in the process of interpretation.
But in his next book 5 Readers Reading (1979) he gives more evidence of the subjective creation of the reader. He tried his model on actual readers. Five readers read ‘A Rose for Emily’ by Faulkner, and in the process of reading they create very different stories, “stories which inevitably reflect the identity themes of their creators” (Berg 267). When he listened to their understandings of a given character or event or phrase, he found them invariably different. Their emotional responses were diverse. So, the idea that there is a fixed or appropriate response was an illusion.
Holland deduces that fantasies, structures, and forms do not exist in a literary work as he previously conceived, but they exist in the individual reader’s re-creation of the text. Holland thinks that “each person reads differently, and this difference stems from personality” (Newton, Twentieth-Century 204). Holland found that he could understand the reader’s differing responses by reading their identities. And he could explain their different reactions to the poem or short story by looking to their identity themes, as their patters of defences, expectations, fantasies, and transformations will help. The transformational model of his Dynamics was correct, but it was the reader who does the transformation and not the text. The text was only a raw material. So Holland arrives at the deduction that people who have fantasies after his previous assumption that text embody fantasies. Holland’s thinking about texts reversed after David Bleich’s prodding who insisted that texts do not have fantasies, people do.
To understand a literary work, Holland claims that you should perceive it through the lens of some human perception, either your own experience, or someone else, or even a critic’s analysis of the work. These perceptions vary from individual to individual, from community to community, and from culture to culture. He thinks that one cannot perceive the raw, naked text, as he can only perceive it through some one else’s process of perception. Thus Holland claims that “if readers’ free responses to texts are collected they [will] have virtually nothing in common” (Newton, Interpreting Text 143).
According to Holland the relation between the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ is undifferentiated and can not be separated. For there is a ‘transactional’ process of interpretation where the roles of the reader and the text are intertwined, and the line dividing them blurs and dissolves. He thinks that readers should accept interpretation as a ‘transaction’ between the reader’s unique ‘identity’ and the text. Holland, however, does not want to take the side of the objective or that of the subjective, yet he is looking for a vanishing point between them, and wants to make both text and reader meet at an intersection of interpretation.
David Bleich (1936-) is a Jewish critic, a son of a rabbi, a professor of Talmud, and a Subjectivist Reader Response critic. In Subjective Reader Response, the text is subordinated to the individual reader. The subject becomes the individual reader as he reacts to the text and reveals himself in the act of reading. For example, when a reader is addressed with a story of a father who ignores his child, then the intensity of that reader’s reaction may lay it his/her conflicted relation with his own father. Subjective criticism has been attacked as being too relativistic. Defenders of this approach point out that literature must work on a personal, emotional level to move us powerfully.
David Bleich takes an approach differs from Holland’s. H is primary concern in his book Readings and Feelings is pedagogy rather than psychology. He thinks that “reading is a wholly subjective process”(Rabinowitz 86), and that the different or competing interpretation can be negotiated and settled. He examines the ways in which meanings or interpretations are constructed in a class room community, “with particular emphasis on the ways in which a group can negotiate among competing interpretations”(86).
In Readings and Feelings, Bleich presents” a detailed account of his teaching techniques during a typical semester”(Berg 269). That’s why he is concerned with pedagogy and not psychology. He introduces himself to his class and discusses the way he wants his students to look at literature. The first preliminary sessions were designed to help students be acquainted with their subjective feelings, and how to depict them. Even the “idiosyncratic personal responses” of the students are accepted and discussed sympathetically.
With the students Bleich plunges into different literary genres including poetry, short story, and novel. Yet before discussing these genres, “Bleich wants his students to be as personal as possible when they discuss poetry. He wants their affective responses, their free associations, any anecdotal material that occurs to them” (Berg 269).
Bleich focuses on questions such as what is “the most important word, the most important passage, or the most important aspect of a story” (269). Thus, he believes that his students move from the personal to the interpersonal and then to the social. The cause of these movements is not “the change in genre…; but the tenor of the questions Bleich asks”(269) is what guides the movement.
Shaffer says that “In Subjective Criticism (1978), Bleich assumes that ‘each person’s most urgent motivations are to understand himself’ and that all ‘objective’ interpretations are derived ultimately from subjective responses” (Shaffer 48).
Like Norman Holland, Bleich focuses on the subconscious responses of the readers to the text, including his “emotional responses, our infantile, adolescent, or simply ‘gut’ responses” (Berg 268). According to Bleich the interpretation of texts or the personal responses to texts are in a way or another motivated. Namely; we are motivated by certain things to make a certain interpretation or response to a literary work in particular or a work of art in general. Our interpretations are a motivated activities, and “any act of interpretation, or meaning-conferring activity is motivated, and…it is important for us to understand the motives behind our interpretations”(270).
Bleich suggests that only way to figure out and determine these motivations behind our interpretations of texts is to “took our subjective responses to texts …where each reader’s response receives the same respect”(270). A sheer desire to self-understanding and self-knowledge is what motivates us as readers. We interpret in order to gain “some kind of knowledge which will resolve some difficulty”, or we do it to “explain something that was puzzling us”(270).
Bleich goes further and says that “if a certain set or school of interpretation prevails; it is not because it is closer to an objective truth about art”(Newton, Twentieth-Century 234). If a community of students agreed upon certain interpretation to a given text, then “the standard truth…can only devolve upon the community of students”(234). So, when students come up with a consensus reading of a certain text, and agree unanimously upon its interpretation, then their subjective feeling and values are the same. Thus the literary text “must come under the control of subjectivity; either an individual’s subjectivity or the collective subjectivity of a group”(233).
The group comes up with a consensus after discussing their personal responses with each other and negotiates ideas and individual responses. This idea of negotiation that Bleich introduces helps the group weighs and discusses each one’s own responses “in order to come to a group decision”(Berg 271). Then Bleich says that” critics and their audiences assume interpretive knowledge to be…as objective as formulaic knowledge”(Newton 232). The assumption of the objectivity of a text is almost “a game played by critics (232). Critics know the fallacy of the objectivity of a text, and believe in critical pluralism, namely; allowing multiple interpretations of the same work.
Bleich does not ignore or deny the objectivity of the text or a work of literature. But text is an object that is different from other objects as it is a ‘symbolic’ object. A text is not just a group o words written in ink on a sheet of paper. It, unlike other objects, has no function in its material existence. For example, an apple is an object that its existence does not depend on whether someone eats it or sees it, however, a text’s or a book’s existence “does depend on whether someone writes it and reads it” (Newton 233).
The work of literature is a response to the author’s life experience, and the interpretation of the reader the response to his reading experience. The reader’s subjective interpretation creates an understanding to the text. Through this transaction between the reader and the text, I think we can come across with an understanding of literature and of people as well. This artistic transaction helps to blur and dissolve the dividing line between the subjective and objective. It is idle as Bleich found “to imagine that we can avoid the entanglements of subjective reactions and motives”(Newton, Twentieth-Century 235). As our motive in our subjective interpretations is our desire to self-knowledge and self-understanding, then the study of ourselves and the study of the literary work are ultimately a single enterprise.
Though Holland and Bleich are Individualist Reader Response critics, they have different views in particular issues. Norman Holland thinks that in order to understand a student’s or a reader’s interpretation of a text he should examine his psyche and uncover his ‘identity theme’. Bleich takes a different position. He is concerned with pedagogy rather that psychology, therefore he examines the ways in which meanings are constructed, and how a group of readers could negotiate interpretations.
Holland suggests that the reader’s role is intermingling with that of the text. The reader re-creates the text influenced by his/her subjective responses and introjects his/her fantasies on the literary work. Through this transaction with the text we re-create our identities, and our identity themes provide individual differences in interpretations, and the result is a wide array of interpretations that allow us to explore many responses. Bleich denies Holland’s ‘identity theme’. He thinks that interpretations are not an outcome of our differing identity themes, but they are a result of our motives, feelings, and preoccupations.
Holland’s Delphi seminar helped students or readers know their selves and discover that each one of them can bring a personal style (identity) to reading. So, the issue of self-discovery or self-knowledge is agreed upon by Holland and Bleich as well, however their ways of achieving it differ.
Holland does not side with either the subjective or the objective split, yet he is looking for a vanishing point between them. In his Dynamics he used to consider the text as an objective reality, or a raw material. Yet the role of the reader combines that of the text in a transactional process of reading and interpretation. Thus there is no fundamental division between the roles of both the reader and the text, they dovetail with each other. For Bleich, the text is a ‘symbolic object’ that has no function in its material existence. The existence of text depends on whether someone writes it or reads it. So, the existence of the text and the existence of the reader is interdependent.
Holland holds the same view when he says that the existence of a mother constitutes the existence of a child and vice versa, also the existence of selves constitutes the existence of objects. Thereby, the dividing line between the objective and subjective blurs and dissolves. This constitutes that we cannot ignore the entanglements of subjective reactions and motives to the objective text or to be accurate, the text which is a ‘symbolic’ object.
Both critics agree on the idea of the transactional process of reading, whether by Holland’s identity themes which help reader interpret the text and understand himself, or by Bleich’s desire to self-knowledge that motivates reader to interpret the text and understand it. Both apply a transaction that leads to an understanding and interpretation of a text along with the reader’s own self. This aim of gaining knowledge and this study of ourselves and of art are ultimately a single enterprise.
I think that Holland does not agree that there could be a consensus interpretation which is agreed upon by a group of readers. He thinks that each reader has his own personality or identity theme, and thereby interpretations will be multiple and diverse. While Bleich’s idea of ‘negotiation’ among readers can lead to a unanimous decision about the meaning of the literary work. The negotiation among readers enable them to express their personal feelings freely and depict their responses without the fear of being rejected. For instance, in David Bleich’s class, there is a democracy. Each reader’s response receives the same respect, and there is no underestimation of their idiosyncrasies. This helped them develop from the personal to the interpersonal and then to the social.
While in Holland’s view, there can be no unanimous interpretation of a given work of art. For each reader is influenced by his/her identity theme. Also, “Holland’s subjects report their responses in terms of ‘the clichï¿½s of the various subcultures and cultural discourses work to constitute the consciousness of American college students’…. [Holland concludes that not] the individuality of his students but…the way their ‘individuality’ is in fact a’ product’ of their cultural situation”(Rabinowitz 86).
In conclusion, “Holland and Bleich did not [in a way or another] negotiate a consensus; rather, by some irritated leap, Holland becomes convinced of what Bleich had to tell him”(Berg 271).