- The Writer in the Well: On Misreading and Rewriting Literature by Gary Weissman
Gary Weissman instructs his readers to write a short paragraph after reading the short story his work centers around—Ira Sher’s “The Man in the Well”—and I dutifully followed directions: once an eager student of literature, always a diligent rule follower. I read, made notations, and swiftly jotted down my own response paragraph, wishing silently that he could read my brilliance and be awed by my insight. The reason Weissman directs his readers to record their own thoughts before venturing further into his work is because it is precisely those written responses, reconsidered and revised, that, he argues, shape our understanding of literature. The types of culminant and final claims that many students produce about a piece of literature (although he extends the potential applications to multiple forms of texts), Weissman cautions, should instead be seen “as hypothesis rather than facts” noting that “our most persuasive and brilliant interpretations become impediments to understanding when they are treated as ‘the last word’” (13). In his examination, Weissman includes a staggeringly vast scope of contributing factors: reader bias, myriad potential interpretations for the text, critical theory approaches, and even extended correspondence with author Sher, demonstrating his intense focus not only on the art of the craft and the primary text but on the crucial and underappreciated role of the explication.
Although Weissman details the on-again, off-again relationship that literary critics and scholars have had with Reader Response theory, he does acknowledge the benefits it provides in, at the very least, underscoring the importance of the text for the reader. But instead of staying within [End Page 185] those confines, Weissman claims a new sort of prominence: less focus on the relationship between text and reader, and more importance placed on written responses to that text. Weissman allows for a substantial and simultaneous existence of interpretive approaches. As he says of authorial reading, it “does not precede other ways of construing a text. . . . [I]t accompanies them” (162). While Weissman certainly sees the value of utilizing Reader-Response (among other) approaches, he is a stronger proponent of Writer-Response theory—creating meaning through the written reactions to a piece. Weissman’s students zero in on their own frustrations to make “sense” of what the children in the story do or, more importantly, don’t do. Near the end of the book, Weissman suggests placing the work into the genre of “modern parable”—allowing the characters and their behavior to stand for more than figures and an opaque plot, but that hardly mollifies Weissman’s students seeking answers.
Weissman’s lengthy introduction establishes the importance he places on “misreadings,” claiming that they “can contribute meaningfully and powerfully to our understandings of literature—that they too are texts with potential” (17). Later in the book, when he shares student responses, he demonstrates the various analytical paths their misreadings represent but still claims those have their own intrinsic value because of what they do say. Weissman also acknowledges the crucial role that his students’ interpretive writings have played in shaping his view of the story. Several times in later pages, Weissman will talk about how a student’s response seemed totally erroneous at the time but how he has now come to see it as far more plausible, probing, or revelatory in nature.
In chapter 1, readers are given excerpted student responses, which Weissman says showcase “notable misreadings” (46). In his subsequent dissection of their central claims, Weissman is able to demonstrate the students’ interpretive shortcomings, along with the possible theoretical explanation for their particular readings. This section will prove relatable and potentially valuable to teachers—but only if they heed Weissman’s point: that rather than (just) sigh in exasperation over a student’s paper, the teacher can use it to more fully understand the student’s reading of the text itself. Weissman expands his coverage to include the role of interpretive uncertainty when writing about a text and the ways in which...