Thursday 25 August 2011

My system

I've been wondering whether there's much coherence between the articles on this site, whether there are discernable general features. I think my usual approach is psychology-oriented, with sympathies towards I. A. Richards, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, reader-response theories, and experimental confirmation. I don't mean to suggest that the purpose of all texts is for the author to communicate intentions to the reader, but when authors want the text to be read in this way, they'd better understand the psychology of reading and knowledge acquisition.

Much of what I write about is do to with the lack of transparency of a work (even a mimetic one) - how the representation has features that the represented thing lacks, and how operations can be performed on a representation that can't be performed on what's being represented. Obscurity and difficulty often feature. Here are some assumptions I commonly make

  • When someone reads a text they will try to make sense of it using explicit or implicit instructions about how to combine the text's components. Readers will bring their knowledge to the text, but the context within which they meet the text matters too.
  • Sometimes the method of extracting meaning from a literary text will be similar to methods used when reading reference material. Some texts require more specialised methods. The form or genre may be sufficient to provide instructions.
  • The reader will not only need to proceed linearly from the start to the end of the text, they'll also need to zoom out (to plot, character, etc) and zoom in (to sounds, to the spelling (for acrostics), etc). As they read, they'll develop provisional hypotheses (about the genre, plot, characters, appropriateness of their reading strategy, etc) that may later be consolidated, discarded, or juxtaposed, or may cause a re-interpretation of previous material.
  • In a text book, a fact wouldn't be introduced before any necessary definitions and facts have been introduced. In literature, facts are often presented out of order. The key to the meaning of a fact may be provided long after the raw material of the fact is. If facts or instructions are deferred, the reader expects the lack of disclosure to be fair. There are conventions to this. For example: in a 1st person PoV piece you're allowed to hide what's going on inside other heads; in narrative, the author's allowed to hide things that are yet to happen.
  • Awareness of the readers' task may help authors produce more effective work. The variation between readers can be attenuated by writers. For example, a writer can hint at something in a way that few people might notice. Later the writer can be more explicit for the readers who didn't get it the first time.
  • The reader experience takes priority over the author's. If the author decides to give 2 characters the same name because they had the same name in real life, that's not helpful. If a poem came into being as an exercise in syllabics, but the reader gets nothing from the syllabics except puzzlement re the line-breaks, that's not helpful.

Much of this approach is exemplified in Attention, agility and poetic effects. Shorter, more specialised treatments are

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