I was recently reading a piece in The Chronicle, “Faculty Productivity in Literary Studies.” In this post, Daniel Deckner proposes that scholars of literary studies shift their focus away from critical interpretation to the study of how readers respond to texts. His conclusion is that this approach would “be of significant relevance to other fields,” a valuable endeavor and one that is often missing as departments and disciplines remain regretfully isolated from each other.
Deckner makes an interesting point: “Empirical research on reader response shows that the main attraction of literature is its ability to change moods, arouse feelings, and allow the formation of beliefs that merge text understanding with new understandings of themselves and aspects of the world around them.” To a certain extent, I agree. I think the power of literature, its genius, is that it communicates images from one human mind to another, invoking memories that have the ability both to strike chords within us – some comfortable, others not so much – and to change us in fundamental ways. I’ll turn to Virginia Woolf, for, as my students always say of their sources, she says it better than I ever could: “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” Or maybe, to overemphasize the point, some Emily Dickinson…
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Travers may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.
Considering literature as a link between authors and readers, it is clearly a valid form of study to explore reader response. I do, however, have reservations with the idea of considering it the only form of study. While I am not sure this was Deckner’s intent (in fact, I’m sure it wasn’t), the impression of this post is that we as literary scholars should drop our other activities to jump exclusively on this bandwagon. The post is a brief discussion, but a portion of the author’s evidence rests on a seemingly informal study in which second-year literature majors were given an assignment to comment on self-selected passages from a short story. A significant portion of these responses emphasized emotional reactions to the texts. For Deckner, this provides support for his theory that reader response should be the core of literary studies. Here is where my questions start to emerge, especially analyzing this claim through the eyes of a medieval literary scholar.
My first question: while given, as I have said, that emotional responses are valid, how can we have an informed emotional response (which I believe literature majors should have) without studying all aspects of literature? For instance, my response to a medieval text may be non-existent until I understand its allusions, its context, its place in history, its language…the list is almost limitless. I have had students who find nothing to connect with in the works I teach until we examine it from critical viewpoints, what Deckner dismisses as scholarship which only seeks “ways to understand literary texts.” For medieval literature in particular, there is a disconnect between the texts and typical readers (i.e. those who have not spent time studying it or becoming familiar enough with its history, culture, and writing conventions in order to have a natural response to it). Perhaps the point here is not the direction of literary scholarship in general, but the difference between effective and ineffective scholarship. Effective scholarship does not seek to prescribe an interpretation; it seeks to open up possibilities for interpretation – thus, possibilities for reader response. I also propose there is a danger in emphasizing emotional response to students in that they may have a tendency to think it is the only valid way to analyze a text, thereby prematurely dismissing works that do not seem to produce such a reaction on a first read.
My next question: as a medieval scholar, in what reader response should I be interested? Readers contemporary to the texts I study are a different proposition – and a much more difficult one to pin down – than modern readers. If the former, then I require literary scholars to continue with their (admittedly, sometimes esoteric, sometimes dry, sometimes isolated) studies, for it is through the collection of knowledge scholars produce that I (and others) are able to create theories about medieval readers. If the latter, then I suggest that it makes a difference whether or not a modern reader is familiar with the medieval world and the medieval mind (made possible through the production of scholarship – and rather not through the History Channel – see John’s “A Plague on the History Channel”) or not, as knowledge alters emotional response.
I welcome all forms of scholarship and encourage any individual with an interest to pursue it. As such, I think it is counterproductive to assume that any one avenue of study will yield a comprehensive picture of what is essentially one of the most complicated products of the human mind.