Amani Abdel Sabour
Contemporary Literary Criticism
26 December 2007
Reader Response Criticism;
A Comparative Study of
Norman Holland and David Bleich
Reader Response criticism is a general term that refers to different approaches of modern criticism and literary theory that focuses on the responses of readers and their reactions to the literary text. It also, in M.H Abrams' words, "does not designate any one critical theory, but a focus on the process of reading a literary text that is shared by many of the critical modes"(268). Reader Response criticism is described as a group of approaches to understanding literature that explicitly emphasize the reader's role in creating the meaning an experience of a literary work. It refers to a group of critics who study, not a literary work, but readers or audiences responding to that literary work. It has no single starting point. They seriously challenge the dominancy of the text-oriented theories such as New Criticism and Formalism.
Reader Response theory holds that the reader is a necessary third part in the author-text-reader relationship that constitutes the literary work. The relationship between readers and text is highly evaluated. The text does not exist without a reader; they are complementary to each other. A text sitting on a shelf does nothing. It does not come alive until the reader conceives it. Reader Response criticism encompasses various approaches or types. Of theses types is the 'Subjectivist' Reader Response criticism, which embraces critics such as David Bleich, Norman Holland, who are my focus in this paper, and Robert Crossman. Those critics view the reader's response not as one guided by text but as one motivated by a deep-seated, personal psychological needs. They also are called 'Individualists'. As they think that the reader's response is guided by his psychological needs, therefore some of them, like Norman Holland, have a psychoanalytic view of that response. In the psychoanalytic view the reader responses to the literary work in a highly personal way. The real meaning of the text is the meaning created by the individual's psyche.
Lawrence Shaffer defines Psychoanalytic Criticism as "an approach to literary criticism, influenced by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which views a literary work as an expression of the unconscious- of the individual psyche of its author or of the collective unconscious of a society or of the whole human race" (44). Reader Response critics have applied the psychoanalytical view to their analysis of the experience of reading a work. Namely; they focus on the psyche of the reader. Prominent among those who applied the psychoanalytical view is the American critic Norman Holland. Born in Manhattan in1927, Holland is an American literary critic and theorist who has focused on human responses to literature, film, and other arts. He is known for his work in Psychoanalytic criticism and Reader Response criticism.
Holland began his Psychoanalytic writings with Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (1966). In which he made a survey of what psychoanalytic writers has said about Shakespeare. He urged psychoanalytic critics to study real people, the audience and readers of literature, rather than imaginary characters. His contribution to Reader Response criticism was great. He has written about" the way self (reader) interacts with world (text) in four books: The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968), Poems in Persons (1973), 5 Readers Reading (1979), and Laughing: A Psychology of Humor (1982)" (Berg 266).
According to Holland there are three explanation-models in Reader Response Theory. First, 'text-active' model, in which "the text defines the response". The second model he calls "reader-active", in which readers create meanings, and undergo the reading experience by exploring the text and all its items. "Word forms, word meanings, syntax, grammar, on up to complex individual ideas about character, plot, genre, themes, or values"(Holland). Thus the reader explores and interprets the text. Most who pioneered this view like Holland are Americans such as David Bleich, Stanley Fish, and Louise Rosenblatt. The third model is a compromise, and Holland calls it 'bi-active', in which the text causes part of the response and the reader the rest. Holland thinks that a 'reader-active' model is right. He believes that it explains likeness and difference in reading. "Similarities come from similar hypotheses formed by gender, class, education, race, age, or 'interpretive community'" (Holland). While the difference come from differing hypotheses that result from individual beliefs, opinions and values, i.e. one's 'identity'. Holland considers a 'test-active' model is wrong, and therefore a 'bi-active' model is also wrong as it is half wrong and consequently all wrong.
Holland suggests that "when we interpret a text, we unconsciously " react to our identity themes. To defend ourselves against our " fears and wishes, we transform the work in order to relieve psychic pressures" (Shaffer 48). Literature allows us to recreate our identities and to know ourselves as Holland deduced after the 'Delphi seminar', in which he worked at the State University of New York at Buffalo with other critics such as Robert Rogers, David Willbern and others. The ' Delphi seminar' was designed to get students know themselves. The reader's re-creation of his identity could happen when he transact with the text in four ways: "defense, expectation, fantasy, and transformation, which Holland reduces to the acronym 'DEFT' " (Newton, Interpreting Text 144). Defenses are ways of copying with inner and outer reality, particularly conflicts between different psychic agencies and reality. Holland thinks that we defend in many ways; we repress our fears and our painful thoughts or feelings, we deny sensory evidence or we isolate one emotion or idea from another. Expectations are our fears and wishes.Fantacies is what the individual puts out from himself into the outside world.