Oxford Brookes University
No one was in doubt in the 1970s that reading took the form of dynamic, improvisatory practice. According to Wolfgang Iser, writing in 1972, reading is nothing more nor less than the actions we take when we respond to a text. Such actions create realization through which literary works take on life as we attend carefully to them. Iser’s famous essay ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’ describes how this realization hinges on neither the text nor the disposition of the individual reader. Instead these two points of origin converge to make reading flourish as its own creative activity in a new and lively “virtual dimension”.
What does this reading practice look like now, nearly fifty years later? Iser’s essay seeded a wealth of scholarship on reception and audience which remains an important strand of literary criticism. But what would it mean to take on the idea of reading as practice – to really take it on – from within today’s academy? Iser’s most radical suggestion, from the perspective of university English departments now, is that readers need not confirm anything since literature, unlike more expository writing, seldom sets out to fulfil any expectation. Instead each reader who fully perceives a work of art undertakes a new and unpredictable act of “recreation”. Of course, this is hardly news to students and teachers of creative writing whose work increasingly forms a lynchpin of UK English departments. But the relationship between creative and critical writing, as related but distinct forms of practice, still remains more or less untheorized. A renewed focus on practice-based reading might just reveal what critical and creative writing share in common.
It is not difficult to see why we have abandoned the idea of literary criticism as something dynamic and improvisatory. The REFable essay of around 8,000 words has become entrenched within a career structure which regards it as an unshakable marker of professional attainment. For this reason, and others, the form and length of the academic essay remains more or less static, and its voice remarkably uniform. Can you ever confidently identify the person who is speaking to you in a journal article? Is it possible to imagine the relationship between the essay’s author and the literature she is analyzing in terms of dynamic, improvisatory process? Does the essay itself respond to – or even recreate – a lifelike or virtual dimension? Such questions seem irrelevant at best, indecorous and impertinent at worst, not least because of the unbreakable form of the essay itself. Erasing idiosyncrasy of voice, and seeking a studied neutrality of tone, the essay sets out to assert command over the text it considers. Criticism finds patterns, makes arguments, keeps things straight. To do this properly, it must suppress whatever does not fit. But sometimes such patterns seem ill-equipped to respond meaningfully to the complex reality of the literature they survey – let alone the complex reality of life itself. More to the point, they can be singularly lacking in what Iser calls liveliness.
With the rapid upsurge of creative practice within English departments, it is however becoming increasingly difficult to regard the academic essay without irony as anything other than what it is: only one way among many of capturing what happens when we read. And the costs of our studied neutrality are becoming clearer in a world where the humanities are under ever more acute pressure. To detach ourselves from our writing, and from the literature we are writing about, still seems essential in order to attain or retain credentials within the guild of literary criticism. It is part of what we do; and there can be no doubt that neutrality can and does achieve much in elucidating and contextualizing literary texts. But what about Iser’s point: that when we “climb aboard” a piece of literature, any confirmative effects in the writing are likely to make us rapidly climb off again? Literature does not fulfil expectations. There is, then, a strange and fundamental mismatch between literature and literary criticism which – in public, at least – binds itself ever more tightly to a certain set of expectations about how the text will work upon us, and how we will account for such workings. If the academic essay forges its own form of practice, this is not the dynamic or improvisatory kind of practice that carries out much beyond itself.
How can we make our criticism more answerable to the unfulfilled promise of practice-based reading? The first step might be to achieve freedom, inside as well as outside the university, from Lit Crit’s traditional forms and expectations. The second might be to find a more confidently theorized place for lived life in critical thinking. A phenomenology of reading fit for the twenty-first century might thereby recognize that readerly subjects, like any other subjects, participate in richly complex ways in the diverse worlds they inhabit, rather than regarding them from a distance. Together, these two innovations might just re-animate literary criticism – not only by doing better justice to the lively experience of reading, but also by allowing our discipline to speak in more genuine ways to worlds outside the academy. Most of us have long since turned away from the possibility that literary criticism might achieve something beyond itself. The academic impact agenda has become shamefully debased, in its own way, by the mechanisms of measurement and control. But here, still, there are aspirations worth holding on to. Why shouldn’t literary criticism – as practice – be deeply ambitious not only for itself, but also for others? What kinds of liveliness, or lifelikeness, might become possible through acts of reading if it were?