Indeed, one might very roughly periodize the history of modern literary theory in three stages: a preoccupation with the author (Romanticism and the nineteenth century); an exclusive concern with the text (New Criticism); and a marked shift of attention to the reader over recent years. The reader has always been the most underprivileged of this trio--strangely, since without him or her there would be no literary texts at all. Literary texts do not exist on bookshelves: they are processes of signification materialized only in the practice of reading. For literature to happen, the reader is quite as vital as the author.As someone who has spent the last ten years or so thinking of himself primarily as a writer, all empirical evidence to the contrary, I've never been entirely keen on this primacy of the reader thing. First, it's hard to say the text doesn't exist because nobody's reading it; at the very least, the author read it, probably several times, sometimes before it got written down. "Reading" is not the only practice of signification that goes into writing, and I urge you to read and critique a blank sheet of paper sometime should you doubt this. The author is, of course, not a reader per se, because he (in this case, being me, the author is nominally male) has always "read" more than the archetypal reader. When I look at an old story of mine, I can't read the story the way a stranger can, because I can't un-remember the paratexts: when I read that story, I can't help but read the sentences I deleted, the scenes I decided not to write, the in-jokes I snuck into the exposition, or the books I was reading when I came up with the idea. But then, a friend of mine reading the story will have an experience not quite like either mine or the archetypal reader, so it might be a matter of degree. That said, the reader is clearly an important part of the process. In literature, that is. Eagleton continues:
What is involved in the act of reading? Let me take, almost literally at random, the first two sentences of a novel: "'What did you make of the new couple?' The Hanemas, Piet and Angela, were undressing." (John Updike, Couples.) What are we to make of this? We are puzzled for a moment, perhaps, by an apparent lack of connection between the two sentences, until we grasp that what is at work here is the literary convention by which we may attribute a piece of direct speech to a character even if the text does not explicitly do this itself. We gather that some character, probably Piet or Angela Hanema, makes the opening statement; but why do we presume this? The sentence in quotation marks may not be spoken at all: it may be a thought, or a question which someone else has asked, or a kind of epigraph placed at the opening of the novel. Perhaps it is addressed to Piet and Angela Hanema by somebody else, or by a sudden voice from the sky. One reason why the latter solution seems unlikely is that the question is a little colloquial for a voice from the sky, and we might know that Updike is in general a realist writer who does not usually go in for such devices; but a writer's texts do not necessarily form a consistent whole and it may be unwise to lean on this assumption too heavily. It is unlikely on realist grounds that the question is asked by a chorus of people speaking in unison, and slightly unlikely that it is asked by somebody other than Piet or Angela Hanema, since we learn the next moment that they are undressing, perhaps speculate that they are a married couple, and know that married couples, in our suburb of Birmingham at least, do not make a practice of undressing together before third parties, whatever they might do individually.What Eagleton describes here is the struggle to grok a rule system: to learn the underlying structures of the universe in order to piece together a useful, predictive understanding from incomplete information. It's about determining relationships, deciding which signs are relevant to which other signs, which narrative elements are epiphenomenal and which have deeper roots. Often this process relies (as it does in Eagleton's reading of Updike) in genre conventions, which are neither strictly textual nor the work of any particular author, but do form their own kind of tradition. Tradition is a loaded word in literary circles, one that's led to such unpleasantness as elitism, anti-semitism and The Waste Land, but it's worth wondering where we'd be as gamers without our own little tradition. Would anyone be able to make the slightest bit of sense out of Twilight Princess if it had been released one year after the original Legend of Zelda?
We have probably already made a whole set of inferences as we read these sentences. We may infer, for example, that the "couple" referred to is a man and woman, though there is nothing so far to tell us that they are not two women or tiger cubs. We assume that whoever poses the question cannot mind-read, as then there would be no need to ask. We may suspect that the questioner values the judgment of the addressee, though there is not sufficient context as yet for us to judge that the question is not taunting or aggressive. The phrase "The Hanemas," we imagine, is probably in grammatical opposition to the phrase "Piet and Angela," to indicate that this is their surname, which provides a significant piece of evidence for their being married. But we cannot rule out the possibility that there is some group of people called the Hanemas in addition to Piet and Angela, perhaps a whole tribe of them, and that they are all undressing together in some immense hall. The fact that Piet and Angela may share the same surname does not confirm that they are husband and wife: they may be a particularly liberated or incestuous brother and sister, father and daughter or mother and son. We have assumed, however, that they are undressing in sight of each other, whereas nothing has yet told us that the question is not shouted from one bedroom or beach-hut to another. Perhaps Piet and Angela Hanema are small children, though the relative sophistication of the question makes this unlikely. Most readers will by now probably have assumed that Piet and Angela Hanema are a married couple undressing together in their bedroom after some event, perhaps a party, at which a new married couple was present, but none of this is actually said.
More on New Criticism, authorial issues, and the problem of intent later. For now, this post is already long enough for me. I need a break.