The Reader, the Text, the Poem

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978)

Carbondale, Ill., 196 pages, $10.95 hardcover

ISBN 0-8093-0883-5


Rosenblatt is one of the proponents of the reader-response theory of literary criticism, a concept that emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to New Criticism, which treated a literary work as an object that should be considered without reference to the reader’s experience of it. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the reader’s reaction while reading a literary work in what Rosenblatt in the preface of this book calls “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In reaction to the New Critics, Rosenblatt tells us, “I rejected the notion of the poem-as-object, and the neglect of both author and reader” (p. xii).


In Chapter 1: The Invisible Reader, Rosenblatt says that toward the end of the eighteenth century, the author emerged as a dominant entity in a work of literature. “Even those who seemed to continue the concern for reality admitted ultimately the preeminence of the author […]. Thus the reader was left to play the role of invisible eavesdropper” (p. 2). Further, the “twentieth-century reaction against the obsession with the poet and his emotions” brought “even more unrelenting invisibility” to the reader (p. 3).


Chapter 2: The Poem as Event rejects New Criticism’s contention that a literary work exists on its own, independent of either its author or the reader:

The poem […] must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being. (p. 12)


“The text of a poem or of a novel or a drama is like a musical score” (p. 13), Rosenblatt says. Further, “’The Poem’ seen as an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text, should be central to a systematic theory of literature” (p. 16).


Chapter 3: Efferent and Aesthetic Reading sets out to define the difference between reading a work of literature and reading another kind of written communication such as a newspaper article or scientific treatise “by showing how the event that produces the reading of a poem differs from other reading-events” (p. 23). Rosenblatt defines the type of reading in which the main purpose is to take away information (e.g., reading a newspaper article, a recipe, a history book) as “efferent” (p. 24). “In aesthetic reading, in contrast, the reader’s primary concern is with what happens during the actual reading event” (p. 24). She acknowledges that sometimes “the same text may be read either efferently or aesthetically” (p. 25). In explaining her theory of the reader’s experience, Rosenblatt refers to Coleridge’s famous statement about poetry: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself” (p. 28; Rosenblatt’s italics).


In Chapter 4: Evoking a Poem Rosenblatt explains that the experience of evoking the poem goes on as the reader gets further into the work. The term poem here refers to the artistic creation that the reader constructs while reading a literary work. (Rosenblatt is not discussing only poetry here, but any artistic work of literature.) The reader, she continues, “is immersed in a creative process that goes on largely below the threshold of awareness” (p. 52). This process “imposes the delicate task of sorting the relevant from the irrelevant in a continuing process of selection, revision, and expansion” (p. 53):

As one decodes the opening lines or sentences and pages of a text, one begins to develop a tentative sense of a framework within which to place what will follow. Underlying this is the assumption that this body of words, set forth in certain patterns and sequences on the page, bears the potentiality for a reasonably unified or integrated, or at the very least coherent, experience. One evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the  kind of text, that will be forthcoming. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, will signal certain possibilities and exclude others, thus limiting the arc of expectations. What the reader has elicited from the text up to any point generates a receptivity to certain kinds of ideas, overtones, or attitudes. Perhaps one can think of this as an alerting of certain areas of memory, a stirring-up of certain reservoirs of experience, knowledge, and feeling. As the reading proceeds, attention will be fixed on the reverberations of implications that result from fulfillment or frustration of those expectations. (p. 54)


This process itself is part of the appeal of reading a work of literature:

interest seems to be the name given to the reader’s need to live through to some resolution of the tensions, questions, curiosity or conflicts aroused by the text. This need to resolve, to round out, gives impetus to the organizing activity of the reader. What we call a sense of form also manifests itself in such progression, the arousal of expectations, the movement toward some culmination or completion. (pp. 54-55)

Perhaps this notion of interest explains the appeal of a book like Corelli’s Mandolin, in which not much seems to happen for the first 150 pages or so. “Underlying all this organizing activity […] is the assumption that the text offers the basis for a coherent experience […]. If such a putting-together, such a com-position, does not eventually happen, the cause may be felt to be either a weakness in the text, or a failure on the reader’s part” (p. 55).


One potential objection to the reader-response theory of literary criticism is that it suggests that anyone’s reading of a work is just as valid as any other reading, since the whole point is for a particular person to react to the work. But Rosenblatt explains that some readings are more informed than others and that people can become better readers through practice and experience:

Past literary experiences serve as subliminal guides as to the genre to be anticipated, the details to be attended to, the kinds of organizing patterns to be evolved […]. Traditional subjects, themes, treatments, may provide the guides to organization and the background against which to recognize something new or original in the text […]. Awareness—more or less explicit—of repetitions, echoes, resonances, repercussions, linkages, cumulative effects, contrasts, or surprises is the mnemonic matrix for the structuring of emotion, idea, situation, character, plot—in short, for the evocation of a work of art. (pp. 57-58)


“For the experienced reader, much of this has become automatic, carried on through a continuing flow of responses, syntheses, readjustment, and assimilation. Under such pressure, the irrelevant or confusing referents for the verbal symbols evidently often are ignored or are not permitted to rise into consciousness” (p. 58). Anyone who has seen the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis knows how this process of ignoring what doesn’t fit works. The reader’s reading process allows “compatible associations into the focus of attention” (p. 60).


Rosenblatt further addresses this potential objection to reader-response criticism in Chapter 5: The Text: Openness and Constraint. Here she is concerned with “the wide range of referential and affective responses that might be activated, and the fact that the reader must manage these responses, must select from them” (p. 75). Remembering that the reading process is a “two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship,” she insists that a reader’s response to the text must be grounded in the text itself:  “when we turn from the broader environment of the reading act to the text itself, we need to recognize that a very important aspect of a text is the cues it provides as to what stance the reader should adopt” (p. 81).

The importance of the text is not denied by recognition of its openness. The text is the author’s means of directing the attention of the reader […]. The reader, concentrating his attention on the world he [the author] has evoked, feels himself freed for the time from his own preoccupations and limitations. Aware that the blueprint of this experience is the author’s text, the reader feels himself in communication with another mind, another world. (p. 86)


Finally, one becomes a better reader through practice and experience: “As with all texts, the reader must bring more than a literal understanding of the individual words. He must bring a whole body of cultural assumptions, practical knowledge, awareness of literary conventions, readinesses to think and feel. These provide the basis for weaving a meaningful structure around the clues offered by the verbal symbols” (p. 88).


Rosenblatt continues this argument in Chapter 6: The Quest for “The Poem Itself,” where she emphasizes that she does not “claim that anything any reader makes of the text is acceptable. Two prime criteria of validity as I understand it are the reader’s interpretation not be contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be projected for which there is no verbal basis” (p. 115). The New Critics, she argues, sought

to rescue the poem as a work of art from earlier confusions with the poem either as a biographical document or as a document in intellectual and social history. A mark of twentieth-century criticism thus became depreciation of such approaches to literature and development of the technique of “close reading” of the work as an autonomous entity […]. The reaction against romantic impressionism fostered the ideal of an impersonal or objective criticism. Impressionist critics were charged with forgetting “the poem itself” as they pursued the adventures of their souls among masterpieces. (p. 102)


In the final chapter, Chapter 7: Interpretation, Evaluation, Criticism, Rosenblatt addresses what she sees as a division that has resulted from too great an emphasis on New Criticism:

Recent critical and literary theory is replete with references to “the informed reader,” “the competent reader,” “the ideal reader.” All suggest a certain distinction from, if not downright condescension toward, the ordinary reader. This reflects the elitist view of literature and criticism that in recent decades has tended to dominate academic and literary circles. (p. 138)


Moreover:

Let us look at the reality of the literary enterprise, of “literature” as a certain kind of activity of human beings in our culture. Instead of a contrast or break between the ordinary reader and the knowledgeable critic, we need to stress the basic affinity of all readers of literary works of art. The general reader needs to honor his own relationship with the text. (p. 140)


She wishes to break down elitism based upon the supposed quality of one’s reading preferences: “Despite the differences between the readings of great or technically complex works and the readings of popular ‘trashy’ works, they share some common attributes: the aesthetic stance, the living-through, under guidance of the text, of feelings, ideas, actions, conflicts, and resolutions beyond the scope of the reader’s own world” (p. 143).


The literary critic is, after all, just another reader:

Like other readers, critics may reveal the text’s potentialities for responses different—perhaps more sensitive and more complex—from our own. The critic may have developed a fuller and more articulate awareness of the literary, ethical, social, or philosophic concepts that he brings to the literary transaction, and may thus provide us with a basis for uncovering the assumptions underlying our own responses. In this way, critics may function not as stultifying models to be echoed but as teachers, stimulating us to grow in our own capacities to participate creatively and self-critically in literary transactions. […] we must at least hope for an increasingly independent body of readers, who take the critic not as model but as a fellow reader, with whom to agree or disagree, or whose angle of vision may in some instances seem remote from their own. (pp. 148-149)


Finally, Rosenblatt wants to put the joy back into reading: “it is hard at times, in reading twentieth-century analyses of the themes and symbols and technical strategies of a work, to discover whether the critic had even a glimmering of personal pleasure in the literary transaction, or a sense of personal significance” (p. 158).


The concept of transactional analysis of literature has profound implications for the educational system, Rosenblatt says:

a primary concern throughout would be the development of the individual’s capacity to adopt and to maintain the aesthetic stance, to live fully and personally in the literary transaction. From this could flow growth in all the kinds of resources needed for transactions with increasingly demanding and increasingly rewarding texts. And from this would flow, also, a humanistic concern for the relation of the individual literary event to the continuing life of the reader in all its facets—aesthetic, moral, economic, or social. (p. 161)


This theory of reading, she implies, will give literature back to the people: “The academic critical culture persists in ignoring, or at least laments, the mass and ‘middlebrow’ literary institutions in our society. The transactional formulation offers a theoretical bridge between the two literary cultures that now exist side by side” (p. 160). Indeed,

Perhaps we should consider the text as an even more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretations. We may help one another to attend to words, phrases, images, scenes, that we have overlooked or slighted. We may be led to reread the text and revise our own interpretation. Sometimes we may be strengthened in our own sense of having “done justice to” the text, without denying its potentialities for other interpretations. Sometimes the give-and-take may lead to a general increase in insight and even to a consensus. (p. 146)


And it is this final point that makes the reader-response theory of literary criticism so appealing right now. For what is Rosenblatt describing in this passage but a book group? And, even before Oprah jumped on the bandwagon, book groups were among the hottest crazes across America.


© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown



All material on these pages is © as indicated by Mary Daniels Brown