An Insightful Use of Reader-Response Literary Theory
Stanley Fish doesn't need my praise, but I'll praise him anyway. Or, rather, his writings.
But maybe I'm just praising myself, given the assumptions of some variants of reader-response literary theory:
Reader-response criticism is a group of approaches to understanding literature that have in common an emphasis on the reader's role in the creation of the meaning of a literary work . . . . Some take the position that there is no objective literary text at all, that the entire meaning of a literary work is in the reader's mind, and that the reader's personal biography, physical status, and psychology lay therefore at the center of a literary text (Wikipedia, "Reader-response criticism")
Yet, I don't agree with this radical variant, and neither does Fish -- not the later Fish, at least:
In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) Fish acknowledges that his earlier work treated his own experience of reading as the norm, and goes on to justify this position by introducing the idea of 'interpretive communities.' This meant that he was trying to persuade readers to adopt 'a set of community assumptions so that when they read they would do what I did.' (Raman Seldon, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (London & New York, etc.: Prentice Hall, 1997), 60)
Now, I haven't read this work by Fish, but if he's arguing that some community assumptions are better in that they lead to a fuller understanding of a particular text, then I agree. Not every reader's response is equally valuable. Some responses have no value at all beyond their usefulness as bad examples.
Speaking of bad examples, the fall from innocence in Milton's Paradise Lost is interpreted by Fish through a judicious, insightful use of reader-response literary criticism. In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Fish begins as follows:
I would like to suggest something about Paradise Lost that is not new except for the literalness with which the point will be made: (1) the poem's centre of reference is its reader who is also its subject; (2) Milton's purpose is to educate the reader to an awareness of his position and responsibilities as a fallen man, and to a sense of the distance which separates him from the innocence once his; (3) Milton's method is to re-create in the mind of the reader (which is, finally, the poem's scene) the drama of the Fall, to make him fall again exactly as Adam did and with Adam's troubled clarity, that is to say, 'not deceived'. (1)
I'm indebted to Fish for some of my own thoughts on Milton's achievement in bringing us to an intimate knowledge of our fallen condition:
Everything, of course, depends upon Satan's cooperation. Milton ensures this by making Satan both convincing and appealing through portraying him as all too human. We identify with the devil and his plight. Can anyone read of Satan blazing his path through the realm of chaos without secretly urging him on and covertly wishing him success? His subsequent actions may make him appear less heroic, but he still has the power to win our sympathies. (Hodges, "Free-Will Theodicy (pdf) . . ." Milton Studies of Korea 13.2 (2003.11), 348)
Paradise Lost is therefore a very dangerous poem, for it is dangerous "to re-create in the mind of the reader . . . the drama of the Fall" (Hodges, "Like One of Us . . . ," 299):
Why is this dangerous? Because Milton has intentionally intangled readers in an act of original sin. Fish refers to the re-creation of the Fall as taking place in the "mind of the reader," which might lead the casual hermeneut to think that the sin re-enacted is of a purely conceptual nature. Nothing could be further from the truth, for Fish means that Milton intends "to elicit the experience of fallenness in the reader" (Ruby 80 (Ruby Ryan, "Reclaiming Paradise Lost (pdf) . . ." Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 1 (2003) 79-88)). Given Milton's assumptions, the knowledge of evil that he intended for us to bear is of an experiential kind, for the evil does not merely come into our minds and go, unapproved, leaving "[n]o spot or blame behind" (5.117-119). Rather, we assent to it. No mere conception, it leaps like Sin from our brows and seduces us further (cf. 2.746-767). Consequently, Milton's purpose in pursuing "Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" (1.16) is a profoundly ironic one, for while the knowledge of sin obtained may open our eyes in surprise, it also darkens our minds. Not only "Milton is . . . too full of the devill" (John Beale, qtd. in Forsyth 1 (Neil Forsyth, The Satanic Epic (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002))). Thanks to his poem, so are we. (Hodges, "Like One of Us . . ." Milton and Early Modern English Studies, 14.2 (2004.11), 299-300)
With all of this 'self-quoting,' I might seem to be "just praising myself" after all. Be that as it may, I hope that my readers gain something of value other than my possible usefulness as a bad example.