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Julia Stefanova


First of all I would like to congratulate the conference organizers on this "enterprise of great pith and moment’ and thank them for the opportunity they have given me personally to talk to such a highly distinguished audience. I also want to say " thank you" on behalf of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission and the American Fulbrighters who are here and who, I am sure, will remember this event as one of the highlights of their stay in Bulgaria.

The significance of the theme "Reading in the Age of Computers" cannot be overstated either. The same applies with full force to the dedication of the conference to a scholar of such a stature as is Professor Wolfgang Iser, the bearer of the title of the total or compleat reader-oriented critic (E. Freund, 1987, p.135). The irony today, however, seems to be that the more reader-oriented criticism and literature become, the more disoriented the reader feels.

It has already become a commonplace that the new information technologies have dramatically revolutionized our lives, whether we like it or not. At first sight, one could be easily led into believing that the world has become smaller and more accessible to more people. As in an advertisement for an Internet service provider I recently saw, which said, "To explore the world, you used to need a safari hat and a camel. Now all you need is a mouse. "Is it that simple and easy indeed?

The answer to this question would seem to vary from culture to culture but more likely, especially in a culture like ours, from generation to generation.

The older generation appears more resistant to changes in the communication modes, out of ignorance, inability and unwillingness to learn and accept but also out of knowledge and ability and willingness to preserve the past, tradition, continuity and their own identity. The changing relationship between parents and kids curiously reminds me of the dialectic of the text-reader relationship reflected in literary study - from the unquestioned authority and objectivity of the text (the parents), as in the assumptions of liberal humanism, formalism and New Criticism for example, to the gradual shift over to the "sovereignty of the reader over the text" (the kids), as Anthony Smith phrased it in his 1980 book "Goodbye Gutenberg". In between lie I.A. Richards’ principles of literary criticism and communication theory and the various reader-response criticisms of Jonathan Culler, Michael Riffaterre, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, George Poulet, Roman Ingarden and, of course, Wolfgang Iser and the Konstanz school. May be Professor Iser’s model of the reading process and the production of meaning as interaction between the artistic and the aesthetic poles and his concept of the implied reader serves best my parallel. In any case, the key word is dialogue as opposed to the authority of monological discourse, whether the text’s or the reader’s, the parent’s or the kids. This dialogue, of course, is endless.

The focus of interest in this paper will be the empirical, the actual reader in our culture as he/she has changed through socio-historical time. My argument is that these changes, induced by external factors, curiously correspond to the shifts of emphasis in the theory of reading accomplished mainly by Anglo-American and German scholars. Of course, the empirical reader is a richer and more dynamic reality and depending on what and why he/she reads, he/she can take the stance of or coexist with different conceptualized readers, e.g. the traditional humanistic Arnoldian or Ricardian reader, the reduced new-critical reader, the inscribed reader in Culler’s structuralist poetics, the Fishian member of an interpretive community, the Freudian reader in Norman Holland’s transactive criticism, the phenomenological reader of Georges Poulet, Wolfgang Iser etc.

Why do most of us read today? For more or less the same reasons we read yesterday and the day before yesterday and these are for knowledge (including self-knowledge) and for pleasure. Knowledge would still involve formulations and facts, information, moral and aesthetic values that, we hope, will improve us intellectually, morally, aesthetically and help us succeed professionally and socially. Very close to what the empirical reader Charles Caleb Colton said in 1825, " Some read to think - these are rare, some to write, these are common, and some read to talk, and these form the great majority" (Lacon, 1825). We too belong to this majority, don’t we? Of course, for many of us talking means also publishing but it makes a big difference when you read a scholarly article on an abstruse subject and then you transpose it or write on (it), and when , like John Keats, you write a sonnet entitled "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" or " Before Re-Reading Lear." What I am trying to describe here is the traditional historical reader who still exists, I think, albeit as an endangered species. With fainting force he/she still rationally believes in the existence of a coherent outside reality, outside even text, which can provide meaningful experience; he/she still believes in collective cultural and national values that are and should be preserved in literature and art. This reader would readily agree with Henry Ward Beecher who wrote in 1887 , "Thank God for Books! And yet thank God that the great realm of truth lies yet outside books, too vast to be mastered by types or imprisoned in libraries." (Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit). He/or she would likewise agree with Ivan Vazov , the national poet of Bulgaria, who says in his poem of 1913 "Moite pesni" (My Songs), "Moите песни все ще се четат, /в тях зов се чуй за правда, за свобода, любов и благи чувства ги красят/ и светлий лик на нашата природа, /та мойте песни все ще се четат."1 The above-implied reader is a counterpart of the writer and critic who produces and interprets literature in the liberal humanistic paradigm well exemplified by the following statement of M. H. Abrams from " How to do things with Texts":

The writer is conceived, in Wordsworth’s terms, as a man speaking to men. Literature, in other words, is a transaction between a human author and his human reader. By his command of linguistic and literary possibilities, the author actualizes and records in words what he undertakes to signify of human beings and actions and about matters of human concern, addressing himself to those readers who are competent to understand what he has written. The reader sets himself to make out what the author has designed and signified, through putting into play a linguistic and literary expertise that he shares with the author. ( M.H. Abrams, 1979, 566).

Informing this model is what Geoffrey Hartman has called the dream of communication and intelligibility later to be severely undermined by the ideology of deconstruction and the Age of Reading.

In I.A.Richards, the British precursor of reader-oriented criticism whose thought, is "the belated culmination of Victorian earnestness and a redefinition of the Arnoldian valorization of culture as the bulwark against anarchy" (E. Freund, p.23), Abrams’ competence appears as response. "An improvement of response is the only benefit any one can receive and the degradation, the lowering of a response is the calamity". (I.A. Richards, 1924, 237). Reading literature is a preparation for life, a means of overcoming chaos, of organizing our minds, i.e. source of mental health. How is response cultivated? By teaching and learning how to read. Richards’ famous Cambridge Protocols in part 2 of "Practical Criticism" contain excerpts of student interpretations of poems (whose authorship was not revealed) which are critically analysed by the author. The main vices of the untutored readers appear to be carelessness, self-indulgence, sentimentality, arrogance and obtuseness. As a true-born Englishman, however, Richards does allow for individual responses but he also has in mind an ideal reader with perfect understanding who possesses literary competence, psychic poise, precise apprehension of tone and feelings and an ability to order these in due proportion. I think that there is still a lot of I. A. Richards in many teachers of literature in this country. You may call them traditional or old-fashioned. In much the same way Richards’ more general Arnoldian premises about the importance of culture and the arts would still appeal to a great many traditional humanistic readers and writers, whether pre-totalitarian or post-totalitarian. This is due to the general decline of culture (in the conventional sense) today and the all-pervasive feeling that it is being submerged in subculture and surrogates, that it is being chalgagized2.

There is a lot of universal sense in Richards’ thought, small wonder he is called the noble theoretician of all seasons and the classicist of the nervous system (Hartman). However, if used in another socio-cultural context, e.g. the totalitarian one, some of his noble premises may easily become tools of political demagogy. For example, if response needs to be taught, there must be teachers and critics available, teachers and critics trained and authorized to cultivate good response, to select masterpieces (like in the well-known series of the not too distant past "Izbrani romani" /Selected Novels/) and preface them in the requisite terms. In those days the selection of the right teachers and the right critics however had little to do with concern for the heightening of individual response through imaginative experience.

If the Ricardian reader may still sporadically occur, the new-critical and structuralist reader has, to my mind, almost completely disappeared. His/her empirical counterpart seems to be the totalitarian reader. There is even a temporal correspondence between them. New Criticism existed till the late 50s and structuralism was still alive in the mid-seventies. As you all know, New Criticism was a strongul intellectual movement in the U.S. (J. C. Ransom, Alllen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Rene Wellek, W. K. Wimsatt etc) which emphasized the text’s objectivity, self-sufficiency and organic unity and developed the technique of close reading. It marginalized the reader and disposed of subjectivistic and psychological theories of value. As J. C. Ransom said, " The first law to be prescribed to criticism, if we may assume such authority, is that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects on the subject (Criticism Inc.). In their well-known "Theory of Literature (first published in 1949) R. Wellek and A. Warren go even further, "To say that literary study serves only the art of reading is to misconceive the ideal of organized knowledge, however indispensable this art may be to the student of literature. Even though reading may be used broadly enough to include critical understanding and sensibility, the art of reading is an ideal for a purely personal cultivation. As such it is highly desirable but it cannot replace the conception of literary scholarship conceived as superpersonal tradition. (Wellek and Warren, 1949, pp. 7-8).

This anti-subjectivist slant was dear to the objectivist-oriented Marxist ideology." Kakvo tuk znachi nyakava si lichnost, kakvo tuk znachi nyakakuv chitatel?"3 Small wonder "Theory of Literature "was on the list of officially recommended critical reading in those days.

From here the transition to the structuralist poetics of Jonathan Culler and his theory of the inscribed reader is a matter of a few steps forward. Just like historical materialism concentrated on the laws governing history and minimized the role of the individual in the historical process, structuralism focused on the laws that govern the construction of literary works, showing little interest in the reader or in the content. It aimed at a comprehensive theory of literary discourse allotting a secondary place to the intepretation of individual texts. Culler makes a characteristic distinction between interpreting literature and understanding literature, "To engage in the study of literature is not to produce yet another intepretation of "King Lear" but to advance one’s understanding of the conventions and operations of an institution, a mode of discourse. (Culler,1975, 5).

Structuralism treated literature as an already constituted and closed system just like from a semiotic point of view we inhabit a prison-house of signs in which our institutions, poems and ourselves are always already inscribed and interpreted. The unique specificity of literary language is assimilated to the structures of language and its effect is demystified by poetics. (Freund, 71-2). Just as in Marxist social theory the individual is assimilated to social reality and his/her uniqueness is ultimately dissolved in objective historical regularities of rise and fall of classes, relations of production and forms of ownership. The totalitarian reader was torn between his/her private discourse and the dominant discourse of power and this polarity of self and convention led to general degeneration of response. A good example of this were the gems we used to cull from the annual entrance exam in literature at Sofia University.

I remember one such winged thought, "The great proletarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov longed to die for his people, fortune smiled at him and he was shot dead."

Stanley Fish is usually associated with the reader’s major appearance on the stage of English studies. Contrary to the New Critics, he claims that the objectivity of the text is a dangerous illusion. Meaning does not reside in the text but in the experience of the reader. A sentence is an event, something that happens to and with the participation of the reader (Fish, 1970, 140; 126-7). So far so good. But Fish goes on to say that experience is immediately compromised the moment you say anything about it. In other words, no discursive analysis of the event of reading will coincide with the reading experience, which is inexpressible. This is very close to what Northrop Frye says in his "Anatomy of Criticism", " The experience of literature, like literature itself, is unable to speak." (Frye, 1957, 3) Fish calls his conceptualized reader the "informed reader". He/she is a competent speaker of the language who possesses some literary awareness as well.. He/she is no particular individual but something like Riffatterre’s super-reader - a linguistic and cultural ideal, a hybrid of real and abstract. He/she is not free but is constrained by the features of the text , his/her authority is illusory because he/she is a product of pre-existing norms and is controlled by the systems of competence he/she has internalized. Thus the reader can produce only those meanings he is programmed to produce. Actually, the same applies to the author. Thus Fish resolves the gap between author and reader - intention and experience. Intention and understanding are two ends of a conventional act. To construct the profile of the informed or at-home reader is at the same time to characterize the author’s intention and vice-versa, because to do either is to specify the contemporary conditions of utterance, to identify, by becoming a member of a community made up of those who share interpretive strategies. Meanings are the property neither of fixed or stable texts nor of free and independent readers but of interpretive communities.( Freund, 1987,104-110). Here I am tempted to draw a parallel between Fish’s dialectic of individual reading experience and the interpretive community and similar casuistic formulations about individual freedom, choice, the dialectic of private and public/political etc characteristic of the literature in the decline of totalitarianism, when its grip loosened and more dialectical texts ( to use Fish’s distinction) were allowed to appear. They were seemingly dissident but in essence were well within Fish’s flexible formula.

I will skip the deconstructive theories of reading because they are with an unhappy ending as far as the possibility of reading is concerned. Besides, if my job is to try to span a bridge between the empirical reader in transition and his various theoretical hypostases, the deconstructive image would serve me little. For now that at long last the post-totalitarian readers are free, they do not need deconstruction to tell them that reading is impossible and has always been so.

The post-totalitarian readers in this country, especially in the last few years, have increased their numbers (not only for economic reasons) and have become more expert in wielding their freedom of choice on the practically unlimited book market. However, their personal freedom of predilection, the restituted privacy of their reading process and interpretation are being threatened again, this time by the new interpretive communities produced by globalization and the internet, by the general macdonaldization of culture. Yet, on the whole, especially from the viewpoint of the young, the gains are greater than the losses.

Today, like yesterday and like always, we continue to read because we are in pursuit of knowledge or pleasure. Knowledge has become almost identical with informaton and in this regard the internet revolution has brought only benefits to the intellectually inquisitive and the young. Of course, the problem remains that with such enormous quantities of information readily available, one gets entrapped in texts and can fall an easy prey to the obsession with intertextuality and referentiality. One’s world tends to become more textual and virtual. This seems to be price of the phenomenologioal reduction, the freedom from the shackles of the sociological idea. The only empirically real thing is that because of your knowledgeability and communication skills you get invitations to go to real conferences like this one and travel in physical space... For how long? I don’t want to know.

To my mind, the most important change that has happened to the post-totalitarian reader is that today, more than ever before, he/she reads not only for knowledge but also for self-knowledge. I am not saying that this was entirely impossible under totalitarianism but was definitely not encouraged. It was curbed and the access to literature stimulating self-knowledge was very restricted, not to say prohibited. Reading for self-knowledge is very close, if not identical with, reading for pleasure. At this point I can easily relate the empirical post-totalitarian reader to Freud and Norman Holland’s transactive criticism. Before doing that however, I’ll go back in time to demonstrate that this approach was anticipated by much earlier authors, mainly writers. For example, in "The Journals" of 1832, R.W. Emerson wrote, (echoing Coleridge’s Dejection Ode of 1802), "What can we see, read, acquire but ourselves. Take the book my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find what I find. What’s a book. Everything and nothing. The eye that sees it is all." In 1934 Ezra Pound, pursuing the same line of thinking, added, "No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents. (The ABC of Reading). Or Rainer Maria Rilke - in a private letter of 1921 , "No book can do anything decisive if the person concerned is not already prepared through quite invisible influences for a deeper receptivity and absorption, if his hour of self-communion has not come anyway."

"Reading for pleasure is also a substitute of living which is often failing." This comes from E. Barrett Browning (Aurora Leigh, 1856). In 1860 again Emerson, this time in "The Conduct of Life", "For the most part our novel-reading is a passion for results." A hundred years later in 1958 W. Styron wrote in "Writers at work", "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it." These statements from writers who are also readers lead directly to Freud’s theory of literature and the creative process and Norman Holland’s psychoanalytical approach to reading which he calls transactive criticism.

According to Holland’s paradigm the reader uses the literary text to enact his basic compulsion to recreate and expand his own self. Interpretation thus becomes a function of identity. As a woman/man is so she reads. Meaning is not about texts but about readers. There is a kind of a collusion (transaction) between author and reader which produces pleasure. The reader makes use of his/her unconscious response in order to perceive what is going on whilst experiencing that response to another’s. Reading psychoanalytically enables us to discover the text’s deepest sources of meaning as well as our unconscious selves, our own otherness. Although, Holland’s transactive paradigm has been attacked on many grounds (just like Freudian criticism in general) it gives an exciting perspective to the newly emancipated post-totalitarian reader.

The most common flaw of most theories of reading is that they cannot successfully theorize the relationship of reader and text, subject and object, or as J.Culler observed, what can be read in the text and what is read into it. (On Deconstruction,1982). The phenomenological approach elegantly merges subject and object encompassing the dualism of reader and text in the single concept of intentionality. " The extraordinary fact in the case of a book is the falling of the barriers between you and it. You are inside it ;it is inside you;there is no longer either outside or inside." (Georges Poulet, Phenomenology of Reading, 1969, in E.Freund, 137). Georges Poulet goes on describing the act of reading as a semi-mystical experience, "Not only does it cause the physical objects to disappear but it replaces those external objects with congeries of mental objects in close rapport with my own consciousness... This creates a curious problem, I am someone who happens to have as objects of his own thought thoughts that are the cogitations of another...I am thinking the thoughts of another... I think them as my own... I am a subject of thoughts other than my own. My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another.. " (Freund, 138) However the other subject is not the author but the work. Neither author nor reader is master of the intended object of consciousness

Wolfang Iser’s theory of reading also postulates an interaction between textual signals and the reader’s comprehension to an extent that they merge into a single situation, the division no longer applies and meaning is no longer an object to be defined but an effect to be experienced. But Iser does not believe in the total coincidence of reader and text. The relationship is resolved in his concept of the implied reader. The implied reader is firmly planted in the text, it is a construct but it can be construed only by a real reader (The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, 1978). The distinction between the conceptualized phenomenological reader and the historical reader is blurred and the question of authority is avoided. May be this is closer to what really happens.

The phenomenological approach also blurs the distinction between between reading and writing, as in Wallace Stevens’ poem "The House was quiet and the world was calm" , " The house was quite and the world was calm/The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book... The words were spoken as if there was no book/ Except that the reader leaned above the page, / Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be/ The scholar to whom this book is true" etc.

The blurring of the boundaries of writing and reading is really happening in hypertext. Hypertext also includes sound, graphics, video and other media which totally alter the functions of reader and writer as well as the whole reading process. It increasingly becomes a collective act of communication and the authority of writing is undermined. The reader of the future, which is today, needs more than a "passion for reading" (Gorki’s " strast k chteniyu"). He/ she must have special technical skills to be able to use the library of the future.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this new mode of reading. The advantage is that is a lot of sound, colour and all sorts of multi-media effects in it and it could be interactive. Exactly to the taste of Alice from "Alice in Wonderland" (1865)," What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" The disadvantages and losses are more in the failing eyes of the traditional and old-fashioned perceiver. For example, the physical pleasure of lying on a sofa or a bed perusing an old book with a sentimental value. The age of the electronic book does not take a good care of the reader’s body and we tend to become something like Professor Dowell’s head in Belyaev’s novel of the same name. . I can’t help resorting again to a relevant quotation from a Emily Dickinson , "A precious-mouldering pleasure - "tis - To meet an Antique book - In just the Dress his Century wore- A privilege - I think." (1862). Or from George Gissing ," I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. (The Private Papers of George Henry Ryecroft, 1903)

To cut a very long story short, even in the Age of the Book and the post-modern condition there are people who still believe that there is a tangible world of reference out there, worth exploring not only with a mouse. Being partially one of them and a teacher of Romantic poetry, I ‘ll conclude with a quotation from Wordsworth, "Up Up my friend, and quit your books; or surely, you’ll grow double. Up, up my friend and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble." (The Tables Turned, 1798). Thank you.




1. Abrams, M.H., "How to Do Things with Texts", Partisan Review, 565-80, 1979.

2. Culler, Jonathan, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1975.

3. Culler, Jonathan, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Stucturalism. Ithaca. Corenll University Press, 1982.

4. Fish, Stanley, Literature in the Reader: affective stylistics, New Literary History,123-62, 1970.

5. Freund, Elizabeth, The Return of the Reader, Methuen & Co.Ltd, 1987.

6. Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism, Princepton University Press, 1957.

7. Iser, Wolfgang, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

8. Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism, London: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1924.

9. Wellek, Rene and Warren, Austin, Theory of Literature. London: Cape, 1949.




1. "My songs will be for ever sung, for they are full of love and lofty feelings, // They cry for freedom and for justice and sing the beauty of my native land, // My songs will be for ever sung..." (from the poem "My songs"), my almost literal translation. [back]

2. Chalga" is a Turkish word which means" a song". Today it is used in Bulgarian to designate a product of low and vulgar post-totalitarian culture, especially in music. [back]

3. What does a reader matter? What does an individual matter? "This is an allusion to a line from a well-known poem by the Bulgarian proletarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov entitled "The Execution", which says, " What does an individual matter?" etc. [back]



© Julia Stefanova
© E-magazine LiterNet, 15.02.2000
, № 2 (3)