On February 28, 2014, in an interview with the Guardian, Martin Amis declared:
It is interesting that during her life Middlemarch wasn’t George Eliot’s greatest achievement. [… Today] I don’t think there is much argument about Middlemarch being the novel of the 19th century. I would say that it is the central English novel. It’s a novel without weaknesses […]. I first read it in my late teens and both my sons have read it recently. Neither read English at university and both thought it was amazing. So another proof of greatness is that it renews itself for every generation. I reread it in my 30s with completely undiminished admiration.
Martin Amis is one of those writers who does not shun away from paying tribute to the preceding artists who made his own work possible, as sources of inspiration and sometimes influence (he has elsewhere spoken at length of his hero and mentor, Saul Bellow). Yet, there can be reluctance to acknowledge this essential phenomenon at the heart of all creative production. Following in others’ footsteps may be seen as a sign of lack of confidence, talent or imagination. Many artists offer proof to the contrary, and demonstrate the importance of what I shall call “creative reception.”
Elizabeth Bowen, for example, recognized the debt she felt toward her predecessors and called her reception of their work “a necessary artistic heredity” (207) while Flaubert, one of her own avowed forefathers, himself declared:
Every voice finds its own echo! I often affectionately think of people unknown to me, to be born, foreigners, etc., who are moved or will be moved by the same things that move me now. A book helps you give birth to an eternal family among all human beings. All those who will be nourished by your ideas are like children feeding at your table. Likewise, how grateful I am to these good old souls one might devour greedily, whom it seems one knew personally, and of whom one dreams as one dreams of departed friends! (Letter to Louise Colet 19/02/1854, my translation)
The feeling of intimacy and of lineage revealed here by Flaubert is all the more interesting because he is one of the most studied and most followed literary figures of all time. The sense of sharing he expresses is crucially important for the argument I am about to develop. Indeed, there is no sense of hierarchy here, no boundaries, whether artistic, geographical, cultural or otherwise, and no gender-bias either. For Flaubert, clearly, the creative endeavour is a universal one.
Oscar Wilde, another of Flaubert’s followers, confirmed as much when he first facetiously declared: “Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read Flaubert’s Tentation de saint Antoine without signing my name at the end of it” (Ellman, 1970: 354-55). He also added: “Yes! Flaubert is my master, and when I get on with my translation of the Tentation I shall be Flaubert II, Roi par la grâce de Dieu, and I hope something else beyond” (Hart Davis, 1962: 233). He then more seriously explained: “Setting aside the prose and poetry of Greek and Latin authors, the only writers who have influenced me are Keats, Flaubert and Walter Pater, and before I came across them I had already gone more than half-way to meet them. Style must be in one’s soul before one can recognize it in others” (Mikhail, 1979: 249).
The language used by writers to discuss the question of their reception of others tends to indicate an emotional response. Their own understanding of what moves them into creative action can be vague or at least difficult to articulate, as countless other examples could show. It is therefore the role of the comparatist to attempt a critical appraisal of such a fundamental, artistic phenomenon as the continuously innovative meeting of artistic minds.
Like creative production, literary criticism follows an inherited line of antecedents – although more often than not it tends to challenge them. In the case of reception so many disagreements and branches have appeared over time that it has become very difficult to teach it according to a clear method. Students, as a result, seldom venture in the direction of reception studies, although they are often fascinated by specific case studies of creative encounters over time and space. In order to reconcile the various approaches, let us recap on the principles that have pertained to reception studies and see if a possible methodology can be offered.
Comparatists began approaching the reception question from very early on in the history of the discipline under the notion of “influence.” Until the 1960s, French comparatists, for example, focused on the success of a literary work and on the influence of artists on other artists or cultures (both notions combined as “fortune,” as in destiny or path). Success is a quantitative parameter and is evaluated according to the number of editions, publications, exhibitions, translations, adaptations, even objects produced, and the number of readers, when available. Influence, on the other hand, is the qualitative parameter that establishes how an artistic creation goes beyond its origin and becomes in its turn a source for further creative production.
From the 1960s, starting with Hans-Georg Gadamer (Wahrheit und Methode, 1960), new concepts began to emerge. Using the metaphor of “interpretative horizons” that he inherited from Martin Heidegger (Sein und Zeit, 1927), Gadamer posited the notion of “interpretative conversation,” which shows how a work is interpreted over time and how attempts at making sense of the original are continuous. Mentored by Gadamer, Hans Robert Jauss then formulated a scientific means of studying the matter. In Toward an Aesthetic of Reception Jauss offers a framework that includes inserting ‘the individual work into its “literary series” to recognize its historical position and significance’ (32). He distinguishes between ‘three stages of interpretations’: ‘understanding’ or aesthetic perception, ‘interpretation’ or exegesis, and ‘application’ or historical reflection (139-185). In the nineteen seventies, Jauss had successfully argued that literary works are received within an existing “horizon of expectations,” consisting of readers’ knowledge and preconceptions about literature and their contemporary cultural or moral codes. The meanings of the works received were therefore recognized as necessarily changing as horizons shifted (culturally, historically, or politically). In America, in the nineteen eighties, under the guidance of Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish introduced reader-response theory, positioning the reader in society. Fish also coined the term “interpretive communities,” referring to the reader as a member of a group with common values, influencing how a text may be perceived. Steven Mailloux added the idea that interpretation is a political reality that includes the social and cultural contexts in which reading takes place. This development led reception to be placed in some cases within the general field of Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies in turn gave way to new fields, such as fan studies, gay studies or ethnic studies, which share a common preoccupation: the analysis of the power relationship within cultures, and how this is expressed in artistic artifacts.
This is where divisions appear among comparatists who no longer agree on the nature of reception studies. Influence examines the creative effect a writer might have had on other writers. Reader response is concerned with the ways in which literary works are received by readers in general (not writers as readers in particular). The shift from the approach to texts in terms of their inherent properties to a discussion of the production of meanings within the reading process is not justified in the eyes of many who don’t see why both cannot work together. Also reader response is grounded in diverse theoretical frameworks (hermeneutics, stylistics, semiotics or psychoanalysis), which create confusion since they all investigate the reader’s contribution to the meaning of a narrative. Iser in The Act of Reading argues that readers ‘actualize’ texts by filling in their ‘gaps’ or indeterminacies of meaning, and Fish in Is There a Text in this Class? makes the reader the text’s true producer.
A In the meantime authors and artists have continued to recognize the importance of their reception of others on their own work, writing about it in essays and correspondence, speaking of it in interviews, and thus offering endless sources of investigation and examination of the creative process. But comparatists have recently tended to stay away from studying this creative phenomenon further. Developing a consensus on a new method does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda. It is all the more regrettable since studies on creativity in relation to Comparative Literature are on the increase (the latest example is Eugene Eoyang’s Promise and Premise of Creativity). With the recent developments in Comparative Literature that allow all fields to be taken into analytical account, it would make sense to include in a renewed reception theory all approaches to cultural artifacts that focus on the conditions, processes and effects that impact not only their creation but also their reading, viewing or auditing.
Below are various ways in which reception of the literary text can be studied:
1. In a social context at a given time:
- By the public or sections of the public
- Within a cultural terrain, which can have close relations with another
- As presented by critical reviews, publishers, bookshops, literary prize systems
- As discussed by other writers, other artists.
2. As a creative act:
- By other writers, other artists, including adapters, rewriters, composers
- Presented by performers
- Disseminated by translators
3. As a critical study:
- Through authenticated evidence of reading (via diaries, correspondence, interviews, etc.)
- Taking into account the reputation of either author or text
- Taking into account cultural or community contexts (in particular artistic, historical, social or political)
- With a special focus on interpretive communities
- As a meeting points between cultures (highlighting the relation to the Other)
These strands are not mutually exclusive and they include existing approaches, such as the Aesthetics and History of Reception(s).
Agreeing with Jauss we can see that the evolution of audiences explains the history of literary texts, which therefore don’t retain a fixed value or elicit uniform responses across generations. The author’s original audience may have informed the intended meaning, but this historical meaning and the modern meaning are necessarily radically different (but probably complementary).
To interpret a text from a reception point of view, one must take the subjective models, paradigms, beliefs, and values the readers into account. As it is read, a transformation of a literary text takes place, according to the reader’s sensitivity and experience. Potentially, the text is the starting point for some reader’s action and/or creation.
If literary texts do not retain a fixed value or elicit uniform responses across generations, endless (re) interpretations are possible. A literary work’s significance is the result of a chain of receptions. Reception spins a web of knowledge, interpretation and continued reading of literary works in ever-changing cultural, sociological, or political circumstances. Literary works become timeless because their interpretation is constantly renewed, demonstrating the role of the creative reader. Adaptations and rewritings across time and cultural spaces demonstrate it: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Aimé Césaire’s Une tempête, or King Lear and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, for instance.
Joyce’s work is also a good example. Greeted mostly with negativity for several decades (including in Ireland), it met with no spontaneous early wave of modern European enthusiasm – Paris being an exception. Joyce’s books only slowly became available in European countries. Knowledge of them was patchy, though: stories from Dubliners or parts of Ulysses frequently appeared in isolation. Joyce’s oeuvre was often read in its French translation (and was sometimes translated from the French, as happened in Spain). In various parts of Europe, people said they had read Joyce when, in fact, they could not have. What was written on Joyce was sometimes based on hearsay and on French reviews (as in Rumania). Joyce’s pan-European success owes a debt not to a surge of popular acclaim, but to the support and outspokenness of a few important literary figures like Adrienne Monnier, Bertold Brecht or Ernst Fischer, and to dedicated Joyce-lovers such as scholars and translators (above all Valery Larbaud). Despite the difficulty of evaluating his readership, we can say that Joyce’s work had an undeniable impact on world literature.
There is one consideration which may be missing from the (stalled) debate on reception and which could usefully be added: that of the ethical dimension of literature. Ethics could indeed represent a welcome avenue for examining the reception effect as described by authors. Ethics and literature also have common objects such as observing and getting to know humanity. They examine and formulate similar problems, such as moral reponsibility. The reader’s interest in character types found in fiction can be seen as applying to both artistic and ordinary lives. Contributors to the volume Ethique, littérature, vie humaine (Laugier, 2006) Jacques Bouveresse, Stanley Cavell, Monique Canto-Sperber, James Conant, Vincent Descombes, Cora Diamond, Elise Domenach, Martha Nussbaum, Layla Raid and Jean-Jacques Rosat, see the instructive and even redemptive value of literature and note the interest one has in experiencing a literary work. According to these critics, to examine and defend one’s interest in the experience of reading a text is to examine and defend one’s own experience of moments in one’s life that one feels have been shared with fictional characters. According to Wittgenstein, the latent moral content in literature as found in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky may lie not in feelings transmitted but in their expression.
The reader’s response to the literary text, to forms of moral expression, and to their exploration, is what is also at stake in reception studies, which identifies the formative experience that literature can offer. Therefore, just as Wilde maintained that “style must be in one’s soul before one can recognize it in others,” the meaning of any text is both in the text itself and in its reader. Focussing on only one of these aspects would be counterproductive (, all the more so if the reader was an author, ) taking us further away from agreeing on the essence of “creative reception.”
Amis, M. “What Middlemarch means to me. Martin Amis, AS Byatt, Kathyrn Hughes and John Mullan reflect on how Middlemarch has changed for them as they have got older.” The Guardian, Friday 28 February 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/28/middlemarch-george-eliot-martin-amis-as-byatt
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Ellman R. The Artist as Critic. London: W. H. Allen, 1970.
Fish, S. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1980.
Eoyang, E. The Promise and Premise of Creativity: Why Comparative Literature Matters. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.
Gadamer, H.G. [Wahrheit und Methode, 1960.] Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury Continuum Impacts, 2004.
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