- The Return of the Reader: Reader-response Criticism, and: Words About Words About Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Text, and: The Myth of the Modern: A Study in British Literature and Criticism after 1850
These books are very different, but they might, not unreasonably, be linked for the purpose of this review by the contrasting versions of "history" that they highlight and articulate. In The Return of the Reader, Elizabeth Freund cogently examines the history of reader-response criticism, treating important forerunners—notably I. A. Richards and William Empson—and focusing on influential recent theorists, including Jonathan Culler, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, and Wolfgang Iser. Murray Krieger, in his complex Words About Words About Words, also deals with the history of criticism, but his angle of approach is more personalized, as he seeks to compare and relate contemporary trends to the deeply pondered view of poetry and literary language that he has developed in a series of books, beginning with The New Apologists for Poetry (1956). Perry Meisel's The Myth of the Modern, like the studies by Freund and Krieger, is concerned with the theory and practice of criticism, but it entwines this subject within an ambitious account of the origins and achievements of modern British literature. None of these three books is strikingly original in idea or execution, but each in its own way contributes to our grasp of literary and critical history.
The best sections in The Return of the Reader engage Richards and the New Critics. Freund nicely points out, for example, that some of Richards' most rewarding insights, such as his "equation of language with trope and its linkage with the life of the psyche," failed to emerge with full force and hence did not manage to affect the shape of criticism. In part, Freund explains, this was the fault of the New Critical "appropriation" of Richards which valued his elaborate theory less than his tips for conducting "practical criticism." But, as she goes on keenly to remark, Richards himself frequently retreats from the "consequences" of insights that are potentially radical and that conceivably could have led him toward a skeptical inquiry into the social and political basis for so-called "normative" and conventionally acceptable responses to texts. Unlike Richards, the New Critics rarely talk about "the reader"—save for those occasions when they protest against the affective fallacy and readerly subjectivity and impressionism. Yet, Freund observes, the New Critics regularly "appealed to the mind of a 'reader'" in defining their interpretive strategies. Even as they devised methods for close reading and taught several generations of students how to explicate texts, the New Critics avoided tackling the theoretical questions that such an absorption in reading, pedagogy, and the interpretive process would seem inescapably to raise. Because the New Critics were committed to boosting the authority of literary criticism as a valid "discipline," they judged that they had to cordon it off from the immensely varied world of individual readers.
Freund's chapters on Culler, Fish, Iser, and Holland are briskly written and sometimes hard-hitting but are less stimulating than the earlier parts of her book. [End Page 729] When she indicts Fish, for instance, for refusing to consider the grim coercions that an interpretive community might foster, she is making an apt point, but one that many have made before. Her overarching argument, exemplified in the chapter on Fish, is also somewhat familiar. She contends that reader-response criticism is inevitable at some level in practice but is impossible to sustain theoretically. Fish, she correctly states, began his career as a theorist by emphasizing the reader but eventually came to merge reader and text, doing away with the separation between subject and object that his theory had at first...