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6.3 Focus on Reader-Response Strategies

Reader-response strategies can be categorized, according to Richard Beach in A Teacher’s Introduction to Reader-Response Theories (1993), into five types: textualCritical approach that emphasizes the text itself (relative to other forms of reader-response criticism); the text directs interpretation as the reader directs the text to interpretation., experientialForm of criticism that emphasizes the reader’s reading process over the text; it involves analyzing our subjective responses to literature., psychologicalApproach that explores how we connect to texts on a personal level. Subjective analysis and identity analysis are subcategories of this approach., socialForm of literary criticism that explores how readers’ attitudes toward a text change over time., and culturalType of criticism that focuses on the various personal backgrounds that readers bring to a text and how these backgrounds shape the readers’ interpretations..Richard Beach, A Teacher’s Introduction to Reader-Response Theories (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993). Let’s review those categories.

Textual Reader-Response Strategies

Performing a close reading of a text teaches you to look “closely” at the way a text operates and to glean some meaning from the workings of the text. In other words, your interpretation is primarily directed by the text. Textual reader-response approaches admit to the fact that the text does influence the way readers read and construct meaning. Thus the reader and text interact in the process of formulating a meaning of the text. Imagine a text as a painting in an art gallery: your interpretation of the painting will be based on whether you like it or not, but this reaction will be directed by the painting itself. Or consider a literary text as a musical composition; as a listener, you are moved by the music, but you must relate the music to some experience to make it work emotionally on you. Another metaphor: a text is like an unfinished sculpture; the reader must bring the finished form to the work. Thus to textual reader-response critics, the text directs interpretation as the reader directs the text to interpretation.

Literature as Transaction: Gap Filling and Ghost Chapters

A pioneer in reader-response criticism is Louise Rosenblatt, whose Literature as Exploration (5th ed., 1995) provided an alternative theory to the persistent New Critical approaches that gained such popularity. Rosenblatt contends that literature must become personal for it to have its full impact on the reader;Louise Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration, 5th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995). in fact, New Criticism’s affective fallacy prevents the reader from engaging the text on any personal level. Rosenblatt’s approach, like the New Critical reading methods, provides a classroom strategy; however, whereas the New Critics centered on the literary text, Rosenblatt centers on the reader.

Rosenblatt believes readers transact with the text by bringing in their past life experiences to help interpret the text.Louise Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration, 5th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995). Reading literature becomes an event—the reader activates the work through reading. Rosenblatt argues that any literary text allows for an efferent readingWhat the reader believes he or she should retain after reading a text., which is what the reader believes should be retained after the reading; the aesthetic readingWhat the reader actually experiences while reading a text (in contrast to the efferent reading)., on the other hand, is what the reader experiences while reading.Louise Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration, 5th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995). The aesthetic reading accounts for the changes in a reader’s attitude toward a literary work. Rosenblatt’s theory provides for a process of reading that leads to discussion and interpretation: a reader transacts with a literary text during the reading process, focusing on the aesthetic response while reading. After reading, then, the reader reflects on the aesthetic response and compares it to the textual evidence and other interpretations. In a way, literary interpretation is more focused on the transaction—the process of reading—than on an interpretation of a particular work.

Another important reader-response theorist is Wolfgang Iser, who complements Rosenblatt. Iser believes that a literary work has meaning once a reader engages in the text.Wolfgang Iser, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Text, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979). According to Iser, every literary work is balanced by two poles, the artisticWhat the author creates; a literary work is caught between this and the esthetic pole. and the esthetic polesThat which is realized or completed by the reader; a literary work is caught between this and the artistic pole., roughly corresponding to Rosenblatt’s efferent and aesthetic readings. For Iser, the artistic pole is that created by the author; the esthetic pole is that realized or completed by the reader.Wolfgang Iser, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Text, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979). Since a literary work is caught between these two poles, its meaning resides in the gap between these poles; the primary quality of a text is its indeterminacy. A textual critic, Iser recognizes that the text—the artistic pole—guides the reader who resides in the esthetic pole. He distinguishes between the implied readerThe reader a text creates for itself—the hypothetical person the work seems to address., one the text creates for itself, and the actual readerThe real person who reads the literary work; he or she may not resemble the text’s implied reader., the reader who brings “things” to the text.Wolfgang Iser, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Text, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979). Consequently, there exists a gap between the implied and actual reader, and between the artistic and esthetic poles. The reader, then, must perform gap filling to concretize the text. Umberto Eco, another reader-response critic, takes gap filling even further, arguing that readers write ghost chapters for texts as a way to understand the transaction that happens between the text and reader.Umberto Eco, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” in Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism. ed by Jane P. Tompkins. (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) pgs. 50–69.

As you can see, Iser’s textual reader-response criticism is based on his contention that the reader concretizes the text—gives it meaning—while the text necessarily guides this concretization. Consequently, a literary text operates by indeterminacy; it has gaps that the reader attempts to fill.

Transaction: The Rhetoric of Fiction

Another pioneer in reader-response criticism is Wayne Booth, who in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961; revised edition 1983) analyzes the way literature engages us through its language, or rhetoric.Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Booth shows readers how authors manipulate them into seeing things they have never seen before. Booth’s most important contributions to reader-response criticism (and literary criticism in general) are his concepts of the implied author (or narrator) and the unreliable narrator, and how these force us to confront reading as an ethical act.

The implied authorThe narrative voice an author creates in his or her work. The implied author guides or directs the reader’s interpretation of the text.—the narrative voice the author creates in a work—is the most important artistic effect: in a sense, the implied author directs the reader’s reaction to the literary work, guiding—or sometimes forcing—the reader to react on an emotional level since the implied author brings his or her ethical principles to the text. By directing the reader’s interpretation, the implied author limits the reader’s response while forcing the reader to react to the implied author.

For example, Booth contends that the implied author in Emma recognizes that the reader must be able to empathize and like Emma; if not, the novel will fail.Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Thus Austen creates an implied author—the narrator—who controls our perception of Emma by creating a character the reader can empathize with, laugh at when appropriate, and condemn when needed. Since the implied author becomes like a friend and guide, we as readers can rely on the narrative voice to guide us.

Booth recognizes that while a text’s implied author may be reliable, the work may still have an unreliable narratorA narrator that cannot be trusted because he or she has a limited viewpoint (often this is a first-person narrator). An unreliable narrator forces the reader to respond to the text on a moral plane.. The narrator in Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” seems perfectly reliable and in control until we realize that his proposal to alleviate the poverty of the Ireland is to raise babies as edible delicacies!Jonathan Swift, “Modest Proposal” (London: 1729; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 2004), http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/SwiMode.html. Or think of the first-person narrators of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) or J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (London: Little, Brown, 1951). An unreliable narrator requires the author and reader to engage in a special bond whereby they acknowledge that the narrator cannot be trusted; in a way, then, the reader and author engage in a transaction by recognizing the limited view of the unreliable implied author. The unreliable narrator, ultimately, forces the reader to respond on some moral plane.

By appealing to the moral qualities of the reader, Booth provides a framework for an ethics of readingThe idea that a reader must carefully judge the ethical dimension to a work, comparing his or her personal experience and moral beliefs with the narrative. that he defines in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). Using Rosenblatt’s distinction between the efferent and aesthetic reading, Booth argues that the reader must carry over the efferent reading into the aesthetic, for the efferent reading requires us to compare our personal experience and moral beliefs with the narrative.Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). Since a literary work takes us over for the duration of the reading experience, an ethics of reading will require the reader to eventually judge the ethical dimension to a work. Nonce beliefsThe beliefs the narrator and reader share only during the reading of the text (in contrast to fixed norms). are the beliefs the narrator and reader embrace only during the reading. Fixed normsThe beliefs upon which a literary work depends. Unlike nonce beliefs, these are applicable to the real world outside the text. are the beliefs on which the entire literary work depends for effect but also are applicable to the real world. As an example, Booth uses Aesop’s fables, for a talking animal relates to our nonce beliefs—the talking animal is acknowledged as essential to the narrative—when the fixed norms will entail the moral that concludes the fable. Thus the nonce and fixed beliefs require a transaction between reader and work. Booth suggests that an ethics of reading becomes a two-stage process: (1) the reader must surrender fully to the reading experience and then (2) the reader must contemplate the reading experience from an ethical perspective (which depends on the reader’s own moral stance).Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). In other words, we should keep company with the literary work and maintain an open mind until we conclude that the work might be harmful to us—or be in conflict with our moral beliefs. As you can see, Booth’s ethics of reading is determined by the reader’s moral makeup, which is dependent on a specific time and reading experience. It is open to change.

Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” (1898) is a good example of this.“Kate Chopin ‘The Storm,’” The Kate Chopin International Society, http://www.katechopin.org/the-storm.shtml. In the story, a married woman has a passionate affair one afternoon with an acquaintance who by chance comes to her house to escape a storm. Their relationship is set up in an earlier story, “At the Cadian Ball” (1892), Chopin presents the affair as a natural impulse; the ending of the story tells us that both parties are happy and content.Kate Chopin, “At the ’Cadian Ball,” in The Awakening, and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert (New York: Penguin, 1984). While in the company of “The Storm,” you will respond to the story itself as it occupies you, yet after your reading you will complete the reading by bringing your ethics into play: do you reject the story because it does not condemn adultery? Do you embrace the story because of its honest depiction of sexual passion?

Booth’s brand of textual reader-response criticism is a valuable tool for readers since he provides a textual model of reading—the implied author who is reliable and unreliable—that embraces the ethical dimension of the reader, who must transact with the literary work.

Textual reader-response criticism, as exemplified by Rosenblatt, Booth, and Iser, is a powerful literary critical tool to use when analyzing texts. Using some conventions of New Criticism, these critics are able to show how text and reader can simultaneously be active during the reading process.

Your Process

  1. Read the following fable by Aesop:

The Hare and the Tortoise

The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten,” said he, “when I put forth my full speed. I challenge any one here to race with me.”

The Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.”

“That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.”

“Keep your boasting till you’ve beaten,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?”

So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning-post and could not run up in time to save the race. Then said the Tortoise: “Plodding wins the race.”Aesop, “The Hare and the Tortoise,” Aesop’s Fables, http://www.aesops-fables.org.uk/aesop-fable-the-hare-and-the-tortoise.htm.

  1. Use Booth’s notions of fixed and nonce beliefs to examine how you will respond to the moral of the fable. Does plodding win the race in your value system?
  2. Are there gaps in the narrative that you filled in to make sense of the narrative? What were they? Can you apply Rosenblatt’s and Iser’s notions of how readers complete the text?

Experiential Reader Response

Experiential reader-response critics like Stanley Fish are unlike the textual reader-response critics in one very important aspect—they emphasize the reader’s reading process over the literary work. Fish calls this kind of reader response affective stylisticsA form of experiential reader-response criticism in which readers first surrender themselves to the text, then concentrate on their reading responses while reading, and ultimately describe the reading experience by structuring their reading responses., reminding us of the “affect” that literature has on us and of the New Critical affective fallacy that rejected any emotional response a reader might have to a literary work.Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). To Fish, then, affective stylistics is the experience the reader has while reading, which he defines as a three-fold process:

  1. Readers surrender themselves to the text, letting the text wash over them; in fact, at this stage, readers should not be concerned with trying to understand what the work is about.
  2. Readers next concentrate on their reading responses while reading, seeing how each word, each sentence, each paragraph elicits a response.
  3. Finally, readers should describe the reading experience by structuring their reading responses, which may be in conflict with the common interpretation of a work.Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Fish’s thesis is seductive, for when we read, we are constantly reacting to our reading, connecting it to our personal lives, to other literary works we have read, and to our reading experience at that particular reading moment. Sometimes we will love to read; other times we dread it. In Surprised by Sin, Fish examines how the reader is affected by a reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), that epic poem that describes the fall of Adam and Eve.John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, 1993), http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MilPL67.html. Fish argues that the reading experience of Paradise Lost mirrors the actual Fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden.Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

As intriguing as Fish’s affective stylistics may be, the reality is that readers often agree on meaning; that is, they tend to see similar things in the same text. A textual reader-response critic would argue that the text—through its transaction with the reader—leads to such common interpretation, but Fish is interested in another possibility—that we are trained to find similar meanings. He calls this idea interpretive communitiesA group of readers who share common beliefs that cause them to read a text in a similar way. For example, feminist critics are trained to identify and analyze gender issues, so it’s likely that two feminist critics who read the same text will have similar interpretations.. To Fish, then, a reader of an interpretive community brings a meaning to the text because he or she is trained to.Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). A student in a modernist poetry class, for example, would interpret Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” in terms of modernism and the poetic movements in modernism and be at ease making claims about the poem’s meaning. Literary theory, which you are learning as you work your way through this text, also demonstrates the interpretive community. If you are intrigued by Freudian psychoanalytic criticism, you will find Freudian meanings in the works that you are reading; likewise, a feminist critic will find gender issues when reading. Another way to understand interpretive communities is to note that the American legal system has embraced the idea of interpretive communities in jury selection: for example, if a defense attorney who is representing a college student in an underage drinking case can get members on the jury who agree that the drinking age should be lowered to nineteen, then the jury may have already interpreted the evidence in light of their beliefs and will find the student not guilty.

Experiential reader response acknowledges that reading is a subjective process and attempts to understand how to analyze such subjective responses.

Sonnet 127

 

  In the old age black was not counted fair,

  Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;

  But now is black beauty’s successive heir,

  And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:

  For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,

  Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,

  Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,

  But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.

  Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,

  Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem

  At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,

  Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:

  Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,

  That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Your Process

  1. Read the Sonnet 127 from Shakespeare.William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 127,” in Sonnets (1609; University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, 1992), http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaSonQ.html. As you read, jot down what is going on in your mind. Do you try to make sense of the poem while reading? Do you become frustrated while reading? Do certain words evoke feelings?
  2. Have you read other sonnets by Shakespeare? If so, what do you remember about them? Did you bring your knowledge of the sonnets to the reading of this one? Did you read the poem coming from a particular interpretive community?
  3. How did your interpretive community shape your interpretation of the poem? What ideas from your community did you bring in interpreting the poem?

Psychological Reader Response

When we read, we are continually connecting the text to our lives, almost as if the literary work is speaking to us personally. Psychological reader response helps us better understand this phenomenon.

Subjective Analysis

Often called subjective criticismA form of reader-response criticism that views a literary work as comprising both the concrete text and our interpretation of it. The text’s meaning is ultimately created when readers compare their responses with each other to develop a communal interpretation., this form of reader-response criticism is championed by David Bleich, who believes that a reader’s response becomes the text itself, ripe for analysis (or psychoanalysis). To Bleich, a literary text comprises a real entity—the text, the words on the page, which is a concrete object—and our interpretation of the concrete text, which can be seen as a symbolic object. We “resymbolize” the text through our perceptions and beliefs. Meaning, then, is negotiated: our reading response (highly personal) is often brought to a larger body (communal) to discuss the meaning of a piece of literature. The classroom is a perfect example: you are assigned to read something, you read it and develop a personal interpretation, and then you share that interpretation with the class; ultimately, the class creates a more communal interpretation. In subjective criticism, knowledge is seen as socially constructed from the interaction of all readers; thus, interpretation is seen as personal, yet communal, the common element being that reading is subjective. The transaction that happens in subjective criticism is between the personal reader-oriented response statement and the more public-oriented response statement, which reflects the themes in the text.

Subjective criticism focuses on the negotiation for meaning—your view is not wrong if it is based on some objective reading of the text.

Identity Analysis

Norman Holland’s approach to reader response follows in the footsteps of subjective criticism. According to Holland, people deal with texts the same way they deal with life. Holland would say that we gravitate toward particular literary works because they speak to our inner—our psychological—needs. In other words, each reader has an identity that we can analyze, which will open up the literary text to personal interpretation based on a reader’s identity. Thus we use the term “identity analysisA form of psychological reader-response criticism; it posits that we are drawn to literary works that speak to our psychological needs—and, conversely, we are repelled or troubled by works that do not meet our needs.” to describe the form of psychological reader-response criticism that suggests that we are drawn to literary works that speak to our psychological needs—conversely, we are repelled or troubled by works that do not meet our needs.

These identity needs are often repressed in the unconscious and are in need of an outlet, which is provided by reading. When reading, then, we can engage our repressed desires or needs. Why do we read fantasy literature? Romance literature? Thrillers? Self-help books? Science fiction? Reading becomes a personal way to cope with life.

This coping process is interpretation, for literature exposes more about the reader than about the text itself. Holland believes that each reader has an “identity themeWithin identity analysis, the particular pattern of defense that a reader brings to a text. A reader who belongs to a marginalized racial or ethnic group, for example, is likely to have a different set of literary likes, dislikes, and defenses than a reader who belongs to the dominant racial or ethnic group in a society.,” a pattern of defense that he or she brings to a text. In turn, we gravitate to texts that tend to reinforce our identity themes and our needs. The contrary is also true: we will avoid texts that challenge our identity or threaten our psychological needs. When we read a text, we see ourselves reflected back at us. Holland calls this transactional process DEFTCritic Norman Holland’s process for reading a text, which involves defense, expectation, fantasy, and transformation.: we read in defense (a coping strategy that aligns with our expectations) that leads to fantasy (our ability to find gratification) and finally to transformation (that leads to a total unifying effect for the reader).

Your Process

  1. List the literary works that you have read multiple times.
  2. Why do you return to these works?
  3. Do they reflect issues that connect to your life? Can you venture to define your identity theme?
  4. Are there literary works you dislike? Why? Do these dislikes have anything to do with your identity theme?

Social Reader Response

Often referred to as “reception theory,” social reader response is interested in how a literary work is received over time. In fact, the status of a literary work is dependent on the reader’s reception of the work. Hans Robert Jauss, a key figure in “reception theory,” argues that the history of the reader is as important as the history of the literary work; in fact, the reader’s evolving interpretation is at the heart of the changing literary status.Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic Reception. Tans. Timothy Baht. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). To Jauss, every literary work continually evolves as the reader’s reception modifies according to the reader’s needs.

A classic example from nineteenth-century American literature is Moby-Dick (1851), now considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—American novel ever written.Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (1952; University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, 1993), http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Mel2Mob.html. Andrew Delbanco titles the first chapter of his book Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (1997) “Melville’s Sacramental Style,” which brings an almost religious fervor to the importance of Melville generally and Moby-Dick specifically.Andrew Delbanco, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997). But this has not always been the case. Contemporary reviews of Moby-Dick were mixed, but many were quite unfavorable; these tainted Melville’s reputation and made it difficult for him to continue as a successful author. Melville.org has compiled a collection of contemporary reviews, one of which we reprint here:

Thrice unlucky Herman Melville!…

This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive. The author has read up laboriously to make a show of cetalogical [sic] learning…Herman Melville is wise in this sort of wisdom. He uses it as stuffing to fill out his skeleton story. Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea…

The story of this novel scarcely deserves the name…Mr. Melville cannot do without savages so he makes half of his dramatis personae wild Indians, Malays, and other untamed humanities… What the author’s original intention in spinning his preposterous yarn was, it is impossible to guess; evidently, when we compare the first and third volumes, it was never carried out…

Having said so much that may be interpreted as a censure, it is right that we should add a word of praise where deserved. There are sketches of scenes at sea, of whaling adventures, storms, and ship-life, equal to any we have ever met with…

Mr. Herman Melville has earned a deservedly high reputation for his performances in descriptive fiction. He has gathered his own materials, and travelled along fresh and untrodden literary paths, exhibiting powers of no common order, and great originality. The more careful, therefore, should he be to maintain the fame he so rapidly acquired, and not waste his strength on such purposeless and unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales. [ellipses in original]“Contemporary Criticism and Reviews,” The Life and Works of Herman Melville, http://www.melville.org/hmmoby.htm#Contemporary.

London Literary Gazette, December 6, 1851

Many critics felt that Moby-Dick was a falling off of Melville’s talent, and that view remained for the rest of Melville’s life.

Why the change in reputation? Critics started reassessing Moby-Dick, scholars tell us, in 1919, and by 1930 the novel was frequently taught in college classrooms, thus cementing its critical reputation. In 1941 F. O. Mathiessen, in American Renaissance, placed Melville as a central writer in the nineteenth century.F. O. Mathieson, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941). In addition, the rise of literary theory that focused on race, class, and gender led to new revisionist readings of Melville; more recently, queer theory has argued that Moby-Dick is a central text in gay and lesbian literature.

Another example is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Hurston was a popular author in America, but contemporary writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes were critical of Their Eyes Were Watching God because it seemed far away from the “protest fiction” other African American writers (mainly men) were publishing. Here is an excerpt from Richard Wright:

Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [ellipses in original]

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie who, at sixteen, married a grubbing farmer at the anxious instigation of her slave-born grandmother. The romantic Janie, in the highly-charged language of Miss Hurston, longed to be a pear tree in blossom and have a “dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace.” Restless, she fled from her farmer husband and married Jody, an up-and-coming Negro business man who, in the end, proved to be no better than her first husband. After twenty years of clerking for her self-made Jody, Janie found herself a frustrated widow of forty with a small fortune on her hands. Tea Cake, “from in and through Georgia,” drifted along and, despite his youth, Janie took him. For more than two years they lived happily; but Tea Cake was bitten by a mad dog and was infected with rabies. One night in a canine rage Tea Cake tried to murder Janie, thereby forcing her to shoot the only man she had ever loved.

Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.“Their Eyes Are Watching Their Eyes Were Watching God,” University of Virginia, http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam854/summer/hurston.html.

Thanks to these unfavorable reviews, Their Eyes Were Watching God became a forgotten text, and it remained so until Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and many other works, wrote an essay in Ms. Magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” that recounts her search for Hurston’s grave in Eatonville, Florida. Walker eventually bought a grave marker for Hurston’s grave, which reflects the beginning of Hurston’s reputation as a great American novelist.Alice Walker, “Finding Zora,” Ms. Magazine, March 1975, 74–75. Now Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston are featured in Delbanco’s study on the American classics.

Class Project: Reception Review

  1. Choose a popular literary text. The New York Times Best Seller List is a great place to start.
  2. Find three reviews of that work. You can find reviews by using a search engine—Google, for example—and if your library has Book Review Digest or Book Review Index, these are important databases.
  3. Write a short paper that briefly summarizes each review and then comment on the reviews. Do the reviewers agree on the book in their reviews? If not, explore the differences.

Cultural Reader Response

Cultural reader response acknowledges that readers will bring their personal background to the reading of a text. What is that background? A variety of markers, including gender, race, sexual orientation, even political affiliation compose someone’s background. In other words, as readers we may interpret a literary work in light of where we are situated in society.

For example, gender is key to the way that readers respond to a literary work. See Amy Ferdinandt’s response to James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” later in the chapter. Do men and women read differently? Some may say, “Yes.” An important text to highlight women’s reading experiences is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984).Jane Radway, Reading the Romance, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). Radway examines why women readers gravitate to the romance novel. Radway’s ideas, for example, could be applied to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, a romance series about a young woman, Bella Swan, who falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen, but who is also attracted to a werewolf, Jacob Black.Stephenie Meyer, The Twilight Saga Collection (London: Little, Brown, 2009). The target audience for Twilight is adolescent girls, and it is unusual for boys to read Twilight. Why? Harry Potter, on the other hand, appeals to both male and female readers, as does Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (New York: Scholastic, 2010). Another useful text to look at is Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Contexts (1986), edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart.Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, eds., Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

Another example to highlight culture and reading can be seen in Alan Gribben’s NewSouth edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (2011). This controversial edition replaces the “n-word” in Huckleberry Finn with the word slave; in Tom Sawyer, Gribben eliminates any derogatory language that refers to Native Americans and replaces Twain’s use of “half-breed” to, as Gribben writes, “‘half-blood,’ which is less disrespectful and has even taken on a degree of panache since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005).”Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, ed. Alan Gribben (Montgomery, AL: NewSouth, 2011); J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic, 2005). Gribben acknowledges that Twain’s language can be seen as derogatory toward ethnic groups, which might preclude them from reading the texts.Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition, ed. Alan Gribben (Montgomery, AL: NewSouth, 2011). Critics argue that changing one word for another, as in Huckleberry Finn, doesn’t address the complexity of race issues in Twain. For a fascinating discussion of race regarding Twain, see the Bedford’s Case Study in Critical Controversy edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (second ed., 2004), edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan. In the unit on race, the editors provide a variety of interpretations of Twain’s use of the “n-word,” which highlights the complexity of race in reading.Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy, 2nd ed., ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan (Boston: Bedford, 2003).

As you can see, cultural reader response takes seriously how a literary work might evoke a particular response from a reader based on his or her gender, race, class status, sexual orientation, and so forth, and how a reader might bring a reading strategy based on his or her identity.

Your Process

  1. Write a journal or blog entry that explores your cultural position as a reader.
  2. Does your gender, race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and/or another cultural marker partly determine what you read and how you read literary works? Give at least two concrete examples.