Iser, Wolfgang

Assigned: Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader” (1452-60). Also read the editors’ introduction (1450-52).

“Interaction between Text and Reader” (1980)

1. On 1452-53 (“Central to the reading of every…”), how does Wolfgang Iser justify his concentration on the reader’s response rather than solely on “the actual text” (1452)? According to him, what are the “two poles” of the literary work (1452), and how is the “virtual work” situated between the two poles he has identified? Why is it important to focus intently on the relationship between the text itself and the reader’s “actualization” of it—what analytic opportunity is lost when one “loses sight of the virtual work” (1453) and instead deals only with the work or the reader in isolation?

2. On 1453-54 (“It is difficult to describe this…”), Iser articulates a method for approaching the “virtual work” he says is situated between the reader and the text itself. What insights does he adapt from the theory of “interpersonal relationships” (1453) developed by Tavistock School psychiatrist R. D. Laing? Why, in Laing’s schema, do people involved in a “dyadic” (two-person) relationship feel the need to communicate with each other and to interpret each other’s thoughts and feelings? In what sense does our fundamental inability to “experience […] how others experience us” (1453) play a catalytic role in dyadic interactions? How is it that “Contact […] depends upon our continually filling in a central gap in our experience” (1453)?

3. On 1454 (“An obvious and major difference…”), what two major differences does Iser identify between the act of reading and any form of social interaction with other people? What can’t a literary text do that a person relating to another person can? Still, in what sense does the reader-text relationship greatly resemble the person-to-person dyadic relationship, at least in terms of what impels the opposite “partners,” so to speak, towards communication?

4. On 1454-55 (“Now, if communication between text…”), Iser turns to the issue of what kind of interpretive control can be exercised by a literary text over the reader—he does not, that is, appear to subscribe to postmodern notions about the indeterminacy of meaning. How does he arrive at a principle or method of control by way of Virginia Woolf’s analysis of Jane Austen’s excellent Regency novels? How does Austen manage both to stimulate and to shape or guide readers’ perceptions, thoughts, and feelings? In what sense does this exertion of control have little to do with what is fully said and explicitly done in the text and a great deal to do with what Iser calls the text’s “blanks and negations” (1455)—i.e., on what is not fully said or not explicitly done?

5. On 1455-56 (“In order to spotlight the communication…”), Iser continues to focus on the principle of interpretive control. Here he concentrates on how “the blanks trigger off and simultaneously control the reader’s activity” (1455 bottom). How does this process occur at the level of the “story,” i.e., the plot, of a work of fiction (1456)? Moreover, what four key perspectives does Iser identify, and in what way do they multiply the “blanks” upon which Iser’s reader response theory partly depends?

6. On 1456-58 (“In order to explain this operation…”), Iser offers “a schematic description of how the blanks function” (1456). What three “structural qualit[ies] of the blank” (1457) does he describe in this section? What does each quality or function make possible in terms of how the reader’s sense of the text’s meaning begins to firm up as each of the structural qualities performs its task? Why is the third of the blank’s functions the most important—what, exactly, is that function?

7. On 1458-59 (“Let us turn now to an example…”), Iser provides an example of a reader’s interpretive experience in reference to Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones. How does Fielding accomplish his “aim of depicting human nature” (1458) in part by means of character portrayal? What significance is taken on by “discrepancies continually arising between the perspectives of the hero and minor characters” (1458)? Finally, to what extent does the role that societal norms (standards) play in the interaction between reader and text bear the potential of “transformations” (1459) in the reader’s understanding of those norms and how they impact human character and conduct?

8. On 1459-60 (“To sum up, then, the blank in the…”), Iser summarizes the argument he has been making about how readers and texts interact to produce the meaning of particular literary works. In spite of the rather technical quality of Iser’s exploration in this essay, what point does he ultimately make about the role of active creativity and imagination on the part of readers as they go about the activities through which emerges the “virtual work” or “the aesthetic object” (1460)?

9. General question: In “Interaction between Text and Reader,” Wolfgang Iser posits a theory that the meaning of a literary text is not solely a property of the text itself, but instead emerges from a lively interaction between the text and a person reading it, with certain “gaps” in dialogue and narration calling forth the reader’s intellect and imagination and yet shaping that reader’s interpretation at the same time. Do you experience reading literary texts in this way, or does your experience feel different from this? Try to describe your relationship with the texts you read—do you find it to be interactive the way Iser says models “reader responses,” or is reading, for you, a somewhat more determinate experience, as if you are looking for full, stable meaning in the text? What matters more to you: “getting it right” with regard to a given text’s supposed meaning, or “having an experience” that you find meaningful and rewarding in some way?

10. General question: In “Interaction between Text and Reader,” Wolfgang Iser offers a theory of how readers interact with a text to produce its meaning. An interesting question would be, “how does it change a reader’s potential interpretation if he or she has already read the novel, short story, play or poem, perhaps not just once but several times? After all, many of us have read our favorite works of fiction several times, and still found them “new” and interesting. This in no way contradicts Iser’s theory since he does not claim there is one correct interpretation of a text, and in fact embraces the multiplicity of interpretations that can be generated from a literary work. Still, what difference do you feel or intuit in reading a book for a second or third time—how does that experience differ for you in comparison with a first reading? Explain.

11. General question: To picture the various emphases of their subject, many teachers of literary criticism and theory have long used a standard schematic diagram that may be traced to Meyer Abrams and to Hazard Adams’ anthology Critical Theory since Plato. Imagine a pair of concentric circles, with the word text at the center of the smaller, inner circle; in separate quadrants of the outer circle are the terms pragmatic, objective, expressive, and mimetic. (Conveniently, the acronym for these four terms is “POEM.”) Succinctly, we can say that the pragmatic critic is concerned with the practical (often moral) effects of art on an audience. Samuel Johnson would be a good example of the pragmatic critic. (Leitch 383-408) The objective critic is essentially a formalist who concentrates on the status of the work itself, without immediate reference to audience, author, or external reality. Cleanth Brooks (Leitch 1179-95) can serve as the example here. Expressive criticism deals with the relationship between the author and the text. Any of the English Romantics will do here (see Wordsworth in Leitch 563-86, Shelley 598-619, Coleridge 587-97), as will psychoanalytic critics. Mimetic criticism focuses on the relationship between the text and the world beyond it, which it is taken as “representing” or somehow “imitating.” Plato, Aristotle, and Sir Philip Sidney (respectively, Leitch 43-95; 95-131; 260-92) are mimetic critics. How would you classify Iser’s reader response theory in terms of Abrams and Adams’ “four coordinates” schema, and why you would classify it that way? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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