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Reviewed by:
  • Feminism and the Politics of Reading
  • Amy S. Gerald
Pearce, Lynne. Feminism and the Politics of Reading. London: Arnold, 1997. xii + 274 pp.

In Feminism and the Politics of Reading, Lynne Pearce explores the receptive role of the feminist reader with respect to four works: a nineteenth-century novel, a twentieth century novel, a film, and a photographic exhibition. She does not seek to re-prove the dialogic nature of reading; she does, however, build her thesis on the notion that there is an inherent relationship between the reader and the text. Unlike the reading theories she responds to, Pearce seeks to explore “not the mechanics of interpretation (how meaning is made) but the processes of reading, which result in a text-reader relationship that [is] implicated” (2). She is concerned, that is, not so much with feminist interpretation of texts as she is with the effect of the text on the feminist reader. Her focus is on the emotional response of the feminist reader rather than on the politicized feminist reading of a text. Pearce uses Barthes’s model to conceive of “the reader as a lover, whose object is not to understand the text but to engage (with) it” (6). The reading process, then, becomes a romance.

In Chapter One, the author explains the relationship between the text and the reader as it relates to the feminist reader. Referring to literary studies and the visual arts, she shows that the traditional emphasis in reader theory has favored a cognitive focus on the role of the reader, author and text in making meaning over the “affective aspects of the reading process” (4). The disregard of [End Page 212] the reader’s identification with and emotional response to a text or a character is due to the traditional, patriarchal focus on textual analysis rather than on contextual factors such as social and cultural analysis. This cognitive focus allows a certain amount of disinterestedness and control over the text and even seeps into reader-response theory, which focuses on the reader’s act of interpreting a text, not on the reader’s “engagement” with the text. The traditionally undesirable affective reading is associated with indeterminacy as well as the feminine and uneducated and has, therefore, been disregarded as a legitimate reading process.

Pearce’s book is well-informed, and frequently cites Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes and Mikhail Bakhtin to discuss the role of the reader in literature. Her take on reception theory differs from many text-reader theories in that she recognizes that the reader’s role is one of interpretation while admitting that the cognitive response to a text is limiting and does not allow for the reader’s fuller emotional experience with the text and characters within it. Reading as an interpretive activity prohibits the interactive experience that reading can be. Her emotional vocabulary also uses the metaphor of a ghostly romance between the reader and the text: the reader, as a ghost, can never come fully into contact with the text but haunts its people and places in an attempt at intimacy.

Part One, “The Politics of Gendered Reading,” explains the origins of the interpretive reading while leaning toward the idea of the more interactive reading in a Bakhtin-based chapter entitled “Dialogic Theory and Women’s Writing.” Part Two, “The Emotional Politics of Gendered Reading,” draws from the language of romance to emphasize the importance of the affective reading of a text and to work out Pearce’s own affective reading of several texts. Part Three, “The Politics of Feminist/s Reading,” explores the opposing forces of the professional practice of feminist reading and the emotional process of affective reading. In her discussion of this struggle she concludes that “emotion and politics appear to tear apart from one another in most reading events, for the good reason that we (as readers) cannot read or see both the ‘other’ and the context in which the other appears simultaneously” (132). The feminist cognitive reading, therefore, is in perpetual conflict with the affective reading. In this section, Pearce analyzes the readings of professional film critics, academics, and feminists to show this irreconcilable conflict. She...

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