- Stories of Reading: Subjectivity and Literary Understanding, and: Poetics of Reading: Approaches to the Novel, and: Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression and the Interpretation of Narrative, and: Narrative Poetics: Innovations, Limits, Challenges, and: Inventions of Reading: Rhetoric and the Literary Imagination
At first glance, this list of titles presents a logical problem: what are "poetics" and "reading" doing jumbled together in this way? Contemporary theorists typically use "poetics" to denote the descriptive study of literature as a system, "reading" to mean the interpretation of individual texts. Sometimes "reading" has meant the process by which real or hypothetical readers take in individual texts, as in reader-response criticism. But until now, readers—whether real or hypothetical—have stood outside the system poetics seeks to describe; they have been replaced in that system with textual constructs (for example, the "implied reader" or the "narratee").
Narrative poetics—with its structuralist assumptions about texts' autonomy from their sources and receivers in the "real world"—has taught critics to shy away from asking or trying to answer certain questions that have long been traditional in Anglo-American literary studies. These five books reveal that those questions have come back into the arena of critical debate, with a vengeance. For anyone who spends time in undergraduate literature classrooms, there is something very familiar about such questions as Michael Steig's: what can we find out about an author's intentions, and how will it color our understanding of a novel? Or Clayton Koelb's: where do authors get their ideas? Or Inge Wimmers's: why is it that for some readers, knowing how "reality effects" are constructed does not seem to diminish the power of those effects? Or James Phelan's: what happens to our evaluation of a novel when we find ourselves in conflict with the moral and ethical norms represented by its characters? The questions range far afield from the concerns of "poetics proper": they boil down to inquiries into ways of feeling about novels. Not only are these theorists interested in "the reader" but also they are interested in what Phelan calls (following Peter Rabinowitz) the "flesh-and-blood reader," not a textual construct but a person perusing a book and responding to its contents.
In the current climate of emphasis on contextualizing literary studies, this new development should come as no surprise. What is unexpected about these books, however, is the way they bring up the kinds of questions our culturally conservative, antitheoretical colleagues have used as a defense against learning or using theory but bring them up under the light that two decades of work in theory can lend to them now.
Of these five books, probably the most readable is Steig's Stories of Reading: Subjectivity and Literary Understanding (and surely a theorist of reading should get points for engaging his own reader's interest.) But then, according to Steig's theory, my liking his book is a strictly subjective matter—it fits my current "reading style," which is not to be confused with a fixed "reading strategy" or even an "identity theme" in my own character but which changes for me over time and in different contexts. Steig's primary point is that there is no one correct way to get at the meaning of a text but that different readers will go about it in various ways. Although that is not a particularly radical observation, Steig takes it a step further to argue that individual readers...