Monday, 8 December 2014

I.A. Richards' influence

Of all the theorists I find myself most in tune with I.A.Richards (1893-1979). He thought that there was nothing unique about aesthetic judgements and tried to ground judgement in psychology rather than aesthetics. He reacted against the bravura, impressionistic reviews of the times, and the Platonic aesthetics. For him, works of art didn't possess "Beauty" as a quality that artists tried to communicate to us with greater or lesser clarity. Rather, the works have effects on us - we see beauty in the works. In Wikipedia it says that

  • "modern reader-response criticism began in the 1960s and '70s ... Important predecessors were I. A. Richards ..." (Reader-response)
  • "The work[s] of English scholar I. A. Richards ... were important to the development of New Critical methodology" (New Criticism)

So Richards was the predecessor of both reader-response theory and New Criticism, which is interesting because in Wikipedia it also says that

  • "Reader-response criticism ... stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism" (Reader-response)

Richards published Practical Criticism in 1930. It was ahead of its time and remains an interesting book. In it he analyses (rather judgementally, to modern eyes) differences between individuals' responses to poems which they studied without being aware of the author, context or biographical information. I can see how this experiment about reader response might easily lead to a NewCrit desire for more objectivity, seeking more evidence from deeper within the poem, wringing as much as possible from each word and space.

Reader-response theory

I think the basic idea of this is that each reader gives meaning to the text - i.e. to find "the" meaning of a text, you need to see what many people say about it. Each reader will interpret a book differently each time they read it (which can lead some reader-response theorists to adopt an extreme relativist position), but in practise there's a fair amount of agreement amongst readers, which is why we can sometimes get away with the idea that books have fixed meanings and values.

If a lot of people in positions of power or influence (competition judges, syllabus designers, anthologists, publishers, etc) say that a book is good, that's as good as you're going to get. There may be other groups of readers who think that the book is bad even after having read the justifications advanced by the first group (the reasons the first group give for a work being good may be the very reasons why the second group think the work is bad). Movie rating sites like Rotten Tomatoes have critics' and public's ratings to acknowledge this difference.

Splitting readers into only these 2 groups may be a fair way to assess the impact of (say) Joyce's "Ulysses". More generally there are many other reader communities whose members' views on certain works may be closely aligned with others in the group but very different from the opinions of those in other groups. For example rhyming poetry or stridently feminist novels may split the readership into "interpretative communities". Some texts might appeal to many types of readers (perhaps for different reasons), others may have niche appeal.

What I like about this reader-response approach is that it sounds largely descriptive and uncontroversial to me. The theory underlies (or even undermines) other theories, because theories derive from the views of individuals or particular communities with influence. One need only consider texts like "Satanic Verses" or once-famous writers who've passed into obscurity to see that concepts like "good" are at least to some extent relative, and contextual. The web has provided ways for more "interpretive communities" to develop.And I like how the approach respects the individuality of readings. How one interprets and combines those differing interpretations is more controversial.

Using psychology and sociology one can gain a better understanding of audience reactions. We're more aware than ever that films which used to scare audiences may now amuse us, that Art may become Kitsch, that work which might have been ground-breaking in its day may not even be considered as good nowadays, that "mainstream" is just another genre, that academics don't have the last word. There's been a resurgence in using experimental psychology to evaluate reader responses. The results of these psychology tests can be of use to writers. Less formally, workshop-based writing is aware of reader reaction.

New criticism

The New Critics in the USA studied texts closely, trying to filter out individual reactions, the authors' intentions, history and cultural contexts. Taken to the extreme, it led to boring analysis (or maybe deconstructionism), and the excluded themes (political, cultural, psychological) were just those that people became interested in during the 60s. It emphasized close reading (Richards' student, William Empson, read very closely), and treated poems as aesthetic objects detached from society. The critics' notions of objectivity seem rather subjective (even self-serving and elitist) nowadays. One might think that close reading is a useful (perhaps indispensable) first stage when analysing any text, but people often have little patience nowadays to delve at this level of analysis for long, preferring to look for purpose, voice and intent. Once they've decided what the text is about, they might then seek details to support their hypothesis.

Statistical text-analysis has been accelerated by developments in computing.

The common enemy

To me the two approaches aren't opposites. Ostensibly they both attempt to reduce the influence of any one ego. "the Richardsian method of language analysis - sense, tone, form, intention, attitude, irony - was developed in the 1920s to encounter obscurity, ambiguity and allusiveness. It also dealt with sentimentality, ‘sincerity’, stock responses and doctrine in poetry. ... The method aimed at clearing blockages in the communications of any writer, past or present. " (John Paul Russo (Poetry Nation, 1976, No.6).

The approaches have in common some enemies - biographic context, for example. They could both be considered unavoidable strategies when extracting meanings from texts. The main issue is which other approaches (if any) will be adopted too.

The Future

In our post-NewCrit, post-Reader-response (and post-Theory?) age how should readers engage with texts?

  • Form (always a concern for New Criticism) in poetry and prose needs to be analysed more carefully. For poetry, this may require analytical tools that can deal with the structures of modern poetry (psychology experiments to access the value of line-break, discourse analysis, etc)
  • Reviewers needn't fear to use statistics to derive evidence-based conclusions, nor should they hesitate to quote the opinions of others.
  • It should be assumed that writers know the tricks of the trade, that they choose phrases to affect readers rather than for mimetic reasons. Obscurity might be bluff, but as poker-players know, you shouldn't bluff too often - game theory can be applied. Empathy can be carefully engendered, sincerity synthesised. As in computer game design, realism may be sacrificed to improve the player experience. Readers can be flattered by making them think they're clever, that they're sensing something deep, almost beyond words.
  • The Web helps niches survive. A small, scattered group can more easily remain self-supporting, self-justifying. Site like Goodreads encourage multi-interpretations.

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