- Communicational Criticism: Studies in Literature as Dialogue by Roger D. Sell
Roger Sell of the Åbo Akademi in Turku, Finland, has spent the past decade articulating an interdisciplinary critical approach that attempts to reintroduce what might be termed the "human element" into literary criticism. He began with Literature as Communication (2000), in which he laid the foundations for what he called "mediating criticism" — the title of a 2001 book that developed a notion suggesting the critic's role as a mediator between author and reader. Communicational Criticism is the next major step in his comprehensive project, a theory of literary appreciation and criticism in post-postmodern times. The book develops the various threads of this theory in applied analyses of English literary works from Shakespeare to Pinter, with chapters on, among others, Pope, Wordsworth, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, Churchill, Orwell, and Lynne Reid Banks.
To understand the background to Sell's notion of communicational criticism, it is helpful to return to Literature as Communication for his notion of communication as a semiotic process of negotiating a view shared by two parties of some third "real, hypothetical, or fictional" entity (2000:3). For Sell, "the writing, transmission and reading of literary texts . . . are human deeds, with a fully interpersonal valency" (22). This happens in a phenomenal world that writers and readers both occupy, even if not at one and the same moment, since this valency continues "across time and space" (107). Indeed, "literature's world [is] the world within which literature itself operates . . . the real world" (44). And while Sell relates to literature's ability to communicate some notion of "truth," the truth is not necessarily literal: "At the price of episodic or specific truth, the writer may be able to implicate truth of some other kind" (33-34). Such an approach is actually associated with an Aristotelian notion of the universal truth of poetry or the Wordsworthian moral feeling.
Taking literature to be a form of communication, one which can take place "directly or indirectly" (3), Sell argues that the role of the critic is to "mediate" between writer and reader.
In Communicational Criticism Roger Sell goes on to explore different kinds of communication as ways of re-describing some of the qualities that make a text literary. He argues that one of the most important aspects in assessing communication pertains to the conditions of dialogue: "In most literature which readers have felt worthy of the name, the invitation extended by any fictional elements to a truly dialogical comparing of notes is very powerful" (2011: 13). Yet the notion of dialogue is itself tied up with non-textual moral considerations: "if communication is to be genuine and effective . . . [w]hat must also come into play are ethical considerations of human equality, of truthfulness, of trust, of fairness, of cooperativeness, and of situational appropriateness" (18). A connection is drawn between a text's formal aspects and its ethical significance. [End Page 337]
Sell's notion of communicational criticism is bound up with the distinction between genuine and distorted communication, and his critical approach assesses the kind(s) of communication specific texts offer. Distorted communication is the kind that "does not involve a fair-minded mutual respect, but is skewed by some assumed disparity between the participants" (22); genuine communication, by contrast, is the kind in which "different parties respect each other's human autonomy" (23). Rather than merely prioritizing one over the other, the study points to a "polarity between distorted and genuine communication [that] can help to shape a literary work's entire structure" (28). Once literary critics have responded to the work's oscillation between these two poles, their commentary can "move outwards" to discuss "character portrayal, narratological structures, and thematic significances" (32). Sell's argument that, consciously or not, readers first latch on to a literary work's way of communicating implies that this is also the place where critics might, perhaps, begin their exploration of literary works.
In his chapter on Pinter, Sell describes this kind of communicational oscillation in the playwright's oeuvre, pointing out that...