At my university, the English department offers a terrifying trial-by-fire for foolish English majors who suffer the arrogant delusion of thinking they know what they’re talking about. Literary Theories is the kind of experience after which you will no longer fear death, and it was a class I thought I could handle. And I suppose I did handle it, getting out with a B and managing to write the first of my two essays that Professor Chapman would give an A through my three classes with him, but I got my face kicked every day trying to keep up with all of that lit theories stuff.
We read one piece of fiction, James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” and then spent four months reading essays on every variety of literary theory we could fit in the class. Things like feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytical, and liberal humanist theory were old-hat, but we (I) hit some pretty debilitating snags with postmodern theory, and never ask me to explain what deconstructionist theory is even supposed to be. But the one I struggled with in the best sort of way, as in I could actually understand it and thus grapple with it, was reader response theory.
Reader response, as we learned through the variety of class opinions, is super polarizing. Its main point is that fiction is devoid of any inherent, immutable meaning via the author or “the text itself,” rather, meaning is given to the text by its readers. This means that, regardless of anything the author had in mind while writing the piece and even regardless of whatever meanings might seem immediately apparent in the story given the story itself or the story within any kind of context, all interpretations of meaning by anyone in any story are equally valid. If I say that “The Dead” is about broccoli or telephones, I am just as right as someone who says it’s about Irish nationalism and patriarchal privilege. Or if I say Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is about how great American slavery was, I’m just as right as someone who says it condemns slavery.
The polarity is probably pretty clear right away, and it’s also quite deep. It doesn’t just pit different kinds of bookish types against one another–it is a fight-to-the-death cage match between relativists and objectivists over the nature of narrative. If you’re the type to believe that truth is a matter of people personally interpreting their own subjective experience, you’re probably on board with reader response. But if you believe that truth corresponds with a real, objective universe beyond your own experience, reader response is not going to sit well with you.
I myself am one of the objectivists, which can sometimes feel a little rare in the literary world. I believe that truth is what it is regardless of anyone’s interpretations, and I believe the purpose of everyone’s arguments over truth is to help us get a little closer to what that absolute truth is. So, I wasn’t happy about reader response. As evidenced by some of the language I use and will use in this blog, I have a strong fondness for liberal humanist theory, operating under the assumption that some essence of “the text itself” exists, doing its own thing, beyond readers, writers, or context.
What I learned through this class is that my position just couldn’t hold together. Objectivism, in the world of literary theory, holds onto an entirely untenable ideal. See, in the world of science and history and things like that, the truth they aspire to corresponds to a real, external world, as I’ve said. If one person says objects fall to the earth because of the force of gravity, and another says they fall to the earth because they really like the ground and want to be as close to it as they can, at least one person is definitely wrong because their statement doesn’t correspond with reality. But in the world of fiction, and the world of language in general, there is no reality to correspond with–we’re all just pretending. Without people, gravity is still a thing, but language and stories are gone with no one left to mutually agree to pretend that words mean anything at all. Even if we left behind all our books and things, all a book is, without people to give it meaning, is sheets of paper with ink squiggles on it–there’s no “text in itself” because text doesn’t really exist beyond the minds of those who read it.
Lots of people will appeal to authorial intention for immutably objective meaning, but that was abandoned by pretty much every literary theory and theorist a long time ago. The author wrote the words, yes; and the author probably had some kind of intention behind how the piece should be understood, but the author gives meaning to writing in the exact same way a reader does–we both interpret words though our knowledge and experience in order to imagine scenarios, and all this is colored by our subjective and equally valid experiences. Just because the author arranged the words in a specific order doesn’t mean the author has any ownership over their meaning–the author didn’t invent English, and those words mean nothing unless readers agree they mean something too–thus even the author’s intentions behind their work or interpretations of their own work is just as subjective as mine, being a reader. So, does that then mean that “The Dead” is just as much about telephones as it is about Irish nationalism then, because someone says so? Yeah, I guess it does.
It took me a while, but I finally had to concede that believing in any kind of true meaning in fiction beyond subjective interpretation is misguided. I got on board with reader response, but it still didn’t sit well. I was quite sure there isn’t anyone out there who genuinely believes that “The Dead” is about telephones and would seriously argue for that, so that’s got to point to some kind of hierarchy of quality with interpretations that places telephones near the bottom. In my debates with the reader response types in the class, I even illustrated this point by claiming Huckleberry Finn was a pro-slavery novel, which caused one of the reader response supporters to reflexively scoff despite reader response saying that’s totally valid. There’s got to be something that makes some interpretations better than others, there just has to be. How else would these universally accepted interpretations come about? And how could we English majors in this class justify all the fiction interpretation we were arguing over all the time as if there was a right answer?
The answer, of course, is in science.
Not really, but I think it’s in emulating a standard of evaluation used for scientific theories. I mentioned how one person, like Isaac Newton, might say that objects fall because of gravity, and another, like Aristotle, might say that they fall because they like the ground. Each of those is a theory, an attempt to explain observed phenomena. Neither person’s scientific observation is wrong, things definitely fall to the ground all the time, but people tend to like Newton’s theory a lot better, despite the fact that we don’t really know for sure how gravity works, leaving the possibility that Newton is totally wrong. We like it because Newton’s theory follows two of the main criteria for a scientific theory: 1. that it coherently explains the phenomenon in question, and 2. that it does so as simply as possible. Aristotle’s theory may seem like it’s simple to a fault, but if you look at the number of assumptions you need to make, given the sole observation that things fall, in order for it to make sense, it’s actually way too complicated. First you need to assume that all objects on earth have conscious desires, which means you need to assume they have some kind of mechanism behind their consciousness, like a brain or something; then you have to assume they have some means of moving themselves in order to fall toward the ground they love so much. Aristotle is asking us to think about an accept a lot of stuff just to understand why things fall. Newton’s theory, on the other hand, is really simple: there’s a fundamental force that causes matter to be attracted to matter. Can we do much to explain exactly what that force is? Not yet, but at least we don’t have to question possibly dozens of other factors just to accept what he’s trying to say. For all we know, both are totally wrong, but we find Newton’s theory much more useful for lending coherence to the fact that things fall thanks to the theory’s simplicity.
I think that idea can also be applied to literary theory. In the case of Aristotle’s theory, we can prove a lot of the assumptions behind it wrong via observation, which is not an option with fiction, but the optimal simplicity test is still an option. Presumably, it is possible to argue that Huckleberry Finn is a pro-slavery novel–given enough time and enough perseverance, I don’t doubt someone could do it. But it would be really hard to pull off and maintain a logically coherent argument. You would have to radically reinterpret scenes and characters and maybe even words themselves before you’d finally, after a long road, come to a pro-slavery argument people could find convincing. But you could probably come up with a solid argument that it’s an anti-slavery novel in less than a page, double-spaced. No radical reinterpretation or crazy complicated arguments necessary. In addition, if I were to hand a copy of Huckleberry Finn to a person who knew nothing about it and only told them it was an anti-slavery novel, they would probably not have much problem believing that. If I handed them a copy and just told them it was a pro-slavery novel, they would probably find themselves getting quite confused, and they would need to come up with unnecessarily complicated justifications to make sense of what I told them. The anti-slavery theory is simpler, and thus it is better, according to science. Are you going to argue with science?
Does that mean that either interpretation is more true than the other? No, that’s just not a thing; it can’t be a thing when the item in question only exists in the individual imaginations of the readers. But it does mean that an interpretation can be more or less useful for understanding a piece in the simplest way possible. We like that simplicity, and, as demonstrated by science, simple theories are objectively better at helping us advance in our understanding of the world. The same is true for narratives. Perhaps interpretations being more or less useful than each other is not as satisfying as them being more or less true than each other, but that’s how I finally came to terms with reader response, and it has been a happy relationship ever since.