Reading Autobiographical Comics: A Framework for Educational Settings
Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- 1 Reader-Response Criticism
- 1.1 Reading as a Journey
- 1.2 Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory
- 1.3 Frames
- 1.4 Iser’s Model of Meaning-Making
- 1.5 The Overdetermination of Literary Texts
- 2 Transaction in Educational Settings
- 2.1 The Ease of Reading
- 2.2 The Teacher of Literature as a Facilitator
- 2.3 Reading in Stages
- Stage 1: Framing
- Stage 2: Reading
- Stage 3: Think-Tank
- Stage 4: Lockstep
- Stage 5: Rereading
- Stage 6: Conclusions
- Stage 7: Closure
- 2.4 Learner Texts & Activities
- 3 Cognitive (Literary) Studies
- 3.1 The Return of the Reader
- 3.2 Mental Models
- 3.3 Emotions & Empathy
- 3.3.1 The Feeling of What Happens
- 3.3.2 Types of Reading-Related Feelings
- 3.3.3 Transportation
- 3.3.4 Empathy
- 3.4 Embodied Cognition & Enactivism
- 3.5 Conceptual Metaphors & Blending
- 3.5.1 Basic Principles
- 3.5.2 Metaphors
- 3.5.3 Metonymies
- 3.5.4 Blending
- 3.6 Blending & Literary Studies
- 4 Cognitive Approaches to Comics
- 4.1 Synopsis
- 4.2 Definitions
- 4.3 Cartooning
- 4.4 An Art of Tensions
- 4.4.1 Words vs. Images
- 4.4.2 Image vs. Series/Sequence
- 4.4.3 Sequence vs. Page
- 4.4.4 Experience vs. Object
- 4.5 A Cognitive Reading of Craig Thompson’s Blankets (Chapter I)
- 5 Autobiographical Comics
- 5.1 The Conceptual Ambiguity of Autobiography
- 5.1.1 A Struggle with Definitions
- 5.1.2 A Brief History of Autographics
- 5.1.3 Autographical Challenges to Autobiographical Genre Theory
- 5.2 Life Writing & Blending
- 5.2.1 The Autobiographical Act as Blending
- 5.2.2 Developing Autobiographical Reasoning
- 5.2.3 Autobiographical Memory
- 5.2.4 Photographic Evidence
- 5.3 Authenticity & Emotional Truth
- 5.4 Autobiographical Selves
- 5.5 Embodiment & Enaction
- 5.6 Types of Autobiographical Comics
- List of Illustrations
- Series index
Bibliographic Information published by the Deutsche
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available in the
internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
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Printed with the support of the Department of English and American Studies and
the Stiftungs- und Förderungsgesellschaft of the University of Salzburg.
Open Access Funding was provided by the University of Salzburg.
ISBN 978-3-631-81088-0 (Print)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82338-5 (E-PDF)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82339-2 (EPUB)
E-ISBN 978-3-631-82340-8 (MOBI)
Open Access: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution
CC-BY 4.0 license. To view a copy of this license, visit
© Markus Oppolzer, 2020
Peter Lang – Berlin · Bern · Bruxelles · New York · Oxford · Warszawa · Wien
This publication has been peer reviewed.
About the author
Markus Oppolzer is an associate professor of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and English literary studies at the University of Salzburg, Austria. His main research areas are autobiographical comics, visual narrative media in the classroom and multiliteracies.
About the book
This book updates reader-response criticism as the foundation of aesthetic reading in the classroom by bringing it in line with cognitive theories in literary studies and linguistics. With the help of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s conceptual integration theory, which shares a surprising number of correspondences with Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, it is possible to flesh out the latter‘s model of narrative meaning-making. In turn, this allows for a consistent reader-response approach to the medium of comics and auto/biography as one of its dominant genres. The fragmentation of comics narratives, but also of human lives and identities, requires such a theory that can explain how different perspectives and experiences can be blended into an experiential whole.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Without the generous support of the University of Salzburg this publication would not have been possible in its present form. Most of all, I appreciate the opportunity to make my book available via Open Access, which means that anyone who is interested in teaching literature, comics and auto/biography can download it for free. I had access to all the (re)sources I could ask for through our library service and I was able to attend all the conferences I was interested in, especially those of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor), whose fellow members I want to thank for all their support throughout the years. The Department of English and American Studies was instrumental in co-funding the print publication. Extensive feedback from students has helped me to test and clarify the stages of reading that I present in the second part, but also to evaluate existing theories and to question concepts I took for granted. I am especially grateful to Craig Thompson for allowing me to reproduce so many panels and pages from Blankets (2003). Finally, I extend my gratitude to my family and especially to my wife Eva, who has been incredibly patient and supportive throughout the whole process.
My original intention for this book was to provide a practical guide to teaching comics in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom, based on a series of university courses on visual literacy, comics and picture books. However, this hands-on approach soon required major adjustments and made me reconsider a number of basic premises that I had taken for granted. The main challenge was not so much a lack of interesting ideas or useful activities, which are widely available (cf. e.g. Cary 2004: 70–156), but a concept of how to frame teaching sequences and integrate tasks in such a way that they serve a particular purpose, depending on the stage of transaction with a literary text. Reader-response approaches, which are introduced in part 1, require such a gradual transition from first, subjective impressions to a more profound (personal) understanding of a narrative, for which the usual pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading phases did not provide enough overall structure. Therefore, I adapted existing multi-step approaches to reading and developed a procedure in seven stages, which is introduced in part 2 of this thesis. It combines extensive reading in between lessons with intensive reading tasks for the classroom that encourage an ongoing dialogue with the text, but especially amongst students.
Another important adjustment was a greater focus on genre. The ubiquity of autobiographical material in alternative comics is undeniable, as evidenced by the most widely discussed and popular texts, such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Craig Thompson’s Blankets. It seemed inappropriate to merely highlight the medium’s unique narrative features without addressing the key concerns of its two major genres, superheroes and autobiography, which are singled out in Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith and Paul Levitz’s The Power of Comics as requiring special attention (cf. 2015: 191–227; 229–62). Both have histories, influence creative choices and shape readers’ expectations. Accordingly, the last part of this study is dedicated to ‘autographics’, Gillian Whitlock’s term for autobiographical work in the comics medium (cf. 2006), which is ideally suited to address questions of authenticity, representation and fluid identities.
Over the years, it has become feasible to base a reader-response approach to graphic literature on related theories in comics studies (cf. e.g. McCloud 1994; Hatfield 2005; Groensteen 2007; Kukkonen 2013b; Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015), but this necessitates a patchwork ot texts that lacks overall coherence. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics seems to deliver all the key elements in ←11 | 12→a neat package, but students tend to mistake his ideas and classifications for iron rules. While there are traces of a cognitive approach based on gestalt psychology (cf. 1994: 62–4), including his famous concept of ‘closure’ (cf. 1994: 66–9), his classification of panel transitions (cf. 1994: 70–4) is simply inadequate as an explanation of how readers make sense of comics. The biggest misconception is his insistence on a strictly linear reading path, which he associates with the arrangement of panels on the page (1994: 106/1–2). Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics, which is much more compatible with a cognitive approach, confuses students with its highly idiosyncratic terminology, which makes Karin Kukkonen’s Studying Comics and Graphic Novels (2013b) the best compromise between accessibility and a reader-response orientation. Thus, part 4 of this thesis developed out of the necessity to integrate these diverse strands into a more consistent theory.
Since the canon of suitable literary texts for the classroom has been substantially extended (cf. e.g. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 39–50), there is the promise of transferable skills and competences that students acquire in one context and apply to another. While comics literacy involves a lot more than a transfer of concepts from prose or film studies, many of the practical questions that teachers have to face appear to be the same, such as the selection of texts, their meaningful integration into (thematic) lessons, general curricular aims, basic types of activities or reader-response criticism as the foundation of student-centred interactions with literary texts. Yet, students are genuinely surprised when they read Louise M. Rosenblatt’s “The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response” (1982) for the first time and discover that there is a difference between reading comprehension as a skill, aesthetic reading as an experience and narratological analysis as a largely formalist approach to literature. Certainly, they have heard about reader-response criticism, but they have never made a connection to their future profession. So ingrained is their conviction that reading is a language skill that has to be trained and tested, that a focus on the personal responses of readers is met with a healthy amount of scepticism at first. Years of academic training have put an end to their natural inclination to share their subjective experiences, which is clearly an asset for the composition of literary essays, but may turn into an obstacle when asked to inspire students to read.
Reading, it turns out, can be a misleading term, almost as multifaceted as the personal pronoun ‘I’ in autobiography, as it encompasses very different experiences and circumstances. A small child looking at picture books for fun engages in a different activity than a teenager reading young adult fiction for its themes, a university student studying Shakespeare for class, a parent reading to a child in the evening, a patient looking at magazines at the dentist’s, or a university professor perusing a literary classic in preparation for a lecture. Reading ←12 | 13→is strongly contextualised and purpose-driven, but in this thesis it is treated as an experience above all else. When Werner Delanoy reminds his readers that he considers “Reader-Response Criticism (RRC) as a Starting Position” (2015: 21) for an engagement with literature in the classroom, I interpret this as a clarion call rather than a declaration of the obvious. Louise M. Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, Michael Benton or even Lothar Bredella may become outdated or even forgotten rather sooner than later, as their ideas are insufficiently compatible with testable skills and competences. What does reading as an experience and a process mean then for contemporary teaching?
I had to go back to the roots and rediscover reader-response criticism and its pedagogical implications for myself, especially to clarify how the different forms of reading interact in the classroom. Accordingly, the first part of this book is dedicated to an exploration of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory and Iser’s reading model. Yet, the roots run deeper than the 1970s, which required a contextualisation of their books in view of John Dewey’s Art as Experience. Instead of historicising and particularising national schools of reader-response criticism, my main focus is going to be on the overarching principles. At first, it seemed counterintuitive to explore aesthetic reading in such broad terms when the title of this book suggests a narrow focus on autobiographical comics, but, fortunately, there is a deep connection between Iser’s model of reading and comics studies. At one point in The Act of Reading he describes the gaps in a narrative in the following way: “Between segments and cuts there is an empty space, giving rise to a whole network of possible connections which will endow each segment or picture with its determinate meaning” (1980: 196). What may seem overtly metaphorical and elusive in the context of prose, is directly visible in comics. Even staunch defenders of classical narratology have to explain how readers make sense of what looks like a series of fragments on the page. Approaching existing comics scholarship with a potential link to reader-response criticism in mind produces more than just circumstantial evidence. In The System of Comics Groensteen directly credits Iser (cf. 2007: 114), which is only fair, as ‘iconic solidarity’ and ‘braiding’ are applications of Iser’s reading model to comics. Charles Hatfield’s ‘art of tensions’ (cf. 2005: 32–67) is equally inspired by Iser, whose The Act of Reading forms the conceptual basis of Alternative Comics (cf. 2005: xiii–xiv). Last but not least, Scott McCloud’s ‘closure’ and his typology of panel transitions reveal certain commonalities with Iser’s theory through gestalt psychology. Thus, it became necessary to ‘update’ reader-response criticism and build a bridge between Iser and comics studies via cognitive approaches to literature, especially Theory of Mind. This undertaking became the basis for the third part.←13 | 14→
However, it was not Theory of Mind that provided the necessary building blocks, but cognitive linguistics and especially Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. As I shall argue throughout, Iser’s gestalt-forming and conceptual integration theory are uncannily similar in their basic tenets. Working on an integrated theory was facilitated by Catherine Emmott’s Narrative Comprehension and Barbara Dancygier’s The Language of Stories, which directly applies blending theory to the study of literature. Thus, I discovered a more productive application of a reader-response approach to comics in cognitive linguistics than in Theory of Mind, which is hampered by a computational model of cognition and seems too entangled with classical narratology. Most cognitive linguists, however, have fully embraced embodied cognition and their theories remain unburdened by the heritage of literary studies. In the context of comics, this can be a good thing, as transmedial narratologists are tempted to rely too closely on concepts familiar from prose or film. To couch my claim in more precise terms: for a meaningful approach to comics as a narrative medium, cognitive linguistics and multimodal analysis are more productive than classical narratology. I develop this argument further in part 4.
As The Way We Think offers such a substantial contribution to reader-response criticism and comics studies on a conceptual level, I noticed a rapid integration of more and more theories into what Dancygier would call a “mega-blend” (2012: 56). This might provoke resistance from colleagues who would like to keep these theories neatly apart. I found an unlikely ally in Herbert Grabes, whose article “Encountering People through Literature” draws parallels between reader-response criticism and recent offerings in cognitive (literary) studies. Commenting on the latter in a somewhat polemical manner he observes that “the novelty seems to consist foremost in the change of vocabulary” (2008: 131) and that Alan Palmer’s claim to a new approach to reading characters “shows that he was not sufficiently aware of the research that had already been done” (2008: 133). Indeed, there is a tendency in cognitive approaches to literature to add a passing reference to reader-response criticism, but then present some of its key tenets as supposedly new discoveries. Still, cognitive approaches have made substantial progress, such as conceptual integration theory in direct comparison to Iser’s gestalt-forming, which warrants a detailed comparison in itself. Since some of the central concerns in teaching literature and culture are also cognitive in nature, such as empathy and perspective-taking, I include a discussion of these concepts in part 3, which is meant to produce greater coherence across the entire book and strengthen the close ties between (cognitive) literary theories and the practical teaching of literature in educational settings.←14 | 15→
Looking at the finished text of this study, it seems ironic that the initial impetus was to address practical problems in the classroom, which is now only evident in part 2, where I promote a procedure of reading literary texts with students in seven stages. Therefore, it was important to explain how this book evolved and why its table of contents covers many concepts that do not seem to blend easily. In the following, I present the five major parts in a more systematic fashion. At the end of this introduction I address a few practical concerns, such as my approach to citation.
Part 1 introduces basic tenets of reader-response criticism. John Dewey’s Art as Experience may appear to be an arbitrary starting point, as he refers back to significant developments in the nineteenth century: Dewey quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s comments on the active involvement of readers (cf. 2005: 3–4), frequently refers to William James’s psychology (cf. 2005: 58, 75, 95, 124, 128, 175, 214–15, 218, 225) and uses both French impressionism and expressionism as illustrations of a keen interest in capturing the immediate experiences of sense impressions (cf. 2005: 73–75, 86, 89, 133). In short, I could trace experientiality further back than Art as Experience, but for most of the theories presented in this study Dewey is an important cornerstone, in certain instances even the Rosetta Stone through which seemingly disparate discourses become comparable and translatable into each other’s terms. Louise M. Rosenblatt based her transactional theory directly on his philosophy and defended Dewey’s position throughout the various editions of Literature as Exploration, originally published in 1938, and especially in The Reader, the Text, the Poem against narrow-minded formalist approaches (cf. 1994: 4, 15). I refrain from a detailed analysis of Wolfgang Iser’s theories in isolation or within their immediate intellectual context in favour of highlighting the obvious correspondences to Dewey and Rosenblatt. Both Ben De Bruyn’s Wolfgang Iser: A Companion and Robert C. Holub’s Reception Theory are excellent introductory discussions of Iser’s place in reader-response criticism in general and the type of reception theory (Rezeptionsästhetik) as developed at the University of Constance in particular (cf. Holub 2010: 82–106). This also includes the significant influence of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics (cf. 2010: 36–45) and Roman Ingarden’s phenomenology (cf. 2010: 14, 22–9) on his work, and of all the major critical debates it triggered (cf. De Bruyn 2012: 97–100). Instead, I choose to foreground his indebtedness to Dewey (cf. Iser 1980: 132–3, 142) and Ernst Gombrich (cf. 1980: 14, 90–1, 119–20, 124, 127). I treat Iser’s model as an important precursor to cognitive (literary) studies and comics theory, which guides my selection of concepts and ideas throughout part 1. This includes a comparison of Iser’s ‘consistency-building’ (cf. 1980: 18) and Daniel Kahneman’s description of ‘System 1’ operations as ←15 | 16→very fast, subconscious mental processes, in contrast to more effortful, conscious noticing (‘System 2’) (cf. Kahneman 2012: 20–5). I use this distinction as a shorthand throughout this book to emphasise the difference between reading as a flow experience and as a form of analysis. Iser’s model is more complex than presented in these pages, but it became necessary to find a compromise between an acknowledgement of its intricacies and maintaining the overall momentum of the argument as well as facilitating comparability across theories. It is also possible that readers of this book are not familiar with one or several of the larger contexts I work with, which means that the introductory nature of what I am going to present is equally in service of readability.
The second part discusses the practical consequences of embracing aesthetic reading in educational settings, especially the roles of students and teachers in the literature classroom. To facilitate reading as a process, I present a model in seven stages (based on Michael Benton) that takes students from first impressions via pair and group work to more guided rereading tasks across several lessons. Unavoidably, this mixes different types of engagements with texts, especially in the form of a gradual transition from aesthetic to more analytical reading, so I am careful to keep them conceptually apart at first to highlight their different purposes. There is also the potential problem of treating theories that look at young native speakers learning to read for the first time and those focusing on much older students in an EFL setting as if these were the same circumstances. This appears to be the case with Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading (cf. 2004), which I use extensively throughout part 2. However, I take his cognitive approach to be applicable to a broader context than recognising letters for the first time. The kind of segmentation that I propose combines extensive reading at home with intensive reading tasks in class, which requires a re-evaluation of pre-, while- and post-reading activities. By associating the stages with different functions and contextualising activities in a temporal sequence, I shall demonstrate that the usefulness of certain task types can be further specified. My general model may not address some of the specific choices teachers have to make in real-life situations, but I hope that, in its present form, it strikes the right balance between general applicability and sufficient argumentative support for the individual steps. What reading as a process also promotes and requires is the creation of learner texts (cf. Legutke 1996) as intermediary steps in an ongoing transaction with the narrative.
While the first two parts conceptually operate within the familiar territory of reader-response criticism and aesthetic reading, the third one addresses cognitive approaches to literature. Here it makes sense to distinguish between two basic paradigms: the first, which is closely tied to artificial intelligence research, ←16 | 17→treats the brain as a computer-like information-processing device that produces fact files on all the phenomena it encounters and learns by regularly updating them. This has come to be known as schema theory, which is introduced in the second chapter of the third part, followed by a focus on reader-related feelings and empathy in particular. Based on Daniel Batson’s classification of eight phenomena labelled as empathy and adding cognitive theories that correspond to these views, I provide a more complete picture of what is involved in taking perspectives and identifying with characters. This chapter concludes with a discussion of Suzanne Keen’s and Howard Sklar’s decidedly critical stances towards empathy.
While cognitive literary studies, especially in the form of Theory of Mind, is rooted in schema theory and reveals a strong affinity to narratology and critical analysis, ‘embodied cognition’ treats humans as organic bodies whose brains are integrated into a larger network of sense organs. According to this second paradigm, we learn holistically by interacting with our environment, which means that we can form concepts long before we consciously pay attention to the input and rationalise sense impressions. There are close affinities between Dewey’s philosophy and this conceptualisation of learning through experiences. The most radical strand of embodied cognition can be found in philosophy, where it is known as ‘enactivism’. It attempts to explain cognition without recourse to mental models, which is feasible for very basic interactions, but impossible as a theory of reading. Marco Caracciolo’s more moderate enactivist approach to literature persistently cross-references Dewey (cf. 2014: 22–3, 49, 51, 73–5, 77, 89–90), which serves as another indication how central Art as Experience has become as a foundational text of experiential approaches. This constitutes the core of the fourth chapter. Enaction plays a central role in comics studies, where characters have to appear embodied all the time, but also in autobiography, where the material body is widely acknowledged as the source of subjectivity (cf. Smith & Watson 2010: 49–54). Accordingly, I begin a longer argument in part 3 that explores to what extent readers can use their daily experiences to understand fictional characters and vice versa, which is continued in part 4 in the context of cartooning.
The final two chapters of the third part are dedicated to cognitive linguistics, which I find essential when cross-referencing central tenets of reader-response criticism with cognitive approaches to literature. Here, I introduce conceptual integration or blending, which I consider to be a more developed and more widely applicable theory than Iser’s gestalt-forming. I shall use key concepts of blending theory (e.g. vital relations, compression, material anchors) to explain comics narration and autobiographical work in the last two parts. It has to be ←17 | 18→explicitly stated at the outset that Fauconnier and Turner’s blending theory was neither intended as a theory of reading, nor is it fully accepted as a general theory of cognition. However, I regard Barbara Dancygier’s application of their key ideas to literature so intriguing that I adapt her approach for my study of comics and autobiography. Dancygier’s terminology of ‘viewpoint compression’, ‘narrative spaces’ and ‘anchors’ may sound alien at first, but I intend to provide enough examples to prove their worth. Equally important is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, as conceptual metaphor theory provides an essential link between embodied cognition and metaphorical thinking. Instead of looking at surface phenomena, such as specific literary metaphors in poetry, they argue that all of our thinking is metaphorical in nature and that we often use a more concrete source domain (e.g. money) to make sense of a more complex target domain (e.g. time). Conceptual metaphors have a specific notation in cognitive linguistics, which is time is money. Based on this basic understanding, metaphors produce so-called ‘entailments’, which are specific verbal expressions, such as “You’re wasting my time” (Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 7).
The importance of conceptual metaphor and metonymy is immense when looking at comics, which takes us directly to part 4. Here I argue in greater detail that the most popular theories of comics have always been cognitive in terms of their basic orientation. In chapter 2 I address the widespread confusion over what ‘graphic novels’ are in relation to comics. Based on Danny Fingeroth’s simple classification (cf. 2008: 4) I present and explain medium, format and genre as three distinct categories, which makes the ‘graphic novel’ a popular publication format of comics. I also return to the concept of embodiment and differentiate comics from other picture stories with the help of Amy Spaulding’s argument that comics dramatise events and present entire scenes instead of compressing them into single images (cf. 1995: 5, 15). The exact same argument applies to an acknowledgement of Rodolphe Töpffer as the inventor of the modern comic, who began to visually ‘act out’ the mundane adventures of his characters. These considerations have to be understood in the larger context of cartooning, which is the main focus of chapter 3. Many of the key concerns of this thesis, such as style, blending, foregrounding, conceptual metaphors, embodiment, emotions and empathy, can finally be presented in an integrated manner. Chapter 4 follows Hatfield’s reader-response approach to comics to discuss blending phenomena in the context of the four tensions he postulates: words vs. images, the single image vs. the series, the series vs. the page and the experience of the narrative vs. its overall design. These gaps have to be cognitively bridged with the help of the readers’ imagination. Here I get a chance to contrast and discuss McCloud’s ‘closure’ and Groensteen’s ‘iconic solidarity’ in terms of blending. I finish with a ←18 | 19→case study of the first chapter of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which I reference throughout part 4 to achieve greater consistency. My intention is to combine the concepts and theories that I will have accumulated at this point and apply them in a more coordinated fashion to a single text.
Part 5 shifts attention to the importance of genre and especially to autographics as a particular variety of life writing. I argue that the medium provides cartoonists with possibilities that may not be available to the same extent in other media. This has partly to do with the narrative strategies each medium affords, but also with institutional frameworks, such as the popularity of certain titles and subgenres. Based on Liz Stanley’s The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography, I argue that the two genres are inseparable and that the inclusion of relatives and friends in one’s own life narratives raises important moral questions that are highly relevant in our times. Social media allow for instantaneous self-publication and this often involves the coincidental or deliberate implication of others. Students are constantly engaged in autobiographical work, testing life course models in view of their own wishes and possibilities and negotiating identities with their peers and parents. Chapter 2 explores one of the most important questions in this context: when and to what extent are humans coerced to produce rationalised and complete accounts of their lives? I use the Galen Strawson controversy and a discussion of Tilmann Habermas’s articles to take a critical look at a widespread demand for social accountability and at the necessity to train teenagers to engage in autobiographical reasoning. All of chapter 2 is dedicated to the idea that autobiographical work is a blending phenomenon: diachronic and synchronic identities have to be integrated into a coherent sense of self. Considering photos as material anchors in autobiographical reasoning and as problematic pieces of evidence in an otherwise hand-drawn account of a person’s life, I attempt to show that autographics can contribute to the development of critical media literacy. To provide a more practical application of these ideas, I frequently refer to the publication Autobiographies: Presenting the Self, which was edited by Wolfgang Hallet (cf. 2015a), as it presents very useful activities to promote critical thinking in the context of autobiographical work. Chapter 3 is dedicated to one of the central concerns in autobiographical studies, which is the truth claim of such narratives. It makes sense to treat autobiographical comics in a similar way to documentary film – as constructions of reality. They are narratives that utilise strategies known from fiction. Despite readers’ temptation to embrace autobiography as testimony, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is impossible to maintain, which makes comics autobiographies excellent objects of study for the classroom. In her seminal Autobiographical Comics Elisabeth El Refaie ←19 | 20→offers a whole set of strategies that cartoonists use to negotiate the veracity of their narratives (cf. 2012: 135–78). Truth, in this sense, is a performance, which readers experience as authentic and emotionally resonating or not. In the fourth chapter autobiographical ‘I’s with their different ontological levels of existence, functions and perspectives become the centre of attention. Following a discussion of Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s typology, I explore how narratology constructs identities in a model of communication that is split between narration and focalisation. Like El Refaie, I argue in favour of the ‘implied author’ to make sense of autobiographical narratives. Chapter 5 draws attention to embodiment again, this time in the context of beauty ideals, illness and disability. Before that I address (cognitive) approaches to characters and characterisation, especially the question of reading bodies. I close this part with a brief look at diary comics to present a form(at) that is very different from the graphic novel and allows for a type of autobiographical writing/drawing that is unique to the form. Consisting of four panels only, these strips represent a genuine form of publication that foregrounds unique moments and experiences rather than key events in a plot. One of the aims of this thesis is to demonstrate that reading means experiencing characters entangled in very specific situations and social interactions, in which we as readers vicariously participate.
Finally, I want to address a few concerns that have more to do with formal aspects than content. I deliberately refrain from using footnotes throughout the entire book, which has a number of practical reasons. First of all, the text is intricate enough in many parts. Adding footnotes with even more explanations and cross-references made it too unwieldy, as some explanations became longer than the text they were meant to clarify. By completely abstaining from this second channel of communication I was forced to decide whether a piece of information was worth including or not. In rare cases a sentence may read like an afterthought or comment rather than an integral part of the argument, but this is a small price to pay in view of the simplification that the absence of footnotes brought. In some instances the listed authors may not present a point in exactly the same way, but my attempts to explain these subtle differences to my own satisfaction led to the aforementioned digressions.
I keep page references as short and clear as possible. I leave out the name of authors whenever they are presented in the main text and limit the number of sources to only two, wherever possible. In some cases I want to demonstrate broad consent or substantial evidence, which is signalled through longer enumerations. I refer to the individual panels of a comic page after a slash, e.g. 9/6 indicates the sixth panel on page 9. Throughout, I use plurals for readers and their reading experiences. Both Iser and Rosenblatt consistently refer to ‘the reader’ with the ←20 | 21→pronoun ‘he’, which means that in some cases it is grammatically impossible to work around that. I adopt the plural ‘gestalten’ as it appears in The Act of Reading (cf. e.g. 1980: 188), rather than the English plural ‘gestalts’, as it is used equally consistently by cognitive linguists (cf. e.g. Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 122). When it is necessary to distinguish between autobiographers and characters in their stories, I use the surname for the cartoonist and the first name for the protagonist. Accordingly, Thompson is the creator of Blankets, but the protagonist of the comic is teenage Craig. Finally, I had to find consistent labels for the chapters of the book. The largest units are called parts (e.g. 5. Autobiographical Comics), which are subdivided into chapters (e.g. 5.1. The Conceptual Ambiguity of Autobiography) and finally into sections (e.g. 5.1.1. A Struggle with Definitions). If not otherwise indicated, references to other chapters are always restricted to the same part.
Towards the beginning of The Act of Reading Wolfgang Iser borrows Henry Fielding’s “simile” (1968: 813) from Book XVIII, Chapter 1 of Tom Jones to illustrate the central tenets of his theory:
… the reader is likened to a traveller in a stagecoach, who has to make the often difficult journey through the novel, gazing out from his moving viewpoint. Naturally, he combines all that he sees within his memory and establishes a pattern of consistency, the nature and reliability of which will depend partly on the degree of attention he has paid during each phase of the journey. At no time, however, can he have a total view of that journey. (1980: 16)
This passage introduces some of the key concerns that we can trace from John Dewey’s Art as Experience via Iser’s reader-response criticism and Louise M. Rosenblatt’s transactional theory to Lothar Bredella’s aesthetic reading (cf. 2010: 18–30) and further on to cognitive literary studies, comics theory and, finally, the reading of autobiographical comics in educational contexts. Despite the fact that Iser almost immediately abandons this comparison, which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call a ‘conceptual metaphor’ (cf. 2003), it deserves a more elaborate exploration.
Iser makes an important distinction between an ‘often difficult journey’, implying an ongoing, partly challenging experience, and a single moment in time, which precludes a ‘total view’ of the narrative. This is significant, as it challenges a widespread expectation that, for example, at the end of the journey, all the pieces magically fall into place and the puzzle is solved. Iser, however, stresses the fragmentation and idiosyncrasy of experiences that do not automatically add up. The reader has to relate the pieces to each other ‘within his memory’, even when significant elements are missing. This foregrounds the reading process as an ongoing journey and a cognitive operation that positions readers as active creators of meaning instead of recipients of information that is contained within the narrative. Iser is mostly concerned with the ‘moving viewpoint’ that is predetermined by the stagecoach’s route, presenting the scenes in a temporal sequence and from specific angles that are meant to determine readers’ perception to a certain extent. The middle sentence of the quotation above provides an important connection to the cognitive theories that become prominent in ←23 | 24→part 3: “Naturally, he [the reader] combines all that he sees within his memory and establishes a pattern of consistency” (1980: 16).
First of all, I take ‘naturally’ to mean ‘automatically’, as there is a clear difference between reading and narratological analysis. In Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge argues that readers “should be carried forward […] by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself” (1983: 14; see also Dewey 2005: 4; Benton & Fox 1985: 10), as long as it does not lead to a superficial engagement that is only interested in “striking lines” (1983: 14) and fails to recognise the aesthetic whole. It seems to me that Coleridge describes reading as a flow experience in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s sense (cf. 1991), which can be a complex and demanding challenge, but is handled with ease by experienced readers. Certain passages may demand their full attention, but most of the narrative is actualised without much cognitive strain (cf. 1991: 4, 49–50, 54). If we think of the way we drive cars almost on auto-pilot – paying attention only when the situation requires it – we have a perfect illustration of how every activity can become a flow experience. The cognitive psychologist David Groome explains this phenomenon in the following terms: “cognitive processes become automatic as a result of frequent practice, as for example the skills involved in driving a car, in playing a piano, or in reading words from a page. However, we have the ability to override these automatic sequences when we need to, for example when we come across an unusual traffic situation while driving” (2014a: 18). Accordingly, reading is largely a subconscious and interactive process to which we only attend with heightened awareness when the text requires it. In the case of literature, foregrounding and defamiliarisation (cf. Shklovksy 1998: 4–6) on all levels of composition play a central role in achieving what Coleridge describes in the following way: “at every step he [the reader] pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him forward” (1983: 14). The unfamiliar or surprising stops us in our tracks and, by retracing our steps, we find new orientation and momentum to continue with our journey. The complexity and strain of the reading process, which Iser acknowledges as an “often difficult journey” (1980: 16), is a contested issue to which we shall frequently return.
Secondly, readers/travellers can only make sense of what they notice, not of what the journey has to offer. The tour guide of the coach trip, the narrator, has to select suitable locations and sights, hire local guides, arrange for a few surprises along the way and then present these elements in a chronological and coherent way. Despite the comforts of a modern coach, the tour can be challenging. A flood of new impressions, from the tour guide’s narrative via the individual encounters with locals and unfamiliar settings to one’s own responses, have to be brought in ←24 | 25→line with the documentaries one watched at home, the travel guides and holiday brochures one consulted and the recommendations of friends and strangers. The tourists may have arrived with different expectations – ranging from a quiet, relaxing trip via an educational journey to an exciting adventure. Thus, individuals have to establish a “pattern of consistency” (Iser 1980: 16) that allows them to integrate different impressions into a more unified experience. This includes revisiting previous stops in one’s mind and comparing different stages of the tour with each other. Although many viewpoints are predetermined – a beautiful vista here, an observation platform there, chosen by the tour guide and complemented by ongoing narration, the readers/travellers are likely to respond very differently and return with their own stories to tell. The most cherished memories are personal experiences and discoveries that were unique to this particular trip and to a single person. The tourists may even return with “travelled eyes” (Rushdie 1995: 11), seeing their own cultural circumstances in a different light. Like all conceptual metaphors, reading is travelling manages to capture certain aspects of the experience very well, while obvious differences tend to be obscured (cf. Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 10). Since our “conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 3), we take a closer look at conceptual metaphors in part 3.
Thirdly, what readers compare and combine in memory are the contents of mental spaces, not the information provided by the text. Iser offers one possible explanation for this mismatch, which is that readers do not pay enough attention, but there are several factors that influence what we notice. In other areas of language learning, such as grammar, teachers accept the simple formula that input is not intake, but under the influence of narratology, which tends to operate with an “ideal reader” (Iser 1980: 27), expectations are much higher concerning instant narrative comprehension. That is why proponents of reader-response criticism distinguish between aesthetic reading and narratological analysis. The “total view” (Iser 1980: 16), which Rosenblatt calls the “public meaning of the text” (1982: 271), remains inaccessible and an abstraction that is not compatible with the experiences of individual readers. This view corresponds to Rosenblatt’s insistence that the same text can be read very differently: “not even the total text represents an absolute set of guides; multiple and equally valid possibilities are often inherent in the same text in its transactions with different readers under different conditions” (1994: 75; see also 122–3).
Regarding this issue, Iser addresses the struggle that even professional critics face when they attempt to disentangle themselves from the idiosyncrasies of their own narrative experiences: “While we are caught up in a text, we do not ←25 | 26→at first know what is happening to us. This is why we often feel the need to talk about books we have read – not in order to gain some distance from them so much as to find out just what it is that we were entangled in. Even literary critics frequently do no more than seek to translate their entanglement into referential language” (1980: 131). Rosenblatt raises a similar point about professional readers: “even the most objective analysis of ‘the poem’ is an analysis of the work as they themselves have called it forth” (1994: 15; see also 137, 141). Since patterns of consistency can only come from individual minds, literary studies has long since embraced different approaches, which are then homogenised to a certain extent through the negotiation and co-construction of meaning within academic circles – a far better model for the classroom than having to guess what teachers think that texts mean. Like all travellers, students like to share personal experiences of the journey, which raises the question how they can transcend their first impressions and arrive at more qualified responses to the text.
Both Iser and Rosenblatt understand reading as a cognitive “interaction” (Iser 1980: ix) or “transaction” (Rosenblatt 1994: 17) between readers and text. Therefore, Rosenblatt distinguishes between the work of art as a physical object, which she calls ‘text’, “a set or series of signs interpretable as linguistic symbols” (1994: 12; see also Dewey 2005: 1, 86, 222, 228), and the ‘poem’, which “presupposes a reader actively involved with a text and refers to what he makes of his responses to the particular set of verbal symbols” (1994: 12; see also 53). Like Iser, Rosenblatt tried to find a simile that would adequately capture this relationship. Based on Dewey’s metaphor of a “musical score” (2005: 113) she conceptualises the reader as a “performer, in the same sense that a pianist performs a sonata, reading it from the text” (1994: 28; see also 13–14). Iser expresses the same idea in more theoretical terms: “The iconic signs of literature constitute an organization of signifiers which do not serve to designate a signified object, but instead designate instructions for the production of the signified” (1980: 65; see also 64; De Bruyn 2012: 115; Dewey 2005: 88). This is an interesting claim. From Iser’s point of view, the story world is neither the real world nor a mirror image of it, but a “blueprint” (Rosenblatt 1994: 86, 88) or ‘construction manual’ that consists largely of symbols and suggests to the creators (the readers) how to build something from the materials available to them. If the ‘product’ is the meaning of the text, it makes sense that Iser sees comprehension as “a productive process” (1980: 59; see also 108) and claims that “the meaning of the text is something that he [the reader] has to assemble” (1980: ix).←26 | 27→
These similes imply that there is some room for creativity and interpretation. Looking at certain passages in Iser’s The Act of Reading, one could get the impression that individual readings inevitably lead to diverse results: “Consistency-building is […] a structure of comprehension” that “depends on the reader and not on the work, and as such it is inextricably bound up with subjective factors and, above all, the habitual orientations of the reader” (1980: 18; see also Rosenblatt 1994: 11). Accordingly, “a work may be concretized in different, equally valid, ways” (1980: 178). At other times, maybe to fend off charges of complete subjectivity, reader-response critics are willing to substantially curtail readers’ interpretative freedom. Iser, for example, states that the “process of assembling the meaning of the text is not a private one, for although it does mobilize the subjective disposition of the reader, it does not lead to day-dreaming but to the fulfillment of conditions that have already been structured in the text” (1980: 49–50). The word ‘must’, for example, appears more frequently in The Act of Reading than one would suspect. On the very first page Iser states: “A description of the reading process must bring to light the elementary operations which the text activates within the reader. The fact that the latter must carry out the instructions shows implicitly that the meaning of the text is something that he has to assemble” (1980: ix). Rosenblatt offers an equally strong image for the influence of the textual structures on the reader, but then returns agency to the latter: “Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he [the reader] marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem” (1994: 12; see also 1964: 126). By taking the “middle position” (Holub 2010: 101) between formalism/determinism and constructivism Iser and Rosenblatt’s reader-response criticism becomes vulnerable to attacks from both sides. Sometimes they propagate a rigid system according to which readers mainly execute the instructions of the text (cf. Holub 2010: 100, 102, 133), presumably as a defence against New Criticism, which was still the dominant critical paradigm in the 1970s (cf. Iser 1980: 15; Rosenblatt 1994: 41). Robert Holub objects that “the text as a stable and determinate structure often manages to intrude into the very heart of reception theory” (2010: 149), where its power to control the readers is called upon “to prevent what threatens to be a totally subjective and arbitrary reader response” (2010: 150).
Maybe Rosenblatt’s original simile, which she abandons in favour of the musical score, is still the better choice: the reader as a modern-day theatre director who intends to put Hamlet on the stage (cf. 1994: 13; see also Holub 2010: 44). Here, the tension between a fixed textual source and the affordances of the stage (cf. Rosenblatt 1994: 67) is mirrored in the readers’ creative limitations ←27 | 28→(cf. 1994: 129) and interpretative freedom. Every reading and performance of Hamlet – either in the readers’ minds or somewhere on stage – is always already an interpretation and adaptation of the text. For Rosenblatt, this involves a “reenactment of the text” (1994: 13; see also 28) or, in Iser’s terms, “literary texts initiate ‘performances’ of meaning” (1980: 27; see also Benton 1992: 14–18). Accordingly, readers are faced with similar challenges as the actors of a play. In Experiencing Narrative Worlds, Richard Gerrig develops this idea at some length:
Readers are called upon to exercise exactly this same range of skills. They must use their own experiences of the world to bridge gaps in texts. They must bring both facts and emotions to bear on the construction of the world of the text. And, just like actors performing roles, they must give substance to the psychological lives of characters. (1998: 17)
In other words, they ‘inhabit’ the characters to flesh them out as ‘real’ human beings, but without ever losing track of who is who. In “Identifying with Metaphor: Metaphors of Personal Identification” Ted Cohen provides some context for the attempt of readers to ‘become’ the characters of a literary text.
In achieving such an identification, I think, one engages in a dialectic of metaphorical understanding. B is trying to grasp A, to gain some sense of this other person. He likely begins with A=B and then moves back and forth between A=B and B=A, shifting and adjusting. This is the blending one attempts in imagination, a blending of oneself with another, and here one must add to and subtract from oneself. (1999: 407)
Cohen believes that this results in “imagining some third person, some new person, some blend of what I know of you and what I know of me” (1999: 402). Since readers have to rely on their own resources to make sense of characters and their specific circumstances, there is a danger of projecting too much of oneself onto characters, which Cohen finds problematic: “the triumphal assumption that we can easily understand one another is as sinful as the refusal to attempt any human understanding at all” (1999: 404). With certain types of literature, such as tragedy, Cohen proposes that “the impossibility of complete identification contributes to the work’s power” (1999: 406), but I would extend this logic to all literature. In part 3 I explain in detail why empathy requires a more complex operation than straightforward identification.
For Rosenblatt, the play script, which she calls the ‘text’, is merely a means to an end: the important thing is the performance, which she calls the ‘poem’: not “the words, as uttered sounds or inked marks on a page, constitute the poem, but the structured response to them. For the reader, the poem is lived-through during his intercourse with the text” (1994: 14; see also 69). When Rosenblatt argues that the reader is “actively involved in building up a poem for himself out ←28 | 29→of his responses to the text” (1994: 10), she refers to the fact that consistency can only be achieved among the mental spaces in working memory. According to reader-response criticism, the emerging gestalt, the tentative meaning, is twice removed from textual evidence. Strictly speaking, students do not make sense of texts, but of what they have read:
Every time a reader experiences a work of art, it is in a sense created anew. Fundamentally, when we speak of understanding a work, we are actually reporting on what we have made of the signs on the page. […] Drawing on our own resources, we each have called forth and synthesized from that text a structure of concepts and sensations that for each of us is the work of art. Understanding requires an interpretation of this experience. (Rosenblatt 1995: 107)
This creates an interesting tension between having theories about a narrative and knowing that there is far more to discover than individuals can grasp on their own. In communicative language teaching, this opinion gap naturally leads to a discussion among peers of how they have understood the text differently and ultimately requires a return to the textual basis at a later stage of the reading process. Through this specific sequence learners retrace their steps back to the source.
Rosenblatt’s transactional approach to reading is ultimately a social event that has to include stages of joint meaning-making, leading from one’s first subjective impressions via class discussions to a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of a text. Both Iser and Rosenblatt endorse the “intersubjective discussion of individual interpretations” (Iser 1980: x), as “the very existence of alternatives makes it necessary for a meaning to be defensible and so intersubjectively accessible. The intersubjective communication of a meaning will show up those elements that have been sacrificed, and so, through the negativity of one’s own processes of meaning assembly, one may again be in a position to observe one’s own decisions” (Iser 1980: 230; see also 22, 25). In other words: even if the reading process led to a satisfying experience, most of the involved processes may have been subliminal to a large extent (cf. Rosenblatt 1982: 269). Sharing one’s views with others, however, invites a re-examination of one’s attitudes and may necessitate a rereading of certain key scenes. Rosenblatt turns this very idea into a precondition for all literary teaching: “the successful teacher of literature makes the classroom a place for critical sharing of personal responses” (1966: 1003). Since all readings are equally valid and gain currency in a “free exchange of ideas”, this contest of the most convincing readings “will lead each student to scrutinize his own sense of the literary work in the light of others’ opinions” (1995: 104). This feedback loop among peers is considered to ←29 | 30→be more conducive to a re-evaluation of one’s own reading than an intervention by a teacher: “that others have had different responses, have noticed what was overlooked, have made alternative interpretations, leads to self-awareness and self-criticism” (Rosenblatt 1982: 276).
For both Iser (cf. 1980: 16) and Rosenblatt readers have to keep an open mind and be willing to overcome their limitations: “the reader’s creation of a poem out of a text must be an active, self-ordering and self-corrective process” (1994: 11). This “process of continual correction” (Iser 1980: 167) is already triggered by clues in the text that constantly force readers to check their images and gestalten for their suitability. Rosenblatt lists two “prime criteria of validity” that represent the minimal requirements for a reading: “that the reader’s interpretation [should] not be contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be projected for which there is no verbal basis” (1994: 115; see also 1966: 1001). Surprisingly, she can be quite harsh when readers do not follow the text’s ample guidance: “Undisciplined, irrelevant or distorted emotional responses, and the lack of relevant experience or knowledge will, of course, lead to inadequate interpretations of the text” (1966: 1001). How this movement from subjective responses to greater objectivity can be organised by teachers in the literary classroom, is a central concern of the next part. In the following chapter we look at framing and how the temporal sequence of reading influences our experiences of a text.
In Rosenblatt’s transactional theory an interaction with a text starts before the reading begins, which means that it is always framed. She dedicates the third chapter of The Reader, the Text, the Poem to the reader’s stance (cf. 1994: 22–47), which she conceptualises as a mental framework or set of expectations that readers bring to a text and that determines their reading until textual evidence forces them to revise their initial approach. This is also one of the central arguments in Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion where he calls “our own expectations” a “mental set” that significantly influences “the deciphering of the artists’ cryptograms” (2014: 53; see also 190–4).
Rosenblatt uses two terms, ‘efferent’ and ‘aesthetic’, to designate two basic modes of reading: ‘efferent’, an invented adjective that she derives from Latin ‘efferre’, ‘to carry away’, suggests an interest in the literal and factual, such as scanning a text for specific information; an ‘aesthetic’ reading, however, is geared towards personal responses and the experience of the literary text itself (cf. 1994: 24–5). These stances are understood to affect all aspects of readers’ ←30 | 31→transactions with texts: “The distinction between aesthetic and nonaesthetic reading, then, derives ultimately from what the reader does, the stance that he adopts and the activities he carries out in relation to the text” (1994: 27; see also Benton 1992: 1). However, she finds it “more accurate to think of a continuum, a series of gradations between the nonaesthetic and the aesthetic extremes” (1994: 35; see also 27), which returns us to the idea of a middle ground between reading comprehension as the extraction of information and reading as a personal experience and a form of self-discovery.
Rosenblatt’s focus on framing is highly relevant, as Werner Wolf has demonstrated in several articles on its importance to literary interpretation (cf. e.g. 2006, 2014). He states that “narrative is a major cognitive frame whose application is elicited by certain clues, ‘keys,’ or ‘framings,’ typically and preferably at the outset of a reception process” (2014: 126; see also 2006: 22). Readers’ expectations are shaped by such paratextual devices (cf. Genette 1997) and “then are applied to the entire artefact under scrutiny, at least as a default option” (Wolf 2014: 128). While ‘narrative’ may be a rather broad framework, generic markers often determine whether a book is bought and read in the first place (cf. 2014: 132). In turn, the ways in which authors position their books in relation to generic traditions lead to a more or less conscious negotiation on the readers’ part of whether this classification is warranted or not (cf. 2014: 135). In this sense, framings do not only provide basic orientation, but invite a specific attitude or stance that initially determines all aspects of the reading process:
… framings […] help the recipient to select frames of interpretation or reference relevant for the work under consideration. If the abstract frames can be described as tools of interpretation, their codings in framings are the (visible or imagined) labels on the tool-box that induce the recipient to choose the correct tools. By pointing to frames as tools or guides of interpretation, framings – and this applies also and in particular to the special form of framing borders – likewise fulfill an essentially interpretive, but also a controlling function. Most importantly, framings mark an artefact as such and distinguish it from its surroundings by indicating the special rules (frames) that apply in its reception. (Wolf 2006: 26)
The impact of frames and framings has two important consequences for this study. On the one hand, they play a central role in the way narrative fiction is introduced and contextualised in the classroom, which has a long-lasting effect on how students transact with a text. On the other hand, reading autobiographical texts requires some preparation on the teacher’s part, especially during the later stages of the reading sequence, if the ultimate goal is critical media literacy.
In The Act of Reading Iser addresses the influence of generic markers only indirectly when he presents the challenges of (post)modernist texts. These ←31 | 32→consciously subvert essential interpretative frames and rely on advanced reading skills to compensate for a lack of clarity: “It is typical of modern texts that they invoke expected functions in order to transform them into blanks. This is mostly brought about by a deliberate omission of generic features that have been firmly established by the tradition of the genre. Thus the narrator’s perspective now denies the reader the orientation it traditionally offered as regards evaluation of characters and events” (1980: 208). He comments more explicitly on genres and reader expectations in his “Interview” with Norman Holland and Wayne Booth:
This reciprocal conditioning which occurs in [the] time-flow of reading is also influenced, of course, by the ‘genre.’ The genre is a code element which invokes certain expectations in the reader, given his familiarity with the code. In this respect, I would regard the genre as part of the repertoire, though there is no doubt that the many elements of the repertoire encapsulated in each text will not be equally well known to every reader of the text. Nevertheless, the basic differences between genres will precondition different attitudes towards the text, and this applies equally to the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. (Iser, Holland & Booth 1980: 65; see also Bruner 1986: 7)
Although leaving aside paratextual information to a large extent, Iser does acknowledge the impact of first impressions on the process of reading: “The sequence of image-building is overshadowed by what has been produced in the first instance, which inevitably has repercussions on the way images qualify and condition each other in the time-flow of our reading” (1980: 149; see also 186; Rosenblatt 1994: 54). To better understand framing in reader-response approaches, it may help to briefly introduce two narratological theories that are directly related to Iser’s model, but work with a more predetermined reader or viewer experience.
In Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (1978) Meir Sternberg starts with the premise that first impressions are so strong that they tend to overshadow later evidence to the contrary. Based on Carl Iver Hovland’s edited volume The Order of Presentation in Persuasion (1957) Sternberg uses this ‘primacy effect’ to explain how writers manipulate their readers’ emphatic responses to characters by setting up expectations that are later proven to be partially or completely misguided. He summarises the results of Abraham S. Luchins’s “Primacy-Recency in Impression Formation” (cf. Hovland et al. 1957: 33–61) in the following way:
Due to the successive order of presentation, the first block [of information about a character] was read with an open mind, while the interpretation of the second – in itself as weighty – was decisively conditioned and colored by the anterior, homogeneous primacy effect; the leading block established a perceptual set, serving as a frame of reference to ←32 | 33→which subsequent information was subordinated as far as possible. (1978: 94; see also Smith 2004: 268; Gombrich 2014: 191; Kahneman 2012: 82–3; Gerrig 1998: 233)
The cognitive frame or mindset that is established through the primacy effect, in this case a first judgment of a person’s character, is so influential that readers become blinded to further revelations that contradict this assumption. Instead of questioning their own faulty image, they “construct and maintain in each case an integrated, unified view of character in face of the objective evidence to the contrary” (1978: 95). This plays an important role in the context of impression management (cf. Goffman 1959) and more specifically in how autobiographers present themselves at the beginning of a narrative to invite readers’ attention, empathy and curiosity. We find some interesting comments on that matter in Sternberg’s study, where he is largely concerned with the “expositional unfolding of Odysseus’s personality” (1978: 90) in Homer’s Odyssey. While the protagonist is first presented as a great war hero by other characters in books I-IV, his character is then revealed to be more complex than that by granting the readers access to his actions and thoughts (cf. 1978: 104). In this case, the primacy effect is used to maintain Odysseus’s status as a heroic figure while gradually introducing new and partly incompatible character traits from book V onwards (cf. 1978: 101–28). Sternberg is interested in formalist aspects of literature and the subversion of readers’ predictions, but he cannot escape cognitive concerns. The “unexpected retrospective illumination” (1978: 100) that he presents as the end result of elaborate narrative ploys relies on readers who have to experience this kind of illumination, notice a discrepancy with their expectations and reconcile the new insight with previously held beliefs. This may even trigger a rereading of previous passages to facilitate the assimilation of the new information (cf. Rosenblatt 1986: 123).
David Bordwell adopts Sternberg’s concept of the “primacy effect” in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985: 38), which means that he also favours a structuralist manifestation of an otherwise cognitive process. Although he acknowledges spectators’ central importance by dedicating a whole chapter to “The Viewer’s Activity” (1985: 29–47), he is fascinated by the idea that a film teaches the audience how it wants to be read: “A film cues the spectator to execute a definable variety of operations” (1985: 29). This is so central to Bordwell’s understanding of film that he proposes this form of viewer guidance as the very definition of narration: “We can, in short, study narrative as a process, the activity of selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on the perceiver. I shall call this process narration” (1985: xi; see also 33).←33 | 34→
Although Bordwell subscribes to a constructivist notion of meaning-making that places viewers at the centre of his theory, he sees a unique chance in guiding their reception of a narrative through a careful orchestration of perspectives. He uses Gombrich’s basic argument in Art and Illusion that the sophisticated presentation of images from a specific perspective creates the illusion of realism (cf. 2014: 221), which is, in fact, a highly conventionalised optical trick that does not reveal how things really are. On the contrary, it represents a specific view, a unique angle:
What a painter inquires into is not the nature of the physical world but the nature of our reactions to it. He is not concerned with causes but with the mechanisms of certain effects. His is a psychological problem – that of conjuring up a convincing image despite the fact that not one individual shade corresponds to what we call ‘reality’. (Gombrich 2014: 44)
In accordance with the primacy effect, Bordwell ascribes the first scenes of a film a unique role: “The sequential nature of narrative makes the initial portions of a text crucial for the establishment of hypotheses” (1985: 38), which are then constantly tested throughout the reading process (cf. 1985: 31). What is more, similar to Iser’s comment on postmodern texts, film directors can play with the viewers’ expectations: “Narratives are composed in order to reward, modify, frustrate, or defeat the perceiver’s search for coherence” (1985: 38). This deliberate accumulation of narrative gaps foregrounds the importance of readers’ cognitive involvement, which has led to the proclamation of an ‘ideal reader’ as an elegant solution to avoid any concern with cognitive processes and readers’ actual responses. This notion of a perfect recipient was forcefully opposed by both Iser and Rosenblatt (cf. Iser 1980: 27; Rosenblatt 1994: 140–1).
Returning to the centrality of readers’ interpretative frameworks, Bordwell addresses the question of genre competence directly at the end of his chapter on “The Viewer’s Activity” (1985: 29–47). He explains that the experienced spectator is “prepared to justify events and motifs compositionally, realistically, and especially transtextually” (1985: 45). The first refers to a reading of a narrative according to its own logic and structure, the second according to our knowledge of the real world, and the third to our in-depth understanding of the genre to which the film belongs: “Whatever the cues in this film [Rear Window], our expectations are funded by knowledge of other films in the tradition. We motivate transtextually” (1985: 44). Contrary to Iser, who only implicitly acknowledges the impact of genres on reading, Rosenblatt’s approach is very much in line with Bordwell’s:←34 | 35→
Past literary experiences serve as subliminal guides as to the genre to be anticipated, the details to be attended to, the kinds of organizing patterns to be evolved. Each genre, each kind of work […] makes its own kinds of conventional demands on the reader – that is, once he has set up one or another such expectation, his stance, the details he responds to, the way he handles his responses, will differ. Traditional subjects, themes, treatments, may provide the guides to organization and the background against which to recognize something new or original in the text. (1994: 57; see also 55–6; Gombrich 2014: 194, 268)
This is the basis for Rosenblatt’s “concept of selective attention” (1994: 43; see also 184; 1986: 123; Gombrich 2014: xviii, 157), which means that the cognitive frame or stance predetermines the selection of elements for the actualisation of the text. With the exception of formulaic genre fiction, literature usually challenges or even actively subverts readers’ expectations. This is why Rosenblatt proposes a flexible and transactional system:
In broadest terms, then, the basic paradigm of the reading process consists in the response to cues; the adoption of an efferent or aesthetic stance; the development of a tentative framework or guiding principle of organization; the arousal of expectations that influence the selection and synthesis of further responses; the fulfillment or reinforcement of expectations, or their frustration, sometimes leading to revision of the framework, and sometimes, if necessary, to rereading … (1994: 54; see also Kafalenos 2006: 147–8)
Paratexts, such as interviews, reviews, (book) trailers and posters, covers or title pages, are highly significant, as they contain an interesting and not always consistent mix of clues, genre markers and framings that can provide a first orientation. We rarely encounter, buy and read books out of context. Rosenblatt acknowledges the influence of such settings in the following way:
Various signals have been developed to alert readers to the types of texts and hence to the appropriate stance: the categories under which books are shelved in libraries, the differences between titles of nonfiction and fiction, the reports of book reviewers, the frequent use of headings such as “Fiction” or “Poetry” in the tables of contents of magazines – even, sometimes, the insertion of the phrase “a story” after a title. This may be an adaptation to the fact that readers themselves often are not conscious of the difference in stance required by different texts, but need such prior signals to adjust their approach to such materials. (1994: 79; see also Nünning 2014: 74)
Like Wolf (cf. 2014: 132), Rosenblatt differentiates between contextual framings, “the ways in which readers are given cues extraneous to the text” (1994: 80), peritextual signals, which can be found on the cover or in the front matter, and those that are integrated into the main text (cf. 1994: 81).←35 | 36→
The first scene, then, as Bordwell demonstrates, plays a crucial role in confirming, modifying or undermining viewers’ or readers’ initial expectations. In addition, it establishes a point of reference for later scenes and begins a transaction with readers that is significantly shaped by the narrator’s behaviour: his or her presence, style, attitude and guidance are bound to affect readers’ responses to the text. Therefore, the beginning of the reading process is a delicate stage, which needs extra attention in educational settings. Not only do teachers select the text and frame it in particular ways, but they also have certain expectations that need to be communicated clearly, especially when the overall purpose is not aesthetic reading, but language work, reading comprehension, narratological analysis, the development of genre competence, cultural studies, formal writing tasks etc. For Rosenblatt, these approaches exist on a spectrum from an aesthetic to an efferent stance, and certain activities are likely to mix both. In part 2 I present an organisational framework that facilitates reading as an ongoing process in stages, in which tasks play a more specific role in the transition from an aesthetic to a more analytical framework.
Iser’s conceptualisation of reading is the backbone of this thesis, as it anticipates some of the central theories in parts 3 and 4 (cf. Fauconnier & Turner 2003; Dancygier 2012; McCloud 1994; Groensteen 2007, 2013), for which the following overview shall serve as a point of reference. At the same time, it contextualises the terms and concepts that have been introduced so far and allows for a brief discussion of the model’s shortcomings.
The most important aspect of Iser’s “wandering viewpoint” (1980: 109) is the distinction between and coordination of different perspectives, which he conceptualises – outside the theory of focalisation – in purely optical terms: “perception and interpretation depend upon the standpoint of the observer” (1980: 84). This demonstrates a close relation to Bordwell’s film narratology and Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. On a macrostructural level Iser identifies “various lines of orientation which are in opposition to one another” (1980: 47), which he correlates to the major subject positions that a text offers to a reader:
As a rule there are four main perspectives: those of the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader. Although these may differ in order of importance, none of them on its own is identical to the meaning of the text. What they do is provide guidelines originating from different starting points (narrator, characters, etc.), continually shading into each other and devised in such a way that they all converge on a general meeting place. We call this meeting place the meaning of the text, which can only be ←36 | 37→brought into focus if it is visualized from a standpoint. Thus, standpoint and convergence of textual perspectives are closely interrelated, although neither of them is actually represented in the text, let alone set out in words. Rather they emerge during the reading process, in the course of which the reader’s role is to occupy shifting vantage points that are geared to a prestructured activity and to fit the diverse perspectives into a gradually evolving pattern. (1980: 35; see also 21, 47, 96)
This is a more elaborate version of the metaphor reading is travelling and contains the same basic ideas: the meaning of a text exists on a higher level of blending or gestalt-forming than the individual perspectives offered in the text, a process that Barbara Dancygier calls “viewpoint compression” (2012: 97). Iser explicitly states that identification with a character is one of many access points to a narrative, but should not be confused with the meaning of the text. Nowhere is this more important than in the context of autobiographies, where the temptation to adopt the narrator’s perspective without any critical distance is substantial.
From these textual structures Iser differentiates four external perspectives that rely more directly on the cognitive involvement of the reader. First, there is the “meaning of the text” (1980: 35), which he describes elsewhere as “a dynamic happening” (1980: 22). This corresponds to the individual reader’s understanding of the narrative as an “ongoing process” (Rosenblatt 1994: 9; see also Turner 1994: 236) and as guided by textual structures. Iser explains that the “meaning must inevitably be pragmatic, in that it can never cover all the semantic potentials of the text, but can only open up one particular form of access to these potentials” (1980: 85; see also 145; Dewey 2005: 46). The particular stance or standpoint adopted in an ongoing engagement with a text determines the present understanding of the narrative. As we have seen with the primacy effect and the impact of interpretative frames, readers tend to rely on one dominant framework that seems to work for the present moment until proven inadequate.
For casual readers who encounter a narrative text for the first time, the process of meaning-making is far less reflected than that of professional readers. Gombrich correctly observes that our interactions with texts are based on the “assumption that things are simple until they prove to be otherwise” (2014: 231), by which he means that we do not consciously interrupt the flow of reading to overanalyse scenes and look for additional layers of meaning. In his meta-study Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read Frank Smith draws the same conclusion based on decades of research. Much like Rosenblatt he states that the “interest is always in the experience, rather than in the information. The intentional acquisition of information, especially at the arbitrary behest of others, is one of the most tedious and unnatural activities ←37 | 38→anyone can engage in” (2004: 55). A more ‘natural’ form of reading has to have “some bearing on the reader’s purposes” (2004: 189), since “we remember what we understand and what is significant to us” (2004: 190). This is not so much a question of laziness than of cognitive overload and the limited capacity of our working memory (cf. 2004: 87; see also 96). This insight leads Smith to the same conclusion as Gombrich:
The first interpretation that comes to us is the one that makes the most sense to us at the particular time, and alternative and less likely interpretations will not be considered unless subsequent interpretations fail to be consistent or to make sense, in which case we realize our probable error and try to recapitulate. One interpretation usually satisfies us, provided it makes sense, so we don’t waste time looking for a second. […] We don’t expect to find more than one meaning for the same sequence of words. (2004: 39; see also 24)
This characterisation of the reading process typical of casual readers is completely at odds with the concept of the ‘ideal reader’. It also highlights the discrepancy between the enjoyment of reading that schools are supposed to foster and the unstated expectation that students should be capable of providing a detailed retrospective analysis of a text after a first reading. Smith ironises this discrepancy between the public meaning and the casual reader’s satisfaction with a personal experience:
The very notion that comprehension is relative, that it depends on the questions that an individual happens to ask, is not one that all educators find easy to accept. Some want to argue that you may not have understood a book even if you have no unanswered questions at the end. They will ask, “But did you understand that the spy’s failure to steal the secret plans was really a symbol of humanity’s ineluctable helplessness in the face of manifest destiny?” And if you say “No, I just thought it was a jolly good story,” they will tell you that you didn’t really comprehend what the story was about. But basically what they are saying is that you were not asking the kind of questions they think you should have asked. (2004: 26)
Within reader-response criticism we find the same rejection of the “total view” (Iser 1980: 16) or the “ultimate meaning” (Iser 1980: 98), which is Iser’s second external perspective. It represents an impossible, complete understanding of the text in all its intricacies. This is criticised by Iser as “the illusion of a false totality” (1980: 12). To make this point clearer I include Dewey’s example of the cathedral, which is meant to illustrate the fallacy of “simultaneous vision” (2005: 228), which corresponds to an abstract, disentangled view of an object in its totality.
A cathedral, no matter how large, makes an instantaneous impression. A total qualitative impression emanates from it as soon as it interacts with the organism through the visual apparatus. But this is only the substratum and framework within which a ←38 | 39→continuous process of interactions introduces enriching and defining elements. The hasty sightseer no more has an esthetic vision of Saint Sophia or the Cathedral of Rouen than the motorist traveling at sixty miles an hour sees the flitting landscape. One must move about, within and without, and through repeated visits let the structure gradually yield itself to him in various lights and in connection with changing moods. […] An instantaneous experience is an impossibility, biologically and psychologically. An experience is a product, one might almost say a by-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world. (2005: 229; see also 311)
The meaning of a text, Dewey suggests, is a by-product of readers’ interaction with it. The aesthetic experience is to be had in the intimate moments, the discoveries of ‘enriching and defining elements’, the interaction with the object and, most importantly, on repeated visits. Because of all these factors Iser dismisses the “ideal reader” as “a purely fictional being”, since the ability “to realize in full the meaning potential of the fictional text” (1980: 29) would require an impossible reading position. Meaning can only result from a personal interaction with a text “at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader” (Rosenblatt 1994: 20).
Yet, Iser sometimes seems to suggest that, as long as readers correctly follow all the instructions (cf. Holub 2010: 102), the “message or meaning of the text can be organized” (Iser 1980: 81) in exactly the way the writer intended. Norman Holland, who studied readers’ responses empirically and became later known for his work in cognitive studies (cf. Holland 2009), found fault with Iser’s seeming overreliance on the text, as his research suggested that readers came up with vastly different interpretations by projecting their own personalities and ideas onto the text (cf. Iser, Holland & Booth 1980: 58–9). To understand Holland’s objection we have to take a brief detour, this time to a more restricted, schematic understanding of meaning-making as we find it, for example, in Emma Kafalenos’s Narrative Causalities:
meaning is an interpretation of the relations between a given action (or happening or situation) and other actions (happenings, situations) in a causal sequence. Interpretation, in the restricted sense in which I use the word in this study, refers to the process of analyzing the causal relations between an action or happening and other actions, happenings, and situations one thinks of as related. (2006: 1; see also Bordwell 1985: 34–5, 51)
She thus limits ‘narrative competence’ to a meaningful ordering of the events as temporally and causally related, which is more or less a reconstruction of the ‘fabula’ (cf. 2006: 2, 15, 25, 58–60, 113, 130). It reduces the work of art to the perspective of the plot and the readers’ involvement to a puzzle game of what came first and why. This limitation allows for a complete picture at the end of the reading process: “Finally, when we reach the end of the narrative and construct ←39 | 40→a complete configuration – a final fabula – ideally we will interpret the function of the given event once again, this time in relation to all the information we have amassed” (2006: 151). However, even Kafalenos’s functional approach (cf. 2006: 6) cannot work without the readers’ involvement: “the meaning of an event is subject to interpretations that can vary for people in our world as well as for characters in fictional worlds, and also for readers (listeners, viewers)” (2006: 16). The ‘meaning of an event’ offers an excellent transition back to Iser.
In The Act of Reading he makes a surprising distinction between the meaning of the text, the first external perspective we discussed, which “must be assembled in the course of reading”, and ‘significance’, “the reader’s absorption of the meaning into his own existence” (1980: 151) which is the third (theoretical) perspective (after the total view). He suggests that readers are capable of building a story world, reconstructing the fabula according to the text’s internal logic and producing a consistent reading partly or even completely independent of personal relevance:
The experience of the text, then, is brought about by an interaction that cannot be designated as private or arbitrary. What is private is the reader’s incorporation of the text into his own treasure-house of experience, but as far as the reader-oriented theory is concerned, this simply means that the subjectivist element of reading comes at a later stage in the process of comprehension than critics of the theory may have supposed: namely, where the aesthetic effect results in a restructuring of experience. (1980: 24)
Not surprisingly, Holland objected to this concept and so do I. The problem is the temporal sequence according to which a mechanical, text-induced actualisation comes first, which might then be followed by an emotional impact on readers “at a later stage” (Iser 1980: 24). It contradicts the basic principle of an ongoing transaction, which is precisely Holland’s second point of criticism in the interview (cf. Iser, Holland & Booth 1980: 59–60).
To understand Iser’s somewhat unusual claim we have to look at it from within his theory. In contrast to real life, the world of the narrative does not exist prior to readers’ transaction with it. Consequently, we cannot respond to and have opinions about something that is not present yet. This leads him to a conceptualisation of reading as a two-step process in which the construction of the story world has to precede deeper cognitive and emotional involvement with the text: “consistency-building has nothing to do with explanation. It is a passive synthesis occurring below the threshold of our consciousness while we read. Consistency-building establishes ‘good continuation’ between textual segments in the time-flow of reading, and is thus an indispensable prerequisite for assembling an overall pattern” (Iser, Holland & Booth 1980: 64). This does ←40 | 41→not mean that the aesthetic object is the same for every reader, as the process of subconscious consistency-building completely relies on readers’ reading competence and ‘theory of the world’, as Smith calls it (cf. 2004: 13–15). However, Iser’s attempt to split the reading flow into different processes and competences that may or may not involve conscious and emotional responses in varying degrees, creates an artificial separation that is more indebted to the model than to actual reading practices. Most importantly, it is hard to reconcile with Rosenblatt’s stance, Genette’s paratexts, Wolf’s frames, Bordwell’s film narratology or Sternberg’s primacy effect, which all rely on aesthetic reading as a precondition rather than as an after-effect.
Although Lothar Bredella believes that “all understanding is interpretation” (2010: 51), by which he means subjective, he finds it necessary to distinguish between the two terms for educational purposes: “Understanding means that we grasp content more or less automatically without conscious effort”, while he defines “interpretation” as “an attempt to improve our understanding of the text” (2010: 51), which he associates with specific, analytical tasks that students engage in after the initial reading. This point is also raised by Suzanne Keen in Empathy and the Novel:
reading literature analytically, with an aim of sharing or comparing insights with others or producing interpretations, is a highly specialized activity that (for most people) requires training. This education disrupts students’ habitual reading patterns with new demands – attention to privileged details and patterns, to symbolic objects, to loose ends, to contextually relevant information – depending on the approach. (2010: 86)
It is paramount to keep these types of reading both conceptually and practically apart, as the aims and responses are quite different. Iser is correct in assuming that many cognitive processes take place subconsciously, such as consistency-building, and that the flow of reading may not be interrupted by conscious reflection for long stretches of time, but this largely automated understanding of a text is clearly coloured by personal preferences and emotions. If aesthetic reading is meant to be a holistic process, the split into theoretical stages of meaning-making that do not even reach consciousness seems to be futile, especially without any empirical proof.
Rosenblatt, it has to be noted, also differentiates between “the evocation and the reaction” (1994: 65) or “the production of the work” and the “stream of feelings, attitudes, and ideas [that] is aroused by the very work being summoned up under the guidance of the text” (1994: 48), but there are two significant differences: first, personal (ir)relevance and emotional responses in general are instant or “concurrent” (1994: 48; see also 69; 1982: 270), as Rosenblatt puts it. ←41 | 42→In “The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response” she specifically criticises the idea that cognition precedes emotional responses: “The notion that first the child must ‘understand’ the text cognitively, efferently, before it can be responded to aesthetically is a rationalization that must be rejected” (1982: 273).
Secondly, her transactional theory acknowledges a whole spectrum of responses ranging from the efferent to the aesthetic. These are not polar opposites but always co-present and intermingled, depending on reader’s stance and the text-type: “This permits the whole range of responses generated by the text to enter into the center of awareness, and out of these materials he selects and weaves what he sees as the literary work of art” (1994: 27–8; see also 66; 1998: 886). For Rosenblatt, personal feelings are as much a resource to make sense of literary texts as are more analytical categories. She criticises “the formalist fallacy” (1994: 155), by which she means “efferent treatments of literary texts” (1994: 162), and opposes the “theoretic division” of the work of art, which should be understood and read as “an integral whole” (1995: 44). Smith is equally averse to the idea of breaking down reading into processes and skills (cf. 2004: 8–10), as understanding is supposed to be a holistic endeavour. Since teaching necessarily involves more guided transactions with texts, this is not tenable for the classroom, but purely analytical tasks can be pushed back to later stages of the reading process. Even though both Iser and Rosenblatt claim the middle ground between formalism and constructivism (cf. Rosenblatt 1994: 37), one can spot a difference between the two approaches: despite Iser’s condemnation of ideal readers (cf. 1980: 29), his theory belies a clear preference for highly intelligent, rational and experienced readers who know how to handle a text. Rosenblatt’s students, who sat in her poetry classes, started out as readers whose “notes reflect, one might say, a rudimentary literary response” (1994: 7). Thus, she seems to have a more realistic perspective on what can be expected during specific stages of the reading process. In the literary classroom, personal relevance plays an important role as a motivational factor and thus becomes a key component of each reader’s stance towards the text (cf. Lütge 2012: 195).
The fourth and most important of Iser’s external perspectives is the “moving viewpoint” (Iser 1980: 16), a subject position of actual readers in relation to the text, which invites them to coordinate the perspectives locally, but also increasingly on a higher level. Rosenblatt sees the reader as a “mediator among the various structures that present themselves to consciousness” (1994: 42) or a weaver, working on a tapestry that connects textual elements through personal significance (cf. 1994: 88, 90). The moving viewpoint may coincide, at times, with one of the four major structures or perspectives inscribed in the text, such as ←42 | 43→the protagonist’s point of view, in case readers strongly identify with the central character. A more complex relationship is the one between the moving viewpoint and the implied/fictitious reader’s perspective: “the concept of the implied reader designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text. No matter who or what he may be, the real reader is always offered a particular role to play” (Iser 1980: 34; see also 38). The wandering viewpoint is different from this inscribed perspective, as readers may not identify, for example, with a strongly propagandistic text that has a very clear vision of its addressees and how they should respond. Iser is adamant that the reader’s role “emerges from this interplay of perspectives, for he finds himself called upon to mediate between them, and so it would be fair to say that the intended reader, as supplier of one perspective, can never represent more than one aspect of the reader’s role” (1980: 33). In other words, while the implied/fictitious/intended reader is a textual structure, the moving viewpoint is the relation of actual readers to the text, which always transcends any of the perspectives on offer.
There are three basic implications here for the teaching of literature: first, that the total meaning or ‘message’ of a narrative is a chimera, or an abstraction at best that does not reflect the complexity of the work of art in its procedural nature. The conceptual metaphor that meaning is a (rare) substance that can be dug out of the earth/text, purified and exhibited as a shining object is misleading. This implies that students who do not ‘get’ the meaning either do not dig deep enough or confuse pebbles for precious stones. Such a materialist reading reduces meaning to a piece of information that can be objectified, evaluated and shared. It corresponds to the public meaning of the text that is equally purified from all personal entanglements and represents a timeless treasury of the best things humans have written and thought about the text. Rosenblatt addresses this problem when she states that literature “lends little comfort to the teacher who seeks the security of a clearly defined body of information” (1995: 27), which she associates with efferent reading. What any teacher of literature has to work with are the (emotional) responses of students that may not correspond to the expected insights, but whose systematic neglect teaches learners that whatever they have to say counts for little. Secondly, traditional approaches privilege one point in time of the meaning-making process, which is when everyone has read the text. This seems logical from the perspective of narratology, as all pieces of the puzzle have been revealed and students are supposed to have a complete understanding of the text. However, ‘having-read’ comprehension is very different from aesthetic reading. Especially when a teacher’s role is to be understood as a facilitator of reading as an experience (cf. Delanoy 2015: 20, 35), a lot ←43 | 44→more has to happen before the final discussion of the book in a teacher-centred lockstep phase. And thirdly, scenes with specific character configurations (cf. Emmott 2004: 103) and interactions are the main access points for narrative understanding. Dewey argues that readers’ experiences of a text are bound to such details: “The esthetic portrayal of grief manifests the grief of a particular individual in connection with a particular event. It is that state of sorrow which is depicted, not depression unattached. It has a local habitation” (2005: 94; see also 95–6). Summaries and similar retrospective tasks tend to ask for the elimination of the specific in favour of global insight, whereas reader-response approaches are mostly interested in the dynamic interaction with the text before the final conclusions are drawn.
Iser’s model of reading is built on the contrast between a foregrounded perspective under current consideration, which he calls the ‘theme’, and all previously encountered perspectives, which form the ‘horizon’: “As perspectives are continually interweaving and interacting, it is not possible for the reader to embrace all perspectives at once, and so the view he is involved with at any one particular moment is what constitutes for him ‘the theme’ ” (1980: 97; see also 98–9). Since the whole narrative consists of such vantage points, the “theme of one moment becomes the horizon against which the next segment takes on its actuality” (1980: 198; see also Dewey 2005: 199, 211), which in Sternberg’s or Bordwell’s theory means that we are constantly primed by previous moments or scenes for an encounter with the next. While this teleological drive of narrative construction does have a significant influence on meaning-making, the interaction between themes is not limited to priming, but equally includes a re-evaluation of previous scenes in light of recent developments and revelations. Iser acknowledges this phenomenon as “reciprocal spotlighting” (1980: 114; see also 118, 148, 197, 202; Rosenblatt 1994: 85; Dewey 2005: 116) and explains the concept in the following manner:
The continual interaction of perspectives throws new light on all positions linguistically manifested in the text, for each position is set in a fresh context, with the result that the reader’s attention is drawn to aspects hitherto not apparent. Thus the structure of theme and horizon transforms every perspective segment of the text into a two-way glass, in the sense that each segment appears against the others and is therefore not only itself but also a reflection and an illuminator of those others. Each individual position is thus expanded and changed by its relation to the others, for we view it from all the perspectives that constitute the horizon. In this respect the literary text avails itself of a mechanism that regulates perception in general, for what is observed changes when it is observed – in accordance with the particular expectations of the observer. (1980: 97–8; see also 99, 116)←44 | 45→
This is the most important departure in this model from the strict temporality, linearity and teleology of classical narratology, as narrative comprehension is presented here as based on a relationship between and the mutual illumination of story elements across perspectives and scenes. It is a translinear process that runs backwards and forwards, establishing a tentative web of meaning across the narrative. Iser even introduces a new term, the ‘retroactive effect’, to specifically address, in Sternberg’s terms, the “unexpected retroactive illumination” (1978: 100) of previously encountered scenes:
In most literary texts, however, the sequence of sentences is so structured that the correlates serve to modify and even frustrate the expectations they have aroused. In so doing, they automatically have a retroactive effect on what has already been read, which now appears quite different. Furthermore, what has been read shrinks in the memory to a foreshortened background, but it is being constantly evoked in a new context and so modified by new correlates that instigate a restructuring of past syntheses. (Iser 1980: 111; see also 114, 115, 155; Rosenblatt 1994: 10, 57–8, 60–1, 85, 134)
Sternberg calls the same phenomenon “the bi-directional processing of information” by which he means “the play of expectation and hypothesis, retrospective revision of patterns, shifts of ambiguity, and progressive reconstitution in general” (1978: 98; see also Benton & Fox 1985: 14). Another important concept is the introduction of a ‘foreshortened background’ in the form of ‘past syntheses’, which means that the story information we operate with is not atomistic or compartmentalised, but stored as gestalten or holistic construals. The groundwork for these ideas can be found in Dewey (cf. 2005: 189).
It is Iser’s general conviction that the flow of any narrative cannot be as smooth and steady as our advanced reading skills make us believe (cf. De Bruyn 2012: 131–2). He argues that the ‘themes’ are set off against each other by gaps: “Wherever there is an abrupt juxtaposition of segments, there must automatically be a blank, breaking the expected order of the text” (1980: 195). When readers begin to compare and contrast related themes, which illuminate each other, a referential field is set up whose elements they are able to simultaneously view within their field of vision at any particular moment. In reader-response criticism synthesis is based on synopsis in the original sense of the word: we understand things by seeing them together. The gap has an almost paradoxical function in this context: on the one hand, it sets apart units of narrative organisation; on the other hand, it ties these segments together through the connective tissue that readers produce in response to the text (cf. Iser 1980: 197). In Iser’s system image-building is “polysynthetic” (1980: 148), which means that there are several (potential) narrative strands that readers have to keep track ←45 | 46→of. Dewey, almost randomly, calls these gaps ‘problems’, “intervals” (2005: 164), “seams and mechanical junctions” (2005: 199) or “pause” (2005: 179), but otherwise the theory is surprisingly similar:
Without internal tension there would be a fluid rush to a straightaway mark; there would be nothing that could be called development and fulfillment. The existence of resistance defines the place of intelligence in the production of an object of fine art. The difficulties to be overcome in bringing about the proper reciprocal adaptation of parts constitute what in intellectual work are problems. As in activity dealing with predominantly intellectual matters, the material that constitutes a problem has to be converted into a means for its solution. It cannot be sidestepped. (2005: 143)
According to Iser every text features “strategies” that “organize the internal network of references, for it is these that prestructure the shape of the aesthetic object to be produced by the reader” (1980: 96). They may seem insignificant, but they orchestrate the activation of previous segments to become part of the referential field. “The organizational importance of these strategies becomes all too evident the moment they are dispensed with. This happens, for instance, when plays or novels are summarised, or poems paraphrased. The text is practically disembodied, being reduced to content at the expense of effect” (1980: 86). According to Iser, a summary smooths over the “surprising twists and turns” (1980: 112), the “processes of focusing and refocusing” (1980: 113) and other important interruptions of the narrative flow on both micro-structural and macro-structural levels. Iser argues that “the strategies disrupt consistency-building” to shake readers out of a false complacency and force a “continual oscillation between involvement and observation” (1980: 128). Since reading is a “self-corrective process” (Rosenblatt 1994: 11; see also 1964: 125), the text continuously reminds readers of the kind of work they are supposed to do:
… the reader’s communication with the text is a dynamic process of self-correction, as he formulates signifieds which he must then continually modify. It is cybernetic in nature as it involves a feedback of effects and information throughout a sequence of changing situational frames; smaller units progressively merge into bigger ones, so that meaning gathers meaning in a kind of snowballing process. (Iser 1980: 67; see also 167, 201–3; Dewey 2005: 143, 179, 199, 228).
Contrary to Frank Smith, Iser chooses to overemphasise the cognitive strain that every reading demands. Information is not offered in a continuous flow of easily digestible bits, but as discontinuous fragments that have to be actively pieced together by a highly involved creative reader. This gradation of complexity can be explained when we look at the literary texts and readerships that Smith, Rosenblatt and Iser have in mind. While the first focuses on early reading ←46 | 47→experiences of native speakers with age-adequate texts, Rosenblatt derives her practical examples from teaching poetry to undergraduates. Iser, however, relied on introspection, which establishes a context that sees university professors engaging with the most demanding texts of the literary canon. Therefore, he naturally associates literary writing with formal complexity and the concept of defamiliarisation or ‘enstrangement’ (cf. Shklovksy 1998: 4–6; Iser 1980: 43, 61, 87–8, 93–4), which constantly destabilises and questions a facile auto-assembly of narrative information into a consistent storyline. Writing about “energy expenditure and economy in poetry”, Shklovsky addresses precisely this point: “If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously-automatically” (1998: 4–5). Importantly, Shklovksy identifies the danger of automatisation and numbness in real life and postulates art as the only cure: “And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’ ” (1998: 6). The strategy of art, according to Shklovsky, is to shake us out of our complacency to see things afresh for what they truly are. It is not hard to notice an echo of Plato’s allegory of the cave here. This may explain why Iser’s reading process is an “often difficult journey” (1980: 16). He consciously places different texts and genres on this continuum of complexity with (post)modernist prose fiction representing one end of the spectrum and genre fiction and “propagandist literature” (1980: 83) the other. Surprisingly, he groups film with lowbrow fiction, because we are presented with a complete picture that we do not have to construct on our own (cf. 1980: 138). This confusion of his own sophisticated process of consistency-building and gestalt-forming with a literal picture is inappropriate. He even claims that a photograph “excludes me from a world which I can see but which I have not helped to create” (1980: 139). This is the old prejudice that visual narrative media lead to an “impoverishment of the mental image” (1980: 139), because they put a pre-conceived world on display. Part 4 sets out to demonstrate that Iser’s own theory is perfectly suited to discredit such a claim and works even better with comics than with prose fiction.
From a contemporary perspective, the most confusing aspect of Iser’s terminology is the fact that he uses ‘schema’ to describe a textual structure, whereas in cognitive psychology it designates a “mental pattern, usually derived from past experience, which is used to assist with the interpretation of subsequent cognitions” (Groome 2014a: 8). Iser, however, prefers ‘image’ or ‘gestalt’ instead, ←47 | 48→with a slight difference in meaning: he tends to use ‘image’ for the smaller scale, such as our understanding of a character or situation, and ‘gestalt’ for a more comprehensive understanding of the narrative itself on a meta-level. Otherwise Iser’s grasp of cognitive activity is surprisingly accurate: “The actual content of these mental images will be colored by the reader’s existing stock of experience, which acts as a referential background against which the unfamiliar can be conceived and processed” (1980: 38; see also Dewey 2005: 63; Benton 1992: 31, 33). Concurrently, new information reshapes the very structures we use to make sense of the world. This is essentially how all learning works (cf. Smith 2004: 13, 200; Bordwell 1985: 31). Both reader-response theorists and cognitivists claim that this type of experience does not only affect future reading, but our interaction with the world at large: “there is no doubt that processing a text is bound to result in changes within the recipient, and these changes are not a matter of grammatical rules, but of experience” (Iser 1980: 32).
The similarity between Iser’s model and cognitive theories can be easily explained through gestalt psychology, to which Iser’s model of reading is largely indebted and which was a German forerunner of schema theory. Accordingly, Iser proposes a simultaneous bottom-up/top-down process through which readers keep projecting the ‘images’ they have created of various characters, relationships and contexts onto the narrative while adapting them in view of new hypotheses or evidence. These cognitive representations are not pictures in a traditional sense: “Our mental images do not serve to make the character physically visible; their optical poverty is an indication of the fact that they illuminate the character, not as an object, but as a bearer of meaning. […] The image produced is therefore always more than the facet given in one particular reading moment” (1980: 138). This is a counterargument to Iser’s own claim that visual narrative media show too much of the story world and impoverish the imagination. Since the ‘image’ of a character is that of a ‘bearer of meaning’ and not a photorealistic representation, it should not matter whether a character is portrayed by an actor, drawn by an artist or created in prose by a novelist. Significantly, the ‘image’ is also not a ‘fact file’, but a blend of experiences that have been drawn from different contexts.
In Iser’s theory, the essence of literature and the reason why we read can be found in the fault lines that he calls gaps: “Between segments and cuts there is an empty space, giving rise to a whole network of possible connections which will endow each segment or picture with its determinate meaning” (1980: 196). The signs acquire their meaning only in relation to other signs, which requires a “synthesizing process” that “is not sporadic”, as “it continues throughout every phase of the journey of the wandering viewpoint” (1980: 109). Iser ←48 | 49→follows Saussurean semiotics very closely here: “each textual segment does not carry its own determinacy within itself, but will gain this in relation to other segments” (1980: 195; see also De Bruyn 2012: 110). This is where the parallels between gestalt psychology and semiotics come to the fore in Iser’s theory. On all levels of the reading process an element can only gain meaning against a background of similar elements: sign vs. signs, theme vs. horizon, gestalt vs. gestalten.
In his preface to the sixth edition of Art and Illusion, written in 2000, Gombrich identifies semiotics and psychology as mutually exclusive competitors for the ultimate theory: “There never was an image that looked like nature; all images are based on conventions, no more and no less than is language or the characters of our scripts. All images are signs, and the discipline that must investigate them is not the psychology of perception – as I had believed – but semiotics, the science of signs” (2014: xv). Gombrich’s reassessment of his own approach is ultimately misguided as he cannot shake the conviction that a single theory should be able to explain the complexity of the reading process – semiotics or the psychology of perception. The solution is that both are indispensable. Iser’s reliance on constructivism and gestalt psychology is well founded, after all, as is his insistence that the text guides perception. By constantly revising our models we manage to come closer to a fuller understanding – at least in our own terms: “A gestalt closes itself in proportion to the degree in which it resolves the tensions between the signs that are to be grouped” (Iser 1980: 124). Since literature tries to keep readers on their toes, several images or gestalten are competing for dominance in terms of their capacity to explain the ever-shifting meanings of a text: “The impeded process of ideation, however, allows a variety of definitive gestalten to emerge from the same text” (1980: 188). In other words: the “process of consistency-building” involves “the selection of a gestalt” that provides superior closure in contrast to those that came before, starting with “the formation of an initial, open gestalt” (1980: 123).
In the case of aesthetic reading, there is a danger of narrowing down the range of potential explanations too quickly and too early (cf. Iser 1980: 124). This can be explained through the primacy effect and produces false images in service of an ongoing quest for coherence: “Consistency-building itself is not an illusion-making process, but consistency comes about through gestalt groupings, and these contain traces of illusion in so far as their closure – since it is based on selection – is not a characteristic of the text itself, but only represents a configurative meaning” (1980: 124). These illusions may influence or even overshadow a reading in two dramatic ways: either the readers or viewers are so enamoured with the narrative or indoctrinated by others that their blindness ←49 | 50→does not allow for any other reading than the one they bring to the text; or, in case the evidence to the contrary cannot be ignored, they are likely to suffer a disappointment or enjoy a pleasant surprise ‘out of the blue’.
Iser tries to reign in such ‘misreadings’ by claiming that readers’ projections never completely mislead them as “the gestalten remain at least potentially under attack from those possibilities which they have excluded but dragged along in their wake” (1980: 127). He explains this point further: “for each decision taken has to stabilize itself against the alternatives which it has rejected. These alternatives arise both from the text itself and from the reader’s own disposition – the former allowing different options, the latter different insights” (1980: 230). As we have seen, Gombrich and Smith insist that readers pursue one interpretation rather than tracing alternate readings at the same time, but Iser’s model allows for competing interpretations and polysynthetic gaps as part of the interactions between theme and horizon. Open gestalten may not be fully fledged and consciously available all the time, but they offer a valuable background against which the current theory can be tested in one scene after the next. To put this into perspective, Iser assumes highly complex (post)modernist literary works that may involve unreliable narration, an ongoing uncertainty about the ontological status of characters, or the presentation of the same events from different perspectives consecutively. In these cases different potential readings are the norm rather than the exception.
We have already encountered Iser’s bold claim that the “iconic signs of literature constitute an organization of signifiers which do not serve to designate a signified object, but instead designate instructions for the production of the signified” (1980: 65). What is the nature of the story world then, that Iser warns us against a false sense of verisimilitude? It is easier to start with what it is not: “the very term fiction implies that the words on the printed page are not meant to denote any given reality in the empirical world” (1980: 53; see also Dewey 2005: 287). In factual or scientific texts that are intended for efferent reading, writers define the terms they use as precisely as possible and ask the readers to understand the world in exactly these terms. Ideally, the signifieds match, especially in technical discourse, where the whole point of a predetermined terminology is to avoid misunderstandings as much as possible. Narratives, however, invite the readers or viewers to understand them in their own terms, often through indirect means: “the world must be translated into something it is not, if it is to be perceived and understood” (Iser 1980: 64). For Iser symbols “constitute this ←50 | 51→nongiven element, without which we could have no access to empirical reality” (1980: 64). Thus, narratives do not require readers to respond to the world, but to the situations they artfully set up: “It is clear that if a literary text represents a reaction to the world, the reaction must be to the world incorporated in the text; the forming of the aesthetic object therefore coincides with the reader’s reactions to positions set up and transformed by the structure of theme and horizon” (1980: 98; see also 128–9). Thus, Iser opposes the concept of mimesis, as the literary work of art does not imitate or document reality: “The literary text performs its function, not through a ruinous comparison with reality, but by communicating a reality which it has organized itself” (1980: 181). It reconfigures and overdetermines (cf. 1980: 48–50) elements taken from real life to create particular effects.
Overdetermination is a helpful concept to explain the differences between real life and art and how artists manage to highlight aspects of reality that would otherwise go unnoticed. Iser uses the term ‘repertoire’ to designate all those elements that have been selected from real life in service of an aesthetic aim: “The aesthetic value conditions the selection of the repertoire, and in so doing deforms the given nature of what is selected in order to formulate the system of equivalences peculiar to that one text; in this respect, it constitutes the framework of the text” (1980: 82; see also 109; Dewey 2005: 91, 93, 112; Fludernik 2005: 38–9; Stockwell 2002: 126–7). This foregrounding of elements (cf. Stockwell 2002: 14) occurs twice: once through the selection of the repertoire from a vast background of socio-cultural contexts and, again, through the wandering viewpoint that draws our attention to specific themes set off against the horizon. This leads to an intense spotlighting and overdetermination of those elements that have not only been selected for the repertoire, but again foregrounded within the text itself. Dewey explains this effect in the following manner: “For art is a selection of what is significant, with rejection by the very same impulse of what is irrelevant, and thereby the significant is compressed and intensified” (2005: 217). Accordingly, I disagree with Jerome Bruner and Alan Palmer who claim that literary texts are underdetermined and thus indeterminate because they contain gaps (cf. Bruner 1986: 24–5; Palmer 2004: 34). I rather follow Iser, who proposes that the gaps are carefully chosen and orchestrated to defamiliarise and, thus, foreground specific beliefs and norms that would otherwise go unnoticed. As we shall see, comics scholars know the same principle as “amplification through simplification” (Mc Cloud 1994: 30; see also Mar & Oatley 2008: 177) by which certain elements of a composition become salient against a starkly reduced background. Iser’s view of literature is not based on a deficit-model. When Palmer goes on to argue that we need our real-world knowledge to make sense of the characters in a narrative ←51 | 52→text, there is nothing to object to: “The reader can cope with the gaps in the continuing consciousnesses of fictional minds because in the real world we experience gaps in other real minds too” (2004: 199). However, there are two important caveats: fictional minds are much more accessible through the intervention of art and, secondly, the same logic applies vice versa: we also learn to read real life through the experience of art.
While the repertoire suggests a certain familiarity and provides a starting point for the reader/viewer, the unique configuration of the work of art decontextualises and defamiliarises the selected elements and makes the reader/viewer experience them afresh under the guidance of the text: “Experiences arise only when the familiar is transcended or undermined; they grow out of the alteration or falsification of that which is already ours” (Iser 1980: 131–2). Robert C. Holub captures this idea really well: “Through the repertoire, therefore, the literary text reorganizes social and cultural norms as well as literary traditions so that the reader may reassess their function in real life” (2010: 87). This reconfiguration of familiar elements to lift cultural blindness can also be found in Victor Turner’s seminal essay “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” in which he describes defamiliarisation as an educational tool to make young men undergoing a rite of passage aware of the cultural world in which they live by taking them out of their familiar environment and placing them in a unique relation to it:
much of the grotesqueness and monstrosity of liminal sacra may be seen to be aimed not so much at terrorizing or bemusing neophytes into submission or out of their wits as at making them vividly and rapidly aware of what may be called the “factors” of their culture. I have myself seen Ndembu and Luvale masks that combine features of both sexes, have both animal and human attributes, and unite in a single representation human characteristics with those of the natural landscape. One ikishi mask is partly human and partly represents a grassy plain. Elements are withdrawn from their usual settings and combined with one another in a totally unique configuration, the monster or dragon. Monsters startle neophytes into thinking about objects, persons, relationships, and features of their environment they have hitherto taken for granted. […] During the liminal period, neophytes are alternately forced and encouraged to think about their society, their cosmos, and the powers that generate and sustain them. Liminality may be partly described as a stage of reflection. In it those ideas, sentiments, and facts that had been hitherto for the neophytes bound up in configurations and accepted unthinkingly are, as it were, resolved into their constituents. These constituents are isolated and made into objects of reflection for the neophytes by such processes as componental exaggeration and dissociation by varying concomitants. (1972: 105; see also Bruner 1986: 26, 123)
Literature serves a similar function (cf. Rosenblatt 1995: 183–4), which Dewey describes in the following way: “We are, as it were, introduced into a world ←52 | 53→beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves” (2005: 202). Through selection, concentration (cf. Dewey 2005: 204, 207), reconfiguration and overdetermination writers turn the raw materials of life into narratives that highlight and examine what would otherwise be ignored or quickly passed over (cf. Rosenblatt 1995: 34; Dewey 2005: 87, 99; Gombrich 2014: 121). Most importantly of all, literature “provides a living through, not simply knowledge about” (Rosenblatt 1995: 38), which results in “an enlargement of our experience” (1995: 40; see also Dewey 2005: 302). This is a critical point for Dewey. Defamiliarisation should not be an end in itself, so that reading becomes “disconnected from other modes of experience” (2005: 9), but a way to reconnect with life. However, if an artist “acts mechanically and repeats some old model fixed like a blueprint in his mind” (2005: 52), readers’ experience may be dramatically lessened.
Overdetermination means that all the elements that have been selected may be referential to a certain extent, but they play more prominent roles within the text itself. They may have an additional symbolic function, exemplify a thematic concern and contribute to the internal network of meanings: “an ‘overdetermined text’ causes the reader to engage in an active process of composition, because it is he who has to structure the meaning potential arising out of the multifarious connections between the semantic levels of the text” (Iser 1980: 49). This process is guided by the textual strategies: “the main task of the text strategies is to organize the internal network of references, for it is these that prestructure the shape of the aesthetic object to be produced by the reader” (1980: 96).
Thus, “the elements of the repertoire are highly determinate” (1980: 85); they are made to stand out – both in relation to their old context and their new place in the narrative: “The very process of selection inevitably creates a background-foreground relationship, with the chosen element in the foreground and its original context in the background” (1980: 93). What in real life may be just what it is – such as a chance encounter with a stranger on a train – has to gain significance far beyond a random event to warrant inclusion in a narrative. But if it does, it surely has been transformed, deformed or reformed to take an eminent place in the sequence. That is why Bordwell ascribes all elements of a film such an important status: “All film techniques, even those involving the ‘profilmic event,’ function narrationally, constructing the story world for specific effects” (1985: 12). With just two hours of narrating time, every scene, every visual element, every shot and frame has to count. Since narrative is a perspectival art, the unique ‘vision’ of a writer or director reshapes the material “to enable us to see that familiar reality with new eyes” (Iser 1980: 181). For Iser, the literary text ←53 | 54→cannot be a representation of reality, as the wandering viewpoint functions as an optical instrument that provides readers with a unique view: “the work is in no way a mere copy of the given world – it constructs a world of its own out of the material available to it. It is the way in which this world is constructed that brings about the perspective intended by the author” (1980: 35; see also Dewey 2005: 77–8).
For Iser, artistic foregrounding is an eminently political act: “literary texts constitute a reaction to contemporary situations, bringing attention to problems that are conditioned though not resolved by contemporary norms” (1980: 3). The cultural work that narratives perform is such that they foreground what has been consciously or negligently obscured: “the borderlines of existing systems are the starting point for the literary text. It begins to activate that which the system has left inactive” (1980: 72). In terms of literary history, thus,
… we can reconstruct whatever was concealed or ignored by the philosophy or ideology of the day, precisely because these neutralized or negated aspects of reality form the focal point of the literary work. At the same time, the literary text must also implicitly contain the basic framework of the system, as this is what causes the problems that literature is to react to. (1980: 73)
This quotation only makes sense in the context of overdetermination and double foregrounding. The repertoire draws elements from the real world and thus reproduces social structures in the narrative. The unique configuration of these elements, however, together with the orchestration of perspectives and the wandering viewpoint produce a very specific point of view and attitude that invite readers to look at the represented world in a particular way. In this sense literature teaches readers to become better readers of both fiction and real life: “The novel fulfills its didactic purpose by developing the reader’s own sense of discernment” (1980: 216), which is made possible by “the rearranging and, indeed, reranking of existing patterns of meaning” (1980: 72; see also 74, 181, 212; Dewey 2005: 252). Iser’s use of the term ‘didactic’ is interesting, as he otherwise denounces “rhetorical, didactic, and propagandist literature” as genres that “generally take over intact the thought system already familiar to its readers” (1980: 83; see also 190). Iser believes that defamiliarisation invites critical thinking and allows the reader to be “placed in a position from which he can take a fresh look at the forces which guide and orient him, and which he may hitherto have accepted without question” (1980: 74; see also 213, 218; Rosenblatt 1994: 145; Dewey 2005: 99). Iser’s humanist agenda makes him believe that great literature exists outside of socio-political discourses, almost like a pure form that teaches compassion and discernment, a panacea against the stupidity and indoctrination of mass media. ←54 | 55→“Iser is convinced […] that reading is not only about aesthetic appreciation or the formation of meaning, but also about personal transformation” (De Bruyn 2012: 129) and conducive to the propagation of “enlightenment ideals” (Holub 2010: 97). In this sense, a comparison to the functional aspect of Turner’s rite of passage or Plato’s allegory of the cave may not be too far-fetched: in all three instances the confrontation with an altered reality has a direct and significant bearing on our understanding of a reality that has become so familiar to us that we have lost all discernment concerning its constituted nature.
Iser is aware of the challenges that are involved in this Herculean task of dragging the reluctant dupes, spoon-fed by mass media, into the light: “Reading, as it were, against the grain is far from easy”, as the reader must overcome “his own prejudices” (1980: 8; see also De Bruyn 2012: 130; Rosenblatt 1994: 187). Dewey describes this fundamental reorientation in similar terms: “For ‘taking in’ in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful” (2005: 42). This is also tied to his distinction between ‘recognition’ and ‘perception’: “In recognition we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme. Some detail or arrangement of details serves as cue for bare identification. It suffices in recognition to apply this bare outline as a stencil to the present object. […] Perception replaces bare recognition. There is an act of reconstructive doing and consciousness becomes fresh and alive” (2005: 54). Reading, in Dewey’s sense, relies on both types: as trained readers we instantly recognise the words, often whole groups of them, but the meaning-making process involves perception. The true work of art – in Dewey’s view – reconfigures reality in such a way that it elevates the aesthetic experience of readers into a form of enlightened communion. In stark contrast, “[o];rdinary experience is often infected with apathy, lassitude and stereotype” (2005: 270; see also Bredella 2010: 214). In order for a work of art to leave a lasting impression on a human being, there has to be a challenge and an engagement on all levels of existence:
There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring. Because of this gap, all conscious perception involves a risk; it is a venture into the unknown, for as it assimilates the present to the past it also brings about some reconstruction of that past. When past and present fit exactly into one another, when there is only recurrence, complete uniformity, the resulting experience is routine and mechanical; it does not come to consciousness in perception. The inertia of habit overrides adaptation of the meaning of the here and now with that of ←55 | 56→experiences, without which there is no consciousness, the imaginative phase of experience. (Dewey 2005: 284)
Dewey tries to capture this all-encompassing engagement with the verb ‘to mind’: “ ‘mind’ denotes every mode and variety of interest in, and concern for, things: practical, intellectual, and emotional” (2005: 274). Again it becomes apparent how closely Iser builds his theory on Dewey’s: the routine and mechanical application of genre knowledge to a formulaic novel does not engage readers, as the text only confirms what experienced readers already know. Instead of instant recognition the kind of aesthetic reading that Dewey and Iser have in mind takes time and effort (cf. Dewey 2005: 182–3).
To put this approach into perspective it may help to quickly reference Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is a book about systematic biases of intuition that can be explained through the metaphor of two complementary systems in the brain: one is thinking fast and relies on norms, prototypes and intuitions (System 1), the other is thinking slowly and requires conscious effort (System 2). System 1 “continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in the world at any instant” (2012: 13; see also 71) and with little effort. It works on autopilot, completely independent of conscious control (cf. 2012: 20; see also Turner 1994: 32–4; Gerrig 2011: 37, 45; Groome 2014a: 17–19), and roughly corresponds to what Iser calls consistency-building in his theory (cf. Iser, Holland & Booth 1980: 64; Kahneman 2012: 50–1, 75–6, 85–8). However, System 1 operations rely on all the resources of an individual, including emotions, intuitions and personal preferences. In contrast to this, “System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains” (Kahneman 2012: 24). From a literary studies point of view defamiliarisation is the cause of cognitive strain and triggers the activation of System 2. This is why, for Iser and Dewey, there is a direct connection between the complexity of the work of art and its potential to provide a real experience. Overdetermination, as the strategic selection, deployment, aggregation and foregrounding of narrative elements and clues, guides consistency-building in very general terms (System 1), but it also prepares for striking revelations and deeper insights by activating System 2 and establishing translinear connections.
Kahneman also deserves credit for accepting that the stereotypes of System 1 are the only framework we have to make sense of the world. Without them instantaneous consistency-building would be impossible:
Stereotyping is a bad word in our culture, but in my usage it is neutral. One of the basic characteristics of System 1 is that it represents categories as norms and prototypical exemplars. This is how we think of horses, refrigerators, and New York police officers; ←56 | 57→we hold in memory a representation of one or more “normal” members of each of these categories. When the categories are social, these representations are called stereotypes. Some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories. (2012: 168–9)
What does a fight against stereotypes involve then, when they are all we have? Based on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s views on prejudice, which seem to be the same as Kahneman’s, Lothar Bredella and Werner Delanoy come to the following conclusion:
We must pre-judge in order to be able to judge the text or another culture. For Gadamer “prejudice” is not a negative term. Prejudices as prior understanding play a constitutive role in the process of understanding. They determine how we understand from behind our backs. Therefore we are not conscious of them. But when we encounter others who think and feel differently we might become aware of them. Thus the encounter with others is necessary for a critical reflection of our prejudices. (1996: ix)
If our thought processes are mostly subconscious and prejudiced, how is it possible then that something like “expert intuition” (Kahneman 2012: 11) develops, which allows for the accurate analysis of a complex situation within split seconds, based on minimal evidence? The answer is simple: “mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice” (2012: 22) or, as Dewey puts it: “Of course there are recognitions that are virtually instantaneous. But these occur only when, through a sequence of past experiences, the self has become expert in certain directions” (2005: 182). Research has shown that chess masters reach the highest level of performance after “at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice” (Kahneman 2012: 238). This allows System 1 to draw from a vast store of experiences and insights that the layperson simply does not have. In addition, “subjects who possess a great deal of expert knowledge about a subject are particularly good at remembering material which relates to their field of expertise” (Groome 2014b: 163), simply because they are personally invested and enjoy engaging in the activity.
Overdetermination, as the orchestrated guidance of readers’ attention, can be understood as a didactic tool that foregrounds patterns that are supposed to be noticed (cf. Nünning 2014: 39, 42). The psychologist Keith Oatley describes this phenomenon with the help of the medium film: “in the discourse structure of film – how different from our own real lives – the camera and microphone are always at exactly the right spot, at exactly the right moment, with exactly the right angle, so that we can observe just the transaction that is essential to the ←57 | 58→plot” (1999: 445). This is why overdetermination is the exact opposite of realism and verisimilitude.
Gombrich, who is mainly concerned with the illusion of realism in painting, understands the medium as a particular selection of signs and affordances into which the artist has to translate what he or she sees (cf. 2014: 30, 56). What is more, his “style, like the medium, creates a mental set which makes the artist look for certain aspects in the scene around him that he can render. Painting is an activity, and the artist will therefore tend to see what he paints rather than to paint what he sees” (2014: 73). This has to do with the impact of culturally available frames, such as genres, that artists rely on and through which they develop distinct styles that become recognizable, even across vastly different subject matters. Gombrich explains the matter thus: “There is no neutral naturalism. The artist, no less than the writer, needs a vocabulary before he can embark on a ‘copy’ of reality” (2014: 75). He argues that artists arrive at their own individual styles through “the rhythm of schema and correction” (2014: 92).
Patrick Colm Hogan presents an interesting example in the context of jazz improvisations (cf. 2003: 7–28). He claims that the music has to be challenging, but still comprehensible as a pattern (cf. 2003: 9–10), so that the genre remains transparent as a blueprint or formula, but embellished with enough variety and original ideas to make it highly engaging. Hogan uses John Coltrane’s 1961 jazz record My Favorite Things, which is a cover version of the popular hit from the musical The Sound of Music, to illustrate the difficult balance between easy recognition and complex deviation from the established pattern. On the part of the musician this requires mastery of the established pattern (cf. 2003: 19, 69) to be then able to focus on the improvisations and innovations. The listener is primed by the “themes and basic phrases” that “are already in the listener’s long-term memory” (2003: 21), so that the variations of the theme can be much more daring, precisely because the pattern is so familiar.
Gombrich acknowledges that “the revulsion from the formula is a comparatively recent development” (2014: 128) and that most artists start out by imitating and experimenting with established patterns. For Gombrich it is important that the “schema on which a representation is based will continue to show through the ultimate elaboration” (2014: 92). This play with schemas – Gombrich’s term for the established aesthetic structures of a work of art – is central to his theory and is mirrored in readers’ engagement with a text, which equally takes place between convention and innovation:
The work of art is thus a challenge to the performance of a like act of evocation and organization, through imagination, on the part of the one who experiences it. It is not just a ←58 | 59→stimulus to and means of an overt course of action. This fact constitutes the uniqueness of esthetic experience, and this uniqueness is in turn a challenge to thought. It is particularly a challenge to that systematic thought called philosophy. (Dewey 2005: 285)
In this context Iser argues that texts take readers out of their comfort zone and open up a “third dimension” (1980: 218; see also Benton 1992: 23) which is situated halfway between the familiar and the new and allows for “the heightening of self-awareness which develops in the reading process” (1980: 157). He describes this ‘third space’ in between the familiar world of readers and the circumstances of the narrative in the following way:
He is caught, as it were, between his discoveries and his habitual disposition. If he adopts the discovery standpoint, his own disposition may then become the theme of observation; if he holds fast to his governing conventions, he must then give up his discoveries. Whichever choice he may make will be conditioned by the tension of his position, which forces him to try and achieve a balance. The incongruity between discovery and disposition can generally only be removed through the emergence of a third dimension, which is perceived as the meaning of the text. The balance is achieved when the disposition experiences a correction, and in this correction lies the function of the discovery. (1980: 218; see also 213, 217)
In other words: the literary text challenges readers to integrate new discoveries or experiences into their existing mental frameworks: “the acquisition of experience is not a matter of adding on – it is a restructuring of what we already possess” (1980: 132; see also 152, 210, 221; Rosenblatt 1994: 145; Bredella 2010: 78). The function of literary texts, according to Iser, is for narratives to contain enough of the familiar to provide basic orientation, but, at the same time, enough of a challenge to make readers connect the dots under the guidance of the text.
Iser never tires of stressing the unique qualities of fiction that lie precisely in its unrealistic, strongly selective, defamiliarising and perspectival treatment of real life. Towards the end of The Art of Reading he adds a further essential difference that stresses the unique role of fiction in human understanding:
the final gap can only be closed through a fiction, since it is both the function and achievement of the literary work to bring into existence something which has no reality of its own, and which can never be finally deduced from existing realities. Now for all the given material that goes to make up a mental image, it is only the fictive element that can establish the consistency necessary to endow it with the appearance of reality, for consistency is not a given quality of reality. And so the fictive element always comes to the fore when we realize the projective nature of our mental images. This does not mean that we then wish to exclude the fictive element from our images, for this is structurally impossible anyway – without the fictive link there can be no image. But it can mean ←59 | 60→that, through our awareness of the fictive closure, integral to our acts of ideation, we may be able to transcend our hitherto fixed positions, and at least we shall be conscious of the intriguing role which fiction plays in our ideational and conceptual activities. (1980: 225)
Here he claims that all human understanding is creative and requires a leap of the imagination, often in the form of metaphorical thinking. Just like rituals, which are heavily invested in metaphor, stories have the power to invite closure, which is a blend of seemingly irreconcilable matter into a unified whole that transcends the gaps and inconsistencies. Only through overdetermination, defamiliarisation and the moving viewpoint can narratives reposition us in relation to the world we live in. For the literary text is an optical instrument that allows for new insights to be gained from reading, whose consistency-building and meaning-making require an ongoing negotiation of different perspectives.
The previous part on reader-response criticism started with Wolfgang Iser’s comparison of the reading process to an “often difficult journey” (1980: 16), which I then qualified by emphasising the different types of application that writers such as Frank Smith, Louise M. Rosenblatt or Iser himself had in mind. They can range from a young native speaker’s first encounter with picture books to a university professor’s tenth rereading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in preparation for an academic essay. Yet, we refer to all these cultural practices with a single verb – ‘to read’. In everyday situations the context provides sufficient clues which type of reading is meant in each case (e.g. text messages, good night stories, body language, Tarot, newspapers, between the lines, romances, horoscopes, cartoons), but the matter becomes more complicated with educational settings.
While aesthetic reading, reading comprehension and narratological analysis are three distinct types of engagement with texts, they are often presumed to unfold automatically and concurrently. Based on this logic, students are expected to articulate their personal responses, understand the basic facts of the narrative (who? where? when? etc.) and comment on artistic choices (e.g. narration, focalisation, time structure, character constellation, style) after a first encounter with the text. However, sharing personal observations, extracting information from a piece of writing and looking behind the scenes are not exactly the same thing. Therefore, Rosenblatt felt the need to differentiate at least between aesthetic and efferent reading, which she associates with different cognitive frames and readers’ expectations. Frank Smith criticises that reading comprehension tasks, which are supposed to check a basic and allegedly neutral understanding of a text, are already “subject to personal predilection” (2004: x), influenced by narratological analysis and closely tied to the extraction of facts. Rosenblatt does acknowledge a whole spectrum of responses, ranging from the aesthetic to the efferent (cf. 1994: 27–8), as the two stances are sometimes difficult to separate. For the purposes of critical reflection, however, they are conceptually kept apart in this chapter. She indicates that “various stages in a developing process” (1994: 7) can lead – via the negotiation and co-construction of meaning – from highly subjective first impressions to a more reflected and justifiable reading of a text. Chapter 3 develops such a staged approach in greater detail. For the moment, we look at factors that influence various perceptions of reading, ranging from a basic skill that almost everyone will eventually master to erudite explications ←61 | 62→of the most sophisticated works of art that human genius has ever blessed the world with.
In “A Performing Art” (1966) Rosenblatt is concerned with the formidable challenges that literary classics pose to the uninitiated: “As the reader submits himself to the guidance of the text, he must engage in a most demanding kind of activity” (1966: 1000). In the same essay she encourages her fellow teachers to muster “the courage to admit to our students that the actual business of recreating a work is difficult and tricky and sometimes frustrating, but always exciting and challenging” (1966: 1003). While she rejects “a single interpretation which the teacher can impose”, she is worried that a laissez-faire approach would stifle the students’ development: “Undisciplined, irrelevant or distorted emotional responses, and the lack of relevant experience or knowledge will, of course, lead to inadequate interpretations of the text” (1966: 1001). Therefore, she asks for “a very stringent discipline” (1966: 1001) that takes students to task in case they falter in their self-improvement and do not work to the best of their abilities.
All proponents of aesthetic reading are caught in this double bind: on the one hand, they acknowledge and actively encourage the constructivist nature of reading; on the other hand, they promise that through an ongoing process of rereading, self-correction and the negotiation of meaning in pairs and groups, students will eventually produce an adequate interpretation of the text. Looking at the humble beginnings from the vantage point of advanced interpretation/analysis, even ardent advocates of aesthetic reading, including Rosenblatt herself, find this challenge daunting. Since it is the teacher’s responsibility to organise the transitional stages in between, which gradually shift the balance towards greater objectivity and sophistication, the teacher’s role as a facilitator of reading (cf. Delanoy 2015: 20, 35) requires much more attention.
A similar double bind is evident in German publications on (aesthetic) reading in the classroom. While a commitment to reader-response criticism has produced several collections of student-focused activities (cf. e.g. Caspari 1994: 157–225; Haas, Menzel & Spinner 1994: 24; Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 71–82; Freitag-Hild 2010: 102–21; Haas 2013), there are also more recent attempts to establish a classification of reading competences that can be trained and tested (cf. e.g. Hallet, Surkamp & Krämer 2015). While a focus on traditional reading comprehension and narratological analysis is conducive to such an endeavour, the re-definition of aesthetic reading as the application of a specific set of skills (cf. Diehr & Surkamp 2015: 25–7, 33; Hallet & Nöth 2015: 48) creates certain problems. Apart from the temptation to treat literature as a container of information, such a procedure also favours a top-down approach that retrospectively ←62 | 63→defines certain milestones from the vantage point of school-leaving exams, which tend to be standardised tests. I am more inclined to agree with Christiane Lütge who states that “the very search for – testable – literary competences seems full of contradictions and leaves us with an insoluble dilemma” (2012: 195). She identifies these current challenges by observing that the lists of competences and the tasks based on these descriptors “may not (yet) fully reflect the complexities and intricacies of teaching literature” (2012: 195). However, this apt comment also reveals a more fundamental issue: we have begun to treat literature as a serious problem – not only due to external exigencies, but in and of itself. Extending reading to multiliteracies and listing every single aspect as a separate competence has added further complications. In Films, Graphic Novels & Visuals: Developing Multiliteracies in Foreign Language Education – An Interdisciplinary Approach, Daniela Elsner, Sissy Helff and Britta Viebrock make such a point: “Learners today face enormous perceptional challenges due to immensely complex communication technologies that often make use of visual icons” (2013: 7). The same logic is then applied to comics: “It is obvious that the reading of graphic novels requires an enhanced power of concentration, along with multimodal reading strategies, just like the reading of internet-pages, hypertexts or other multimodal twenty-first century texts does” (Elsner 2013: 64).
The attempt to save literature by enlisting as many contexts in which it can be usefully instrumentalised has led to a situation in which the few texts that are read in schools are needlessly burdened with unrealistic expectations. Reading an autobiographical comic in the classroom may now serve the development of language competences (e.g. reading comprehension), motivational, attitudinal, aesthetic and cognitive competences, cultural studies, multiliteracies (especially comics literacy, visual literacy and critical media literacy), literary literacy (e.g. genre competence, narrative competence), and so on (cf. Lütge 2012; Hallet et al. 2015). Provided that teachers know what all these categories require as independent approaches to multimodal texts, their interrelations and potential synergies still require a lot of work on a conceptual level. While in academic settings it has become the norm to approach a text from a very specific angle in an already specialised field, there is always the implicit pressure that teachers in secondary schools and their students are supposed to cover a text in its entirety. Together with a PISA-induced demand to make reading a more controllable, testable and efficient activity, there is a trend to quietly discard the idea of aesthetic reading and return to a stronger focus on analysis in the precious little time that is reserved for literature (cf. Delanoy 2015: 24–5). This is clearly at odds with the idea that students are supposed to enjoy reading and develop personal connections to books.←63 | 64→
Looking again at certain conceptualisations of aesthetic reading that were introduced in part 1, we find a number of instances in which reading is presented as both easy and automatic: Iser’s concept of consistency-building is described as a fully automated process; so is his understanding of “light reading” (1980: 219), which closely follows generic conventions. The readers’ first impressions, their personal responses to art, are seen as happening ‘naturally’ in Dewey’s theory (cf. 2005: 2–4). This is mirrored in Monika Fludernik’s model of a ‘natural’ narratology, in which the first three levels are more or less automatic and based on daily experiences and culturally established patterns of storytelling (cf. 2005: 43–5). Fludernik associates some of the key concerns of narratology, such as characters, themes or plot, with level 1, which is the most basic (cf. 2005: 339–40). This affinity between storytelling and daily experiences directly relates to the appreciation of students’ responses in the transactional theory of reading: “That personal knowledge which every child brings into the classroom and which long pre-dates any abstract awareness of poetic process and technique or of critical method, is not to be despised and might usefully be encouraged much further up the school than is commonly the case” (Benton 1986: 62). This is at odds with Iser’s claim that art has to be difficult to generate true experience or Wolfgang Hallet’s observation that literary prose is not ‘natural’ and requires a very specific set of reading skills (cf. 2015b: 10). Such a discrepancy can only be solved by specifying the contexts and purposes of reading, but also by conceptualising it as an ongoing process that involves different stages. Before letting the aesthetic and the efferent merge again into what Rosenblatt calls “the capacity for thinking rationally about emotional responses” (1995: xviii), her two approaches to reading are now described as diametrically opposed in order to clarify how task-design and testing are directly influenced by how one conceives of reading.
In the case of an efferent stance, students retrieve facts based on standardised forms of enquiry, so that the results can be presented in highly regulated formats (text types) and evaluated according to predefined criteria. In traditional literature classes these are book reports, summaries, literary essays, character portraits, answers to comprehension questions, a time line based on the reconstruction of the story out of the discourse or any other task that requires detailed analysis, close (re)reading and/or the extraction of information. Although these formats are assumed to test reading comprehension, they involve general language competence, productive skills and an intimate knowledge of the generic conventions of the form in which the results have to be presented. This is Rosenblatt’s elaboration of the same idea:←64 | 65→
With traditional concerns of the literary critic, the literary analyst, and the literary historian as models, the “study of literature” has tended to hurry the student reader away from the evocation, to focus on efferent concerns: recall of details, paraphrase, summary, categorization of genres, formalistic analysis of verbal techniques, “background knowledge” and literary history. (1986: 126)
Such assignments often encourage students to treat the literary text as a self-contained unit and often demand retrospective, abstract and synoptic analysis on a macrostructural level. Students are required to disentangle themselves from the ‘lived through’ quality of aesthetic reading and focus on what the text intends to communicate in general terms. This may take the form of the lowest common denominator or “the message” of the text, which “implies that a work of literature has a single meaning” (Grimm, Meyer & Volkmann 2015: 179). In this sense a better term would be ‘having-read’ comprehension, as the progressive form of the verb evokes the wrong associations. Here is one of Smith’s arguments against such ideas:
So-called comprehension tests in school are usually given after a book has been read and as a consequence are more like tests of memory. […] If I say that I comprehended a certain book, it doesn’t make sense to give me a test and argue that I didn’t understand it, although I may have understood it differently from the test constructor. (2004: 26)
Students are often asked to follow predetermined strategies and paths to reach a specific goal, collect information accordingly, organise it, restructure it and present it within the framework of a narrowly defined text type, such as a poster presentation, a book report or similar formats. All of this is closely tied to reading as a skill and the conventional way of teaching literature as a purely cognitive analysis that serves the extraction of information. It is far removed from how people read as a hobby, but all the more tempting, as its product-orientation makes testing a lot easier and allows for the operationalisation of specific steps.
Aesthetic reading acknowledges the fact that there is no escape from responding to a narrative on a personal level, which has been widely propagated and defended by Lothar Bredella (cf. e.g. 1996; Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004) or Werner Delanoy (cf. 2002; 2015). Narratives – and instances of life writing in particular – rely on personal experiences in a double sense: not only do they present the embodied life of a character (cf. Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: 71), but they also heavily rely on the readers’ ability to bring them to life by engaging with the story world and turning the script – Rosenblatt’s musical notation or blueprint – into a fully realised experience. This involves personal, emotional and ethical responses, which have to be the starting points for any educational engagement with a text. It requires the ability to empathise with characters and ←65 | 66→understand their entanglements in specific situations rather than in general terms. Fludernik stresses “the peculiar micro-textual dynamics of plot episodes in which reader expectations are apt to be upset at each and every turn, just as the protagonist’s intentions and goals are likely to be interfered with, requiring continual reorientation relative to the character’s overall aims and needs” (2005: 21–2). These are not mere distractions or fillers, but essential to our experience of the narrative and our understanding of the main characters. A summary, understood as a collection of the major events in chronological order, explicitly asks readers to disregard the aesthetic qualities and nuances together with personal experiences, associations and emotional responses. There is no doubt that the ability to write concise summaries represents an important and highly valued skill, indispensable in many occupational fields (cf. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 26), but it is less apparent how this relates to aesthetic reading and why literature is particularly suited for such a task.
First and foremost, the aim of aesthetic reading is to understand oneself better, other people, different cultures, ideologies and contexts – not by gathering information, but through entanglement and vicarious experiences. Dewey, as we have seen, sees a continuum between everyday life and aesthetic experiences (2005: 2), as both feed into each other and produce long-lasting effects on human beings. He directs his criticism specifically against the idea of making art difficult by separating it from ordinary life and creating exclusive contexts and locations:
The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experiences enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides. (2005: 4)
From Dewey’s point of view art needs to have a level of experientiality that is accessible without years of training: “It is quite possible to enjoy flowers in their colored form and delicate fragrance without knowing anything about plants theoretically” (2005: 2). For exactly the same reason the psychologist Richard Gerrig rejects Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (1983: 6), as it creates an artificial separation between types of experiences that should be seen as a continuum (cf. Gerrig 1998: 17). He uses the expression “willing construction of disbelief” (Gerrig & Rapp 2004: 267) to illustrate the problem that – more often than not – humans are rather willing to accept narratives as the truth and that it takes conscious effort to establish a critical distance and recognise design and bias. The essence of teaching cultural studies and critical media literacy in the ←66 | 67→classroom could be summarised as establishing and maintaining this distance. While identification with characters and situations often occurs naturally, further steps have to nudge readers away from a facile acceptance of a single perspective as ‘the truth’. However, and this is really the main point here, students also have a right to experience narratives for themselves before teachers add new layers of complexity to the ongoing discussion and confront them with other views.
Frank Smith believes that students can develop a level of appreciation and understanding that may not match the teacher’s desired interpretation (cf. 2004: 26) and still be valid in its own way. To him reading is a naturally developing set of skills that is needlessly complicated by theories:
Reading is complex, but so also are walking, talking, and making sense of the world in general – and children are capable of achieving all of these, provided the environmental circumstances are appropriate. What is difficult to describe is not necessarily difficult to learn. One consideration that this book emphasizes is that children are not as helpless in the face of learning to read as often is thought. (2004: xi)
The most relevant observation in this paragraph is that things can be easily learned by doing them – “Children learn to read by reading” (Smith 2004: 169). According to Smith, it is hard and ultimately unnecessary to describe in detail all the skills that are involved: “Every time a new text is read, something new is likely to be learned about reading different kinds of text. Learning to read is not a process of building up a repertoire of specific skills, which make all kinds of reading possible. Instead, experience increases the ability to read different kinds of text” (2004: 188–9). Smith, it has to be restated, has young readers in mind who learn reading for the first time, mainly through practice and an intuitive grasp of what is required.
Briefly returning to our comparison of reading to driving, we may observe that, although a complex set of skills is involved, nearly everyone can achieve a passable mastery of cars independent of advanced motor skills or cognitive skills. There also seems to be consensus that most people learn to drive by steering actual cars as a holistic experience (cf. Evans & Green 2006: 184) under increasingly difficult circumstances while receiving a lot of scaffolding through an experienced instructor who helps whenever necessary, but otherwise lets learners drive on their own.
Dewey and Smith’s point is that the problem of reading – or experiencing art in general – is not that this experience is so very different from everyday life or other human activities, but that it is constantly framed as if it were. Instead of emphasising the continuities between lived experience and literary reading, ←67 | 68→it has often been taught as a very technical, excessively analytical pursuit that involves elaborate terminologies and insider knowledge. Smith, however, begins his book Understanding Reading with the bold claim that reading is what we do all day long:
We read the weather, the state of the tides, people’s feelings and intentions, stock market trends, animal tracks, maps, signals, signs, symbols, hands, tea leaves, the law, music, mathematics, minds, body language, between the lines, and above all […] we read faces. “Reading,” when employed to refer to interpretation of a piece of writing, is just a special use of the term. We have been reading – interpreting experience – constantly since birth and we all continue to do so. (2004: 2)
If everything we do in life results from a form of reading, Smith has to take the next logical step and propose that “reading cannot be separated from thinking. Reading is a thought-full activity. There is no difference between reading and any other kind of thought, except that with reading, thought is engendered by a written text. Reading might be defined as thought stimulated and directed by written language” (2004: 27). Instead of singling out reading as the most complex skill outside of normal cognition, he presents it on a continuum with other thought processes – the two flow into each other and are, in fact, the same thing. Cognitively speaking, this is correct, as there is no separate brain area for reading. We also rely on the same semantic and episodic memories to interpret real life and fiction. This continuum – the naturalness of storytelling and reading – is going to be a major concern in the third part of this thesis. However, and here I disagree with Smith, if we want to become chess masters, we have to play chess at increasingly higher difficulty levels. The flow experience of mastery requires endless hours of practice in the specific field, not pattern recognition in general.
Smith’s most surprising move is to claim that the situations presented in narratives are, in fact, easier to read than those in real life because of the overdetermination of literature. The text offers a controlled environment and a guided experience that focuses readers’ attention on foregrounded elements instead of leaving them exposed to random events and the noise of unrelated bits of information. In this sense, art is indeed different from life.
The thought in which we engage while reading is like the thought we engage in while involved in any kind of experience. Fulfilling intentions, making choices, anticipating outcomes, and making sense of situations are not aspects of thinking exclusive to fluent reading. We must draw inferences, make decisions, and solve problems in order to understand what is going on in situations that involve reading and situations that don’t. Reading demands no unique forms or “skills” of thought. An enormous advantage of reading over thinking in other circumstances is the control that it offers over events. (2004: 191–2)←68 | 69→
In Reading Fictions, Changing Minds: The Cognitive Value of Fiction Vera Nünning presents the same argument (cf. 2014: 41) and then goes on to quote Keith Oatley, who explains that fiction is easier to read than real life, as it provides far more context for characters’ thoughts and actions (cf. 2014: 42, 90, 187, 297; see also Mar & Oatley 2008: 173, 176). This is a staple of reader-response criticism and one of many links to cognitive literary studies: “art provides a more complete fulfillment of human impulses and needs than does ordinary life with its frustrations and irrelevancies. Undoubtedly, such a sense of fulfillment and emotional equilibrium is largely due to the intense, structured, and coherent nature of what is apprehended under the guidance of the text” (Rosenblatt 1995: 33; see also 37, 42–3; Dewey 2005: 44–6, 49). In Aspects of the Novel E. M. Forster dedicates a whole chapter to this idea (cf. Forster 1985: 43–64). Not shy of occasional hyperboles, he offers the following comparison:
In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. (1985: 47; see also 64)
Despite the untenable polarisation between art’s eminent transparency and life’s depressing obscurity, Forster confirms Rosenblatt’s observation that the laboratory conditions of the literary text allow for much more controlled and precise experiences than real life could ever offer.
Even ‘listening’ to a severely disturbed ‘mad monologist’ (cf. Allrath 1998) provides readers with more information and insight than any real-life encounter with the average stranger, during which they do not have the luxury of reading people’s private thoughts for dozens of pages. Contrary to real life, where things may occur unexpectedly or seemingly out of context, the controlled environment of the narrative offers a plethora of highly relevant insights. In her book on Narrative Causalities Emma Kafalenos raises this point when considering autobiography and placing events into a larger meaningful context:
… life is generally more difficult to interpret than narratives are because we are left to determine where we are in a narrative sequence without the guidance of novelist, playwright, or historian. In our own experiencing of the world, each of us takes on for ourselves the historian’s task: to decide which segment of the ribbon of life to consider as a related set of events. (2006: 131)
Narratives are always framed and actively guided. They foreground important elements and remove the noise of daily life. Smith uses the concept of ←69 | 70→redundancy to explain why it is possible to understand printed text even when not all the details are clear to us and why authors manage to reduce a narrative to a mere blueprint, relying on our ability to fill in the rest: “Redundancy exists whenever the same information is available from more than one source, when the same alternatives can be eliminated in more than one way. And one of the basic skills of reading is the selective elimination of alternatives through the use of redundancy” (2004: 63). What Smith means is that Iser’s gaps could be filled in any number of ways, but that the text provides enough hints so that highly unlikely solutions can be immediately discarded. Iser’s comment on light reading suggests that, in his opinion, certain genre offerings are so predictable that we can draw conclusions based on a minimum amount of information. As long as the cognitive frame that pre-structures the reading of a romance novel is not actively challenged, readers become almost telepathic: they know things before they read them and see things before they happen. In this case, System 1 drives the operation and provides what we call intuition – the best guess under present circumstances. Smith’s concept of redundancy does not involve the repetition of the same elements within the text, but the maintenance of a cognitive frame through intermittent reinforcement: “In making use of redundancy, the reader makes use of prior knowledge, using something that is already known to eliminate some alternatives and thus reduce the amount of visual information that is required. Redundancy represents information you don’t need because you have it already” (2004: 65). Students, for example, can narrate entire plotlines based on the genre label alone. They can list prototypical characters, objects, locations and actions. Provided that a narrative follows the standard plot very closely, there is little to learn: every aspect is just a confirmation of what readers already know. In this sense, creating engaging narratives is a tightrope walk between boring (cf. Smith 2004: 60) and overwhelming the readership. Smith’s argument – which is very close to Iser’s – seems to be that there is usually a comfortable amount of redundancy. Experienced readers may pick up things faster, but redundancy works in such a way that the necessary clues accumulate over time and insistently point in certain directions. The most outlandishly complex narratives may turn out to be surprisingly accessible once the novelty of the first encounter has worn off.
In this context it is interesting to look at Gombrich’s view of how much information is available in paintings in contrast to real life when we try to make sense of an object: “It is hardly necessary to stress how immeasurably richer is the information we have at our disposal in this process of trial and error when we move around in the real world, compared with the interpretation of representations” (2014: 232). He points out different angles, touch and the movement of objects ←70 | 71→that all provide a richness of information that is not available in visual art, which makes “perceptions […] not disclosures but […] essentially prognostic in character” (2014: 232). However, he quickly acknowledges the artist’s use of “redundancies” (2014: 233) that attempt to cancel out ambiguity and pure speculation. What looks like a deficit model of art is, in fact, its greatest strength. With the help of salience, overdetermination, defamiliarisation and redundancy, all the unnecessary information that can easily be supplied is left out and the essential elements are strategically foregrounded. The same effect can be achieved in film through various means, such as shallow focus, and with “amplification through simplification” in comics (McCloud 1994: 30; see also Mar & Oatley 2008: 177). By taking out or blurring the background, for example, the characters and their emotions are automatically emphasised. In other words, by losing information, by reducing the complexity of real life, those elements that the artist wishes to highlight become all the more visible. In this sense, cartooning is a radical application of Iser’s concept of overdetermination.
Smith’s defence of reading as a basic skill among others does not end here. Like Ansgar Nünning and Carola Surkamp (cf. 2010: 194, 198; see also Nünning 2014: 18) he argues that human thought is essentially based on storytelling in the first place, that we can only make sense of the world by narrativising it. In this sense, stories are much closer to a ‘natural’ way of understanding life than other forms of presenting information:
The human brain runs on stories. Our theory of the world is largely in the form of stories. Stories are far more easily remembered and recalled than sequences of unrelated facts. The most trivial small episodes and vignettes are intrinsically more interesting than data. We can’t see random patterns or dots (or clouds or stars) without putting faces or figures to them. […] Thinking thrives on stories, on the construction and exploration of patterns of events and ideas, and reading often offers greater scope for engaging in stories than any other kind of activity. (Smith 2004: 192; see also Nünning 2014: 61)
This closely resembles Monika Fludernik’s argument in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (cf. 2005: 36–7, 41), where she sets out “to redefine narrativity in terms of cognitive (‘natural’) parameters, moving beyond formal narratology into the realm of pragmatics, reception theory and constructivism” (2005: xi; see also 16–17). From this point of view “man’s enmeshment or engagement with his environment operates as a central constitutive feature and as a fundamental cognitive frame” (2005: 7; see also 311), so that stories become a natural outgrowth of a body’s interactions with the world. Within her constructivist framework of embodied cognition, real-life experiences, conversational storytelling and literary art are all based on bodily experiences and our ability to become ←71 | 72→emotionally involved (cf. 2005: 10, 12–13, 17–19, 313, 318). She even grounds her definition of narrativity in this type of experientiality (cf. 2005: 13).
Like Dewey, the proponents of aesthetic reading and most cognitive scientists, Smith believes in the unavoidable subjectivity of making sense of the world and literature in particular (cf. 2004: 27). Thinking and feeling become mutually dependent and strongly intertwined processes: “Readers always read something, they read for a purpose, and reading and its recollection always involve feelings as well as knowledge and experience. Reading can never be separated from the intentions and interests of readers, or from the consequences that it has on them” (2004: 178; see also 68; Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 42). In some passages Smith sounds exactly like Dewey or Rosenblatt:
What is experience? […] It is synonymous with being, with creating, exploring, and interacting with worlds – real, possible, and invented. It is engagement and participation, always involving the emotions and often including a deliberate quest for uncertainty. It is an essential condition for being human and alive. Reading is experience. Reading about a storm is not the same thing as being in a storm, but both are experiences. We respond emotionally to both, and can learn from both. The learning in each case is a by-product of the experience. We don’t live to acquire information, but information, like knowledge, wisdom, abilities, attitudes, and values, comes with the experience of living. (2004: 70)
If Smith’s concept of reading as an experience sounds radically different from what some teachers may expect from students who engage with texts, we have a clear indication why there is such a mismatch between what students actually take away from a text and what conventional ‘reading comprehension’ tasks ask for. Accordingly, Smith offers a concept of comprehension that foregrounds the importance of the text to the individual reader’s expectations:
Comprehension doesn’t entail that all uncertainty is eliminated. As readers, we comprehend when we can relate potential answers to actual questions that we are asking of the text. […] In fact, as we acquire information that reduces uncertainty in some ways, we usually expand our uncertainty in other ways. We find new questions to ask. We comprehend when we can ‘make sense’ of experience. (2004: 60; see also 62, 162).
In addition, Smith emphasises one of Iser’s key ideas: a total understanding of a text is not possible, which means that the reading of a text is never completed. Unless students are explicitly asked to pursue a specific line of enquiry based on efferent reading, they engage with narrative texts to the extent that the different elements can be synthesised into a larger pattern that is sufficiently integrative. This depends largely on the readers’ expectations and what they intend to achieve by reading a certain text. Thus, comprehension is always limited, preliminary ←72 | 73→and bound to a specific reader-text transaction (cf. Delanoy 2002: 3–4). When teachers intend to go beyond the scope of what each student has managed to glean from the text on his or her own – depending on individual theories of the world and to what extent they are and let themselves be challenged by a text – this has to happen in consecutive steps. The kind of interpretation that teachers are often interested in has to be arrived at gradually, via several steps and across a number of readings. This raises two important questions that are specifically dealt with in the next two chapters: what is the role of the teacher in this process and how should the steps be organised to facilitate a smoother transition from first impressions to a more informed and balanced reading that withstands the critical questions of other readers? The transmission-model of education is anathema to the organisation of meaningful encounters and experiences with texts in which students, for lack of a better metaphor, are detectives who “regard the information offered by texts in a more general sense as evidence rather than as a message, the basis for a response or understanding rather than the content of comprehension” (Smith 2004: 69). For Smith, searching for this evidence has to be propelled by an overall idea or hunch of what the narrative is and where it is going. Comprehension is driven by what we know, a tentative meaning, rather than abstract terms or concepts.
Accordingly, Smith is opposed to “the tendency to fragment reading and reading instruction into packages of decontextualized ‘basic skills,’ none of which particularly engage thinking” (2004: 27). Iser’s gestalten or images are exactly what Smith has in mind here: “Recognition, whether of dogs and cats or written words, is not a matter of breaking something down to its components, but of integrating it into a larger context” (2004: 2). In “Cognitive Science and Dewey’s Theory of Mind, Thought, and Language” Mark Johnson discusses this experiential background as a basic tenet of Dewey’s theory that is just as valid today:
Imagine that you have just entered a colleague’s office. There is an all-encompassing way it feels to be in that place, and the unifying quality of that place is clearly different from your own office. Your experience is a blend of perceptual, emotional, practical, and conceptual dimensions intertwined in that particular place. Granted, as soon as you enter the office, you have already begun to recognize objects, mark patterns, and focus on various parts of the entire setting, but Dewey argues that all of this discriminating activity takes place within a unified experienced background out of which objects, people, and events emerge. (2010: 132)
Without the overall meaning it makes little sense to talk of any details: “The qualitative situation is primary and objects emerge within it, relative to perceiving, acting agents who have values and purposes. In other words, we do not start with properties or objects and then combine them into experiences; rather, we start ←73 | 74→with integrated scenes within which we then discriminate objects, discern properties, and explore relations” (2010: 133).
In Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective (1999) Catherine Emmott proposes a reading model that works with such ‘integrated scenes’, which she calls ‘contextual frames’. The narrative constituents do not exist as independent events, characters, objects, locations and times, but they are entangled and bound to each other (cf. Emmott 2004: 123). They gain meaning in particular configurations in specific contexts. Therefore, she claims that “for narrative fiction the reader needs to create and maintain a mental model of the context” (2004: vii) instead of keeping track of characters, locations, objects etc. in isolation. Readers become entangled in narratives (cf. Iser 1980: 131) because the characters are. Similar to Iser’s model of theme and horizon, Emmott argues that contextual frames interact with and recall each other across the entire network. This is quite a departure from the conventional understanding of plot: “Narrative is usually defined as a succession of events but another important feature of narrative texts is that some or all of the events are described as they take place within a particular context. As a result, these events are ‘brought to life’ for the reader, being ‘acted out’ rather than presented in a summary form” (2004: 236). Vicariously ‘living through’ (cf. Rosenblatt 1995: 38) these scenes – being actively entangled – is very different from stating what happened. We need to have a holistic understanding of what the scene is about before we can determine what the details mean. The following chapter looks specifically at the role of teachers to set up and facilitate different engagements with literary texts that favour aesthetic reading over the extraction of information.
Werner Delanoy’s “The Complexity of Literature Teaching in the Language Classroom” (1996) is an excellent starting point for a clarification of the teacher’s role in students’ transactions with literary texts. It originated in a contested interpretation of Dead Poets Society with a group of first-year university students of English whose responses did not live up to Delanoy’s initial expectations. Like most teachers, he had a specific reading in mind that was “politically motivated” (1996: 62; see also 64–6) in his case. He had hoped they would take a critical stance towards the class and gender hierarchies of the film or, at least, embrace such an approach as eminently meaningful as soon as it was introduced to them. This led to a frustrating “clash” (1996: 63) between Delanoy’s interest in deconstruction – a “relatively narrow” focus, as he later admits (1996: 77; see also 79) – and the students’ strong emotional bonding with the main characters (cf. ←74 | 75→1996: 65–6) that did not allow for any critical distance. This breakdown of communication ultimately required a substantial shift in methodology:
Despite our conflicting interests, it seemed to me that both an aesthetic and a political approach could lead to important insights. The problem which arose from this situation was how further learning steps could be structured to foster a dialogue between the two approaches. What I mean by dialogue in the context of literature learning is that all the partners in interaction (e.g. aesthetic texts, teachers, students) should have the right to articulate their interests without any of them dominating the other(s). In addition, a dialogue should give everyone the opportunity to enrich their own perspective by confronting different viewpoints. (1996: 66)
Delanoy did not abandon his “emancipatory aims” and the teacher’s responsibility “to support students in developing complex identities” (1996: 72), which one could link to the concept of ‘critical (media) literacy’ in a broader sense. However, this is something that students have to develop themselves, as Delanoy acknowledges, under the guidance of the teacher. The literature classroom has to become a ‘playground’ of ideas and emotions to enable experiments with different interpretative approaches (cf. 1996: 72–3). This requires “three elementary pedagogical principles, namely active learner participation, process orientation and dialogic problem-solving” (1996: 75; see also 75–7). Delanoy did not lose sight of his ultimate goal – “to question the film’s socio-political implications” (1996: 77), but he accepted the fact that “all the learning steps should be related to the interests and abilities of the learners”, which “required a careful structuring of the learning process” (1996: 76). After reconsidering his methodology, he came to a conclusion that represents a fitting summary of the points raised so far: “acts of teacher mediation can intrude upon the relationships between the learners and the aesthetic text. Teachers of literature in an EFL-context, therefore, should be particularly sensitive to how their role as a facilitator of aesthetic experience can influence their learners’ response and classroom interaction” (1996: 84). This is a remarkable statement as it addresses a teacher’s potentially harmful intervention in the students’ interactions with texts. Accordingly, Delanoy associates the specific challenges of teaching literature mostly with the question of how to acknowledge the individual students’ reading experiences in a meaningful sequence of lessons that does not foreground the teacher’s own interpretation and thus embraces the students’ contributions as equally valid (cf. 2002: 35).
In the past it was more acceptable for teachers to have students read out aloud, elicit responses to check whether their answers matched the public meaning of a text, point out important textual features in the form of a model analysis or simply tell them why this work is widely recognised as a perennial classic (cf. ←75 | 76→Delanoy 2002: 138). Michael Benton openly criticises such “conventional classroom practice where the teacher takes the class on a guided tour through the poem, pointing out the main attractions of such sight-seeing and inevitably imposing his or her own ‘reading’ on the whole experience” (1992: 92; see also Collie & Slater 1988: 7). Reader-response criticism and aesthetic reading, in contrast, are about the transformative processes and experiences that occur while students are transacting with a text. Taken seriously, this would reduce a teacher’s involvement in class to a marginalised role, as Eva Burwitz-Melzer observes (cf. Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: 225). Since teachers cannot and should not do the reading for their students (cf. Collie & Slater 1988: 8), Burwitz-Melzer redefines their duties as those of mediators and coordinators, of instigators and organisers of new learning processes, much in the same way that Delanoy reconceptualised his own role in the classroom as that of a facilitator (cf. 1996: 84; see also 2002: 4–5, 135–6).
While the role of the teacher as a facilitator is unanimously accepted in general terms (cf. e.g. Grimm, Meyer & Volkmann 2015: 20), there is a temptation in teaching literature to directly explain what a work means and how it should be read in view of the educational context for which it was chosen (cf. Sklar 2013: 159–60). During a first encounter with a narrative, students are not likely to arrive at an understanding that requires substantial cultural and historical background knowledge (cf. Delanoy 1996: 76). Yet, providing all the necessary information beforehand comes with its own problems: “If students are informed about the biographical, historical, cultural and social background they might not relate the text to their concerns and interests but read it with the expectation that it will confirm what they have been taught about the biographical, historical, cultural and social background” (Bredella & Delanoy 1996: xi). If one takes aesthetic reading seriously, then efferent reading should not be the starting point of an engagement with literary texts, which are ideally suited to address real-world issues in an aesthetic form and allow readers to explore a new and maybe unfamiliar world before it becomes categorised and rationalised.
This is why Rosenblatt proposes a reading process in several steps that assigns the teacher the role of facilitator: “It seems so much easier all around if the teacher cuts the Gordian knot and gives the students the tidy set of conclusions and labels he has worked out. Yet this does not necessarily give them new insights. Hence the emphasis throughout this book on the teacher’s role in initiating and guiding a process of inductive learning” (1995: 232; see also Collie & Slater 1988: 8). Rosenblatt raises an important point here: if teachers are not interested in how students respond to a text, but simply want them to know, for example, ←76 | 77→why it has accumulated so much cultural capital, it is far more efficient to simply teach that kind of knowledge. When students are asked to gather the public meaning of a text by reading it, which naturally involves filtering it through their own consciousness, while the information they are supposed to find is neatly summarised online, it would be highly impractical to read the book. No matter what they would find in there, it cannot possibly live up to what is already out there in terms of the accumulated insights of countless readers. If we thus reduce literary texts to sources of information, then some people’s reservations about literature in the classroom are fully justified:
Some will concede that the school and the teacher have the responsibility of developing constructive attitudes toward human relations but will ask, Why suggest this roundabout way of transmitting such insight? […] Why take the time of a literature class for discussions suggested by the haphazard accidents of student reactions? […] Would it not be preferable to eliminate any such topics from the literature classroom and to depend on a more orderly method of presenting this information to the students? (Rosenblatt 1995: 225)
There are three simple reasons why aesthetic reading – at least as a starting point for a wider discussion of a literary text – is indispensable: (1) readers have to discover its meaning for themselves by finding a connection between what they read with their own lives and interests. From a cognitive point of view this is the only route to effective learning. It is also the only way to develop an interest in reading. If learner autonomy should become a reality, we have to trust students to discover things on their own. (2) Following Dewey (2005), Sternberg (1978) and Iser (1980), a work of art is constructed in such a way that it provides a unique guided experience that would be ruined by removing its aesthetic qualities. Through overdetermination, defamiliarisation and redundancy it creates effects that can only fully function in a sequential and contextualised manner. (3) These effects have to be experienced and responded to in an ongoing process that is constituted of specific narrative situations. There is no shortcut to that: “No one else can read a literary work for us. The benefits of literature can emerge only from creative activity on the part of the reader himself” (Rosenblatt 1995: 264).
In Teaching Literature: Nine to Fourteen Michael Benton and Geoff Fox redefine the role of the teacher accordingly: “The main emphasis of the teacher’s job is not, in fact, explication du texte but the cultivation of individual and shared responses to the text” (1985: 24; see also Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 50–1, 62–5). What is even worse is a constant elicitation of the ‘right’ answers (cf. 1985: 18, 107; Collie & Slater 1988: 8), which usually involves posing suggestive questions ←77 | 78→till one of the students manages to guess what the teacher wanted to hear. The only solution is to choose social forms of interaction that prevent teachers from dominating classroom discussions during the early stages of reading a text. The reasons for this are simple: (1) teachers are frequently under pressure to achieve concrete results within a limited amount of time; (2) they are usually quite familiar with the literary text, which puts them at an advantage and makes the students’ contributions appear sadly inadequate; and (3) they may be tempted to showcase their own superior knowledge by surprising students with profound observations. Based on Carol Feldman’s research on teacher behaviour, Jerome Bruner observes that “the use of modal auxiliary markers in teachers’ talk to students and in their talk to each other in the staff room” is significantly different: “Modals expressing a stance of uncertainty or doubt in teacher talk to teachers far outnumbered their occurrence in teacher talk to students. The world that the teachers were presenting to their students was a far more settled, far less hypothetical, far less negotiatory world than the one they were offering to their colleagues” (1986: 126).
Burwitz-Melzer (cf. 2004: 237–324) singles out the lockstep discussion of literary texts as the appropriate social form to complement aesthetic reading, presumably because it is still the most widely used form to treat literary texts in the classroom. However, based on her own observations of specific classroom settings, she notices that lockstep discussions are frequently handled badly, as teachers tend to dominate the discussions (cf. 2004: 248, 256, 292), ask narrow questions (cf. 2004: 291, 295–6), change their plans halfway through the procedure (cf. 2004: 295), or simply fail to organise the sequence appropriately (cf. 2004: 322). That is why Aidan Chambers makes the postponement of the teacher’s input one of the basic requirements for the literary classroom: “The teacher doesn’t offer her reading of a text until late in the discussion so that hers doesn’t become the privileged point of view, or the one that determines the agenda” (1996: 45; see also Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 51; Delanoy 1996: 84). Accordingly, “the topics selected for discussion must come from the readers as a group rather than from the teacher or indeed from any dominant person” (1996: 70).
Since it is unlikely that a whole group of students is going to respond equally enthusiastically to a literary text, even when it was carefully chosen, teachers have to take into consideration that some students – given the chance – may criticise or even reject it for not conforming to their expectations. This is the risk of treating them as equal partners. With close friends and family members we accept the fact that tastes vary substantially, which means that not all twenty students in class are going to embrace the book we have chosen for them to read. ←78 | 79→There are two decisive factors that may help to raise the acceptance of a text: the proper framing of the reading at the very beginning and an opportunity for students to voice their concerns early in the process. Nothing could be more detrimental to students’ motivation and enjoyment of a narrative than forcing them to read a book in its entirety that they find hard to digest at the very beginning. Framing the text, scaffolding learners’ engagement with it and listening to first responses are three of the most important duties of the teacher as a facilitator at the beginning of the reading process (cf. Delanoy 2015: 35–6).
Negative responses to a work of art are a natural part of life: we are eager to recommend books that we enjoyed reading, but we are equally vocal about mixed feelings, outright boredom or instant rejection. The important difference in an educational setting is that teachers have to channel these emotional responses so that they become productive (cf. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 241). Generally speaking, language teachers have to enable students to adequately express themselves in different social settings and text types, which also has to include the articulation of criticism. Benton and Fox argue that, if we really want our learners to become independent and critical thinkers, we have to let them articulate their views: “if we want pupils to be discriminating, we must expect – even hope – that they will sometimes discriminate against. If we want to honour the individual reader’s response, there is little consistency in ignoring negative responses” (1985: 107). Thus, language work also has to include the coordinated verbalisation of criticism: “readers usually need the means to work out negative responses, just as they need the opportunities to develop their positive responses” (1985: 108). This is the only way that students “believe that genuine negative responses will be honoured” (1985: 108). Otherwise they fall silent.
Since Delanoy takes reading as a process very seriously (cf. 1996: 75–6), he is fully aware of problems that may occur early on and that require a teacher’s intervention in the form of “motivational encouragement” or “a careful and reflective response” (cf. 2015: 35). He conceives of reading as taking place in several steps, as this is the only way to intervene and help students out of a reader response that leads to an increasingly negative attitude. He also propagates his own version of critical (media) literacy, which he calls “resisting” (Widerstehen) (2002: 103; see also 7–10, 91–112). Most teachers would not see a problem when students enthusiastically embrace a text and love to talk about it. This returns us to the example we started with: Delanoy’s discussion of Dead Poets Society with a group of undergraduate students. The problem was not, surprisingly, that they did not respond to the text, but the exact opposite: that they were so entranced by the narrative and identified with the teenage protagonists to such a degree that they ←79 | 80→lost all critical perspective. What made the situation impossible to resolve was Delanoy’s hope that they would perform one of the most complex tasks imaginable – a critical deconstruction of the film’s underpinning ideological message – after what I gather to be the first viewing. From the students’ perspective, the critical attitude was built directly into the narrative’s structure: a rebellion of the younger generation against the antiquated traditions of a powerful establishment. Delanoy expected them to notice that the protagonists were all white, male, well-to-do (cf. 1996: 65) and only faced typical first-world-problems: girlfriend issues and daddies who did not approve of acting careers. Due to the extreme jarring of expectations there was no easy solution and Delanoy had to completely revise his plan: with hindsight he describes his first approach as something that students might experience as “an alien reading strategy aimed at killing their reading pleasure” (1996: 76). Jerome Bruner believes that a dialogic approach is essential to critical thinking and that one’s stance – including the teacher’s – has to be marked as one among many possible views:
For what is needed is a basis for discussing not simply the content of what is before one, but the possible stances one might take toward it. I think it follows from what I have said that the language of education, if it is to be an invitation to reflection and culture creating, cannot be the so-called uncontaminated language of fact and “objectivity.” It must express stance and must invite counter-stance and in the process leave place for reflection, for metacognition. It is this that permits one to reach higher ground, this process of objectifying in language or image what one has thought and then turning around on it and reconsidering it. (1986: 129)
Students’ blind acceptance of whatever the partners in the dialogic process – texts, peers, teachers and their own readings – have to offer is difficult to discourage, as it functions as a comfortable form of scaffolding or framing. Since the transaction with the text comes first and readers are likely to embrace whatever writers have in store for them (cf. Gerrig & Rapp 2004: 267), a necessary strategy is to develop the individual’s critical stance in a sequence of activities. For obvious reasons this can only happen as a “gradual shift from the pursuit of student interests” (Delanoy 1996: 77) to a more guided engagement with the text. This should not mean that students are tricked into believing that they get a chance to articulate their personal views, but then teachers take over and refocus their attention onto what really matters.
When the teacher’s role changes to facilitator, the students’ roles have to change accordingly, meaning that they have to become more active: “Helping children engage in the drama of reading, helping them become dramatist (rewriter of the text), director (interpreter of the text), actor (performer of the text), audience (actively responsive recipient of the text), even critic (commentator ←80 | 81→and explicator and scholarly student of the text), is how I think of our work as teachers of reading” (Chambers 1996: 5). Yet, for students to perform these roles, they have to actively take them on and this includes the role of the critic. Lothar Bredella (cf. Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: 101–9, 132) differentiates between three overlapping reader roles – the participant, the observer and the critic – that could be roughly correlated to three stages in a gradual development from subjectivity to greater objectivity. Bredella sees a hands-on, playful and immersive approach for the participant, a more critical and distanced perspective for the observer, halfway between the text and his or her own theory of the world, and a completely rational and analytical outsider’s stance for the critic. One important thing to note is that students always train with a text for the next reading. Sometimes teachers believe that the new information or critical categories should be immediately available to students, but this only works in highly controlled settings. A more analytical approach to literary texts can become natural and automatic (cf. Nünning 2014: 298), but the prerequisites have to be established first. Rosenblatt demonstrates a lot of optimism when she states that, “when the transactions are lived through for their own sake, they will probably have as by-products the educational, informative, social, and moral values for which literature is often praised” (1982: 275). However, for students to take on the central role in the classroom, they need some training and this has to be organised with the help of texts.
One of the advantages of addressing contemporary issues through the reading of literature is the idea that it offers a sandbox or laboratory for experiments, both for the creator and the co-creators, the readers (cf. Rosenblatt 1995: 190; Dewey 2005: 150; Bredella 2010: xxxviii, 20, 32, 76, 81; Nünning 2014: 36–7). Rosenblatt considers it essential that “the individual be liberated from the provincialism of his particular family, community, or even national background” (1995: 184), which is intended to have a double effect. It broadens readers’ horizon by introducing them to contexts inaccessible within their own world, but also creates some distance to their familiar environments, which are relativised through the presence of different perspectives. This invites a reader to move into what Iser calls the “third dimension” (1980: 218), a space between “his own habitual disposition” and “his discoveries”, which allows for a balance between the two and which Iser associates with the meaning of the text. It is a give and take between text and reader. Dewey states that a real experience requires effort (cf. 2005: 182–3) and Bredella argues that reading goes beyond a simple identification with characters: “we do not only identify with characters and feel with them. Literary texts also encourage us to reflect on how we are involved. There is a self-reflexive or meta-cognitive element in reading literary texts because we are not forced to ←81 | 82→take part and interfere” (2010: 48; see also Rosenblatt 1995: 228). Yet, for all of these effects to take place and shape, teachers have to step back and let learners find out for themselves.
As we have seen so far, all approaches to aesthetic reading involve a system of steps that gradually leads students from their first impressions to a more accomplished and more articulate reading of a text. The challenge for the teacher, as we have seen in Delanoy’s example, is to organise and accompany this process as a facilitator of learning. In the following chapter we look at different models to conceptualise such a transition.
Although Rosenblatt is the earliest proponent of a staged approach, her references to the concept remain rather vague. She explains that she invited her students “to make articulate the very stages that are often ignored or forgotten by the time a satisfactory reading has been completed” (1994: 9–10), but she refrains from defining them. Her conceptualisation of the reading process can be inconsistent at times. In some instances she follows Iser and sets out “to differentiate between the reader’s evocation of the work and his interpretation of that evocation” (1994: 69), which requires “an effort to describe in some way the nature of the lived-through evocation of the work” (1994: 70). In other sections of The Reader, the Text, the Poem she suggests that the two stages cannot be separated, as they are happening at the same time:
Once the work has been re-created, it seems, the reader-critic can respond to it, evaluate it, analyze it. To limit the reading process to the production of the work, however, with the critical responses a purely subsequent activity, oversimplifies the actual reading transaction. Even as we are generating the work of art, we are reacting to it. A concurrent stream of feelings, attitudes, and ideas is aroused by the very work being summoned up under guidance of the text. (1994: 48)
Under the influence of Dewey, Rosenblatt usually favours an understanding of reading as a holistic and unique experience during the original evocation of the work of art, but here she makes a concession, as interpretation can occur as a natural part of any transaction with a text. Still, she prefers to conceptualise interpretation as a distinct second step, especially in educational settings, that involves “a reexperiencing, a reenacting, of the work-as-evoked, and an ordering and elaborating of our responses to it” (1994: 134). Delanoy objects to such a clear distinction between a ‘natural’ or aesthetic first reading and a more objective or efferent rereading (cf. 2002: 68), as both are part of an ongoing process that involves a constant re-vision of one’s understanding of a text’s meaning. ←82 | 83→This is how Bredella and Delanoy formulate this idea: “Reading is conceived as a process in which students go through various phases of understanding. Thus they can become aware of how understanding develops and learn to articulate and discuss their responses with fellow students in order to clarify and modify them” (1996: x). According to this principle, it is more important to organise stages of engagement that require students to keep an open mind and participate in the ongoing dialogue, instead of ascribing these steps explicit functional priorities. At the same time, verbs like ‘develop’, ‘learn’, ‘clarify’ and ‘modify’ signal that sequences of lessons need to have goals that can only be reached via a series of interlocking tasks. What is required, then, is a staged approach that leaves some room for flexible forms of engagement and individual development while working on a shared goal in dedicated sections of every lesson. Before we reach that point, a few more preliminary considerations concerning the sequencing of tasks are in order to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
In “Readers, Texts, Authors” Rosenblatt acknowledges that “strands or aspects of the extremely complex process going on during the reading transaction can be abstracted as interpretation, evaluation, criticism directed toward the emerging evocation” (1998: 887). However, to keep the transaction with the text ‘pure’ from any efferent interference, she postpones any serious discussion or analysis to the time when everyone has read the text: “After the reading, say, of Middlemarch, this interpretive effort may continue more explicitly in, for example, the testing of different psychological concepts or schema to explain a character’s behavior” (1998: 888). For someone who acknowledges that reading as a process involves several stages, it is unusual that she would cling to the traditional pattern of having students read hundreds of pages on their own without giving them a chance to respond to the text. The “felt meaning that constitutes the experienced work” (1998: 888), which is the echo of the first evocation, has to be a strange abstraction, as “[l];arge-scale texts such as novels or epics cannot be continually ‘present’ to the reader with an identical degree of intensity” (Iser 1980: 16). Therefore, my intention for this chapter is to draw more attention to the early stages of reading that can be equally organised and guided. When students read chapters at home, it may not be possible to make their immediate aesthetic responses available for classroom work, which is much easier with poetry, but one can get a lot closer to the original evocation of novels and work with aesthetic responses that mirror the phases of reading through which students pass.
Nünning and Surkamp approach staging through the widely established pattern of pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading activities (cf. 2010: 71–82), which correspond to a certain extent to framing, evocation and interpretation. ←83 | 84→Although these authors offer a plethora of useful ideas and activities, they acknowledge that this model is better suited for short texts that are read together in the classroom, while longer narratives may require a more differentiated approach (cf. 2010: 74). In the case of novels, the reading process may stretch over several lessons, may go back and forth between intensive and extensive reading, and may involve very different social forms and activities, such as several pre-reading and post-reading tasks within the context of the while-reading stage. In the introductory chapters of their book, Nünning and Surkamp treat literature as a collective term, before they distinguish between poetry, drama, prose, film, and radio plays. When looking at the chapter on prose, the suggested while-reading activities could be for mini-sagas or Middlemarch. This explains why some of them are more suitable for lessons that accompany a longer while-reading stage, while others seem more appropriate for short stories. The intended broad applicability of the book also produces a typology of activities that caters to very different interests and tastes: traditional reading comprehension, language work, aesthetic & creative responses (e.g. drama techniques), keeping reading/response journals, narratological analysis, summary writing, reconstructing texts from fragments, gap-filling activities, reconstructing the timeline, analysing scenes and characters etc. (cf. 2010: 74–6). When dealing with longer narrative texts, the logic of the three stages is hard to maintain: after reading the first chapter of a book, students engage in activities that are ‘post’ in relation to chapter one, ‘while’ in view of the entire narrative and ‘pre’ in terms of anticipating chapter 2. Therefore, a staged approach for longer texts has to assign some of these activities more specific slots and functions within a sequence of lessons.
In his own book on how to teach literature Delanoy criticises Bredella and other proponents of aesthetic reading in the classroom that they do not offer sufficient support for teachers who are interested in turning these ideas into more manageable concepts (cf. 2002: 6). He finds a more suitable model in Benton and Fox’s four phases of reading: feeling like reading; getting into the story; being lost in the book; and having an increasing sense of an ending (cf. Benton & Fox 1985: 11–12; see also Benton 1992: 33–5). While the first mirrors Nünning and Surkamp’s pre-reading phase (cf. Delanoy 2002: 71), with a focus on framing the narrative, working with predictions and the students’ expectations, while finding the necessary motivation, the second phase is an important addition: this is the first encounter with the narrative, when the readers are “invited to play a game devised by the author. The rules are given in the first few pages” (Benton & Fox 1985: 12) and the readers have to find their orientation and decide whether they are willing to play along. This is close to David Bordwell’s concept that a “film cues the spectator to execute a definable variety of operations” (1985: 29) by ←84 | 85→making “the initial portions of a text crucial for the establishment of hypotheses” (1985: 38). Thus, “[e];very film trains its spectator” (1985: 45), as he later proclaims. This experience can be quite overwhelming, as so many things are introduced at the same time that readers may find it quite challenging to cope with this flood of information. With authentic texts the language alone may pose unique challenges. This stage is called ‘getting into the story’, so it is essential that students do. That is why Delanoy sees a necessity to offer support and guidance at this early point, a few pages or a chapter into the narrative (cf. 2015: 35; 2002: 72). Some of the difficulties can be addressed during the previous stage (framing/lead-in) and partly remedied by alert teachers, but the crucial point is to give students an opportunity to voice some of their concerns early on.
In contrast to Nünning and Surkamp’s while-reading phase Benton and Fox’s ‘being lost in a book’ is exclusively concerned with aesthetic reading and thus personal responses to a text. The misleading phrasing of ‘being lost in a book’ suggests a random affair, but the authors differentiate between four stages – picturing, anticipating and retrospecting, interacting, and evaluating (cf. 1985: 12–16), which should be actively encouraged, guided and accompanied through specific tasks (cf. 1985: 119). The first process has to do with mental world-building, the second with Iser’s theme and horizon structure, the third with positioning oneself in relation to the text, and the fourth with the development of a moral attitude towards the characters and the overall narrative. In each case, the readers are supposed to be transported into and thus living inside the secondary world into which they have projected themselves. Benton and Fox encourage active interventions on part of the teacher in that “activities have to be found to sustain interest and revive involvement on the journey through the book” (1985: 118). They also introduce the idea of so-called “response points”, which are “pre-determined points” in the narrative at which students are asked to engage in an “introspective recall” (1985: 6). They take notes on what has just occurred, what is likely to happen, how they feel about these developments and where they see themselves in relation to the narrative. This activity is still very popular, for example in the form of Judith Dodge’s “Interactive Bookmarks” (2005: 34, 41–2), for which Dodge lists several activities.
Due to the close ties Benton and Fox have to reader-response criticism, they suggest activities that encourage the “twin processes of anticipation and retrospection” (Benton & Fox 1985: 14). This is also related to Meir Sternberg’s concept of “the bi-directional processing of information” by which he means “the play of expectation and hypothesis, retrospective revision of patterns, shifts of ambiguity, and progressive reconstitution in general” (1978: 98; see also Benton & Fox 1985: 14; Dewey 2005: 189). While the first type – anticipation – is widely ←85 | 86→established in teaching in the form of making predictions, especially during the pre-reading stage, the rereading and reinterpreting of previous sections should be equally important. Sternberg speaks of the possibility of “unexpected retroactive illumination” (1978: 100), e.g. in the case of detective novels (cf. Benton & Fox 1985: 14) or narratives with a twist at the end that completely changes our perspective on everything that has transpired. Iser calls the meaning-making process in reverse the “retroactive effect” (1980: 111; see also 114, 115, 155; Rosenblatt 1994: 10, 57–8, 60–1, 85, 134) through which our memories become transformed: what we thought we knew about a character or situation is reshaped through new evidence that has come to light. Unfortunately, in their chapter on “Teaching the class novel” (1985: 115–34), though Benton and Fox ask students to document their reading progress through journals, logs, wall charts, time lines, maps, family trees, and notes (cf. 1985: 121–5), they do not pay a lot of attention to activities that specifically ask for a re-evaluation of what has already happened. Joanne Collie and Stephen Slater, who borrow quite a few of these documentary formats for their own Literature in the Language Classroom (1987), finally do, as we shall see shortly. The fourth stage, ‘having an increasing sense of an ending’, does not refer to readers’ awareness that there are only a few pages left to read, but rather to their ability to conclude the narrative for themselves in a meaningful way, which corresponds to Iser’s progress from open to closing gestalten.
There are two significant disadvantages to this model. The first is that the while-reading stage (‘getting lost in a book’) is again undifferentiated. Although Benton and Fox offer several promising ideas how this process could be conceptualised, they say little about the stages in between. Secondly, there is no post-reading stage at all. Benton & Fox are so dedicated to the idea of aesthetic reading that they do not address other aspects that may play a role in a TEFL setting. Therefore, Delanoy redefines their ‘sense of an ending’ by shifting the focus to ‘getting out of the text’ (cf. 2002: 74–5) to compensate for this limitation. Even though he stresses the necessity to build a bridge between reading and interpretation and acknowledges the possibility of encouraging reflection and interpretation while reading, he clearly prefers a separate sequence of lessons that focuses on interpretation afterwards (cf. 2002: 75).
It is Collie and Slater who finally address the problem that the while-reading stage has to be fully segmented to make it work (cf. 1988: 36). This was anticipated by Benton and Fox, as we have seen, but it is much further developed here, especially for reading prose fiction. Although contemporary methodology has absorbed most of the activities that are collected in Literature in the Language Classroom: A Resource Book of Ideas and Activities (cf. Nünning & Surkamp ←86 | 87→2010: 71–6), the segmental approach, for which they were designed, has become one option among others and is largely kept alive in Engelbert Thaler’s books Teaching English Literature (cf. 2008: 105–7) and Teaching English with Films (cf. 2014: 134–42). Collie and Slater address the crucial point that certain activities only make sense during specific stages of the reading process, such as “Reassessing” or “Continuing predictions” (1988: 53–4). We have seen this already with the pre-reading stage or Benton and Fox’s ‘getting into the story’, but they add several more steps that are unavoidable when tackling longer reading texts together. For such lessons, which now contain proper pre-, while- and post-reading activities within the suprasegmental phase of while-reading, they offer a tentative lesson plan (cf. 1988: 37). Instead of their preferred option of reading a new segment with the students as the main focus of each lesson, I am more in favour of the second: “At other times, class time is used to introduce a new aspect or theme, using a passage students have read at home, with the aim of deepening their insight into the book’s literary features” (1988: 37). Although the entire first session and the beginning of each consecutive one should be dedicated to students’ responses and specific interests, rereading becomes increasingly important to find evidence in the text and gradually shift the focus towards interpretation and analysis.
Collie and Slater’s teaching sequence on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (cf. 1988: 93–162) is split into twelve sections, which correspond to the twelve chapters of the novel, and contains activities for every single stage of the entire procedure. This arrangement promises a substantial advantage over the mix-and-match approach, since all tasks gain importance due to their strategic placement in the overall design. Like all meaningful tasks, they help to train important competences, but they also interconnect with each other within and across lessons by continuing or building on previous activities during key stages of the process.
However, the authors only partially realise the potential of such a set-up. As the subtitle of the publication reveals, Collie and Slater try to cater to various audiences, which means that they mix types of activities whose reasons for existence range from pure entertainment to absolute necessities in terms of British curricula at the time. They cover everything from basic reading comprehension via substantial language work to highly personal responses, from traditional product-orientation via group discussions to creative responses, and from essentialist and formalist notions of plot and characterisation via explorations of different readings to idiosyncratic judgements. At the same time, they never sufficiently explain why and in which specific contexts these activities are more or less suitable. The only exceptions are practical ←87 | 88→considerations, such as time constraints, the potential fun to be had or the workload of the teacher. In short, these activities are motivated by very different aims, sometimes mutually exclusive ones. What Collie and Slater do tackle is retrospective reading. They rely substantially on Benton and Fox’s approach and the different forms of documenting the reading process, repeatedly asking students to retrace their steps (cf. 1988: 37, 53–4, 85–6). This is finally a methodology that attempts to accompany the reading process of prose fiction itself and does not rely on what Rosenblatt calls “the recollected evocation” (1988: 887).
The last model I discuss before presenting my own staged approach is Michael Benton’s “Reading and responding to poems – a flexible methodology” (1992: 89). In a very short chapter, “Poetry in the classroom” (1992: 87–95) Benton offers a framework that is closely tied to Rosenblatt’s theory and relies on a “reader-response-centred methodology”, for which “a phased procedure for individual work as a lead-in to group activity is fundamental” (1992: 87–8). To guarantee a “shift from individual apprehension of the poem through successful activities towards a fuller comprehension” (1992: 88) Benton suggests specific steps in a predetermined sequence. Though he includes “multiple exit points” to introduce the “flexibility that poetry-teaching needs”, his framework is far from coincidental and “attempts to honour the principles” (1992: 88) of Rosenblatt’s legacy. In general, there are three main stages: an individual transaction with the text that leads into pair or group work, which, in turn, is followed by more formalised responses. For the individual transaction, which he associates with apprehension (in contrast to comprehension later on), he suggests a “preparatory lead-in”, an initial reading that is accompanied by “[e];nabling tasks” that lead to the articulation of and reflection on personal responses. Although the written notes can be rudimentary, Benton believes in the medium of language: “Using writing to think with in the form of jottings helps extend the time we give, it helps to keep the aesthetic experience central and enables meanings to be evoked, and it helps us to take possession of the works of art and make them our own” (1992: 118). Benton closely follows Dewey’s model of aesthetic reading here in which “direct and unreasoned impression comes first” (2005: 151), which is nourished and cultivated so that it leads over into discrimination. “The phase of reflection in the rhythm of esthetic appreciation is criticism in germ and the most elaborate and conscious criticism is but its reasoned expansion” (2005: 152). There is a direct line here from immediate personal response via articulation and reflection to intersubjective communication. For Dewey, but also for Delanoy, as we have seen, this process has a political dimension: “an audience that is itself habituated to being told, rather than schooled in thoughtful inquiry, likes to ←88 | 89→be told” (2005: 312). However, this ‘schooling in thoughtful inquiry’ has to be implemented by teachers and has to start with individual students’ awareness of and reflection upon their own – sometimes confused – responses. Benton argues that “we need to facilitate pupils in this procedure which, through self-monitoring, enables readers to represent to themselves what they think, through reflecting enables them to hold and refine their ideas, and through expressing these ideas enables them to assess their own reactions against those of their peers” (1992: 88).
This step is also important for the subsequent phases of Benton’s framework, when students plan to share their insights in pairs and groups and co-construct the meaning of the text. Such a step is essential in Benton’s approach as a gradual transition into comprehension, which requires a testing of one’s own premises, argumentations among peers, shared detective work to argue in favour or against different readings etc. This is then followed by performances and other creative activities, until more formalised responses become a possibility. These are usually based on the accumulated work of the groups (cf. 1992: 90). The most striking aspect of Benton’s procedure is that he completely refrains from whole-class discussions till the very end. What this model proposes is a more focused and logical progression in smaller steps that establishes clear priorities in terms of transactions: student – text, student – students, students – teacher. Group work and peer feedback are the important in-between steps that lead the individual from first impressions to a more considerate and better articulated interpretation of a text. This serves to avoid an early confrontation between the individual student’s un(in)formed thoughts and the teacher’s potentially unrealistic expectations:
In many cases there is an unbridged gulf between anything the student might actually feel about the book and what the teacher, from the point of view of accepted critical attitudes and his adult sense of life, thinks the pupil should notice. This often leads the student to consider literature something academic, remote from his own present concerns and needs. (Rosenblatt 1995: 59)
In pairs and groups, students can test their preliminary hypotheses and ideas, pursue and argue certain claims, but also return to the literary text for confirmation, before they are asked to share their thoughts with the whole class. While classrooms may blur the lines between public and private settings, especially when teachers and students have known each other for a long time, a lockstep discussion is still the most public forum within this community.
The context for the following framework is an attempt to find a middle way between extensive reading at home, using a reading response journal, and ←89 | 90→intensive reading in the classroom that is more typical of shorter texts. It relies on a distinction between largely aesthetic reading, which takes place at home, and a gradual introduction of efferent/factual/analytical reading that takes place in school and carries over into mini-assignments that are completed at home and presented as postings on a gated online discussion forum. One key concept of Collie and Slater’s model is always valid in such a context:
It is most important that the parts of a book which are to be read by students on their own should be related to the ongoing pattern of activities in the classroom. Follow-up tasks can be used that depend upon prior home reading, or some aspect of the passage read can be incorporated into the next classroom activity […]. What is essential is to link class and home work, to help maintain an overview of the whole book as we go through it. (1988: 12)
Like most teachers, Rosenblatt argues that “in any actual class the different phases will not be so sharply separate. The creation of a setting for personal response is basic, as is a situation in which students stimulate one another to organise their diffuse responses and formulate their views” (1995: 74). Following Michael Benton’s lead, I also believe that the various stages can be defined in more precise terms without turning the framework into a straightjacket. On the contrary, it is intended to open up spaces for an ongoing dialogue that has room for students’ personal responses, but also the pursuit of a single concern over several lessons.
The first and the last stage frame the engagement with a literary text in a double sense. The former carefully leads into the narrative by establishing links to the context(s), into which the reading is embedded, but it also establishes the framework within which the text will be read and discussed. The final stage summarises the sequence of lessons and leads out of it by highlighting its importance for present as well as future contexts and purposes. Eva Burwitz-Melzer associates the beginning and the end of a class reading with increased teacher activity (cf. Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: 225–8). Importantly, she singles out the planning stage, which has to precede the contextualisation of a book in the classroom. If the teacher’s role as a facilitator is meant to become a reality, elaborate interventions during the long suprasegmental while-reading phase should be reduced as much as possible, which requires extensive pre-planning during the early stages. Since the dominant role of the teacher is going to be significantly reduced, the roles of the students have to expand accordingly. Thus, it is indispensable to establish a work environment that is conducive to open discussions ←90 | 91→and the exploration of different interpretations, but also to learner autonomy and a pro-active engagement with texts. During the final stages, after many individual transactions with the text, the necessity to compare results and to find some form of closure requires an increasingly stronger presence of the teacher.
The choice of texts has to reflect the students’ stage of development and their interests: “If the high school student reads the Odyssey or the Book of Job or Romeo and Juliet, it should be primarily because at this point in his life this particular work offers a significant and enjoyable experience for him, an experience that involves him personally and that he can assimilate into his ongoing intellectual and emotional development” (Rosenblatt 1960: 307). Although the canon of literary texts for the classroom has been significantly widened in TEFL (cf. e.g. Thaler 2008: 16–21; Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 7; Lütge 2012: 200), even carefully chosen and age-appropriate texts are not automatically transparent and still require substantial work. When a graphic novel, like John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s March: Book One, is supposed to introduce students to the language of comics, the genre of auto/biography, the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States and its historical context, but also to important intertextual links to the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (1957) or Lewis’s own prose autobiography Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, it should become obvious that all of these aspects cannot be addressed during a single reading. This foregrounds the importance of a syllabus, which has to ensure that previous engagements with texts can help to prepare for this particular reading.
Regarding March: Book One, my segmentation for two university courses led to the following subdivision: pp. 5–35 (frame narrative & chickens), pp. 36–62 (racial segregation & school), pp. 63–88 (Martin Luther King & non-violence), and pp. 89–121 (lunch counter sit-ins, prison & SNCC). With only four sessions – excluding framing (stage 1) – this sequence is significantly shorter than a segmented approach in film-based language learning, which may require six to twelve lessons, according to Thaler, with segments of around 15 minutes each (cf. Thaler 2014: 134–6). In this case, students were asked to read the four parts at home and we had 90 minutes to discuss each of them in class. At university, the contextualisation or framing of a text is often determined by the title of the course: for “Comics in the EFL Classroom” my focus was on how comics narrate; for a cultural studies course the text served as a first introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. Since it is impossible to cover all relevant aspects, choices have to be made early on how exactly students can benefit from the text at all, which context should be foregrounded and how the neglected dimensions of the text could be addressed if students become interested in them.←91 | 92→
Especially in secondary school it is unlikely that the narrative is treated as a literary text in its own right, but ‘exploited’ (e.g. Collie & Slater 1988: 14, 57, 123) for specific purposes, which means that a compromise has to be found. A framework that provides the sequence with a strong purpose and clear aims is preferable to choosing random activities that are somehow useful or ‘fun’. Yet, these intentions have to be made explicit during framing, including the narrative’s role in this procedure. At the same time, personal responses have to be accepted as the starting point for any engagement with the literary text. Thus, the transition from first impressions to a more coordinated engagement with the work of art has to be actively organised, e.g. in the form of activities that encourage a negotiation of meaning. Since all approaches to literature are concerned with readers’ responses in more or less direct ways, it is possible to reformulate a number of academic and technical concerns (e.g. focalisation) as questions that invite readers to look at the same phenomena from a different angle (e.g. empathy) – at least during the early stages of reading. This facilitates a transition from a holistic and aesthetic reading of a text to a deeper personal understanding that is generated through an ongoing dialogue with other perspectives – including theoretical approaches.
Framing a narrative is a delicate business, as a teacher’s contextualisation is going to affect students’ reading in significant ways (cf. Bredella & Delanoy 1996: xi; Wolf 2006; 2014). They become primed to look out for predetermined textual signals, which corresponds to Rosenblatt’s “concept of selective attention” (1994: 43). This, in turn, influences their first encounter with the literary text. Should teachers raise the wrong expectations, the mismatch between the framing and the actual reading experience can discourage students from reading on. Collie and Slater offer a complementary introduction to framing from the students’ point of view:
For students about to explore the unknown territory of a new literary work, the first encounter with it may well be crucial. First impressions can colour their feelings about the whole enterprise they find themselves engaged in. They are likely to be approaching the experience with a mixture of curiosity, excitement and apprehension. […] students need to be convinced that the task ahead is not an impossible one; that, even if there are difficult passages to negotiate, it can be done with success and tangible rewards. Many learners fail to persevere with a book because they find the initial encounter simply too daunting. It may be that the first page is bristling with difficult words; or perhaps the territory they have wandered into seems so totally different from their own surroundings that they never quite succeed in identifying with it. That is why it seems to us well worth spending extra time on orientation and warmup sessions, either before the book is begun or along with the first reading period. (1988: 16)←92 | 93→
‘Getting into the story’ is very important. It can be prepared for through framing, but also through pre-reading activities (cf. Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 71–4), which are more concerned with the readers’ first encounter with the book. In the case of visual narratives, posters (film) and covers (picture books, comics) are ideal starting points, as they usually offer a glimpse at the visual style, the genre, the main characters, the setting, potential conflicts and/or themes. In addition to that, posters and covers contain a large number of short verbal texts, most importantly the title, which add further bits of information. Some readers’ potential negative experiences with the first part can be mitigated at the beginning of the next lesson, provided that the while-reading stage is segmented.
Depending on the complexity of the sequence, framing can take place at the end of the previous lesson or take up a whole period. There are also practical matters that have to be kept in mind throughout the planning stage and that need to be addressed in class: access to the text, segmentation, schedule, guiding questions/worksheets and the introduction to the online discussion forum, which is used for the rest of the sequence.
Stage 2 covers Michael Benton’s three steps of first encounter, articulating one’s immediate responses (e.g. by answering questions on a worksheet) and reflecting on them: “Indeed, the informality of this procedure seemed a benefit rather than a problem to the students: using writing to think with to make purposeful yet provisional comments on a text is quite different from producing ‘final draft’ writing” (1996: 38). Bredella also argues that for “the pedagogical significance of aesthetic experience it is crucial that we encourage students to articulate what they feel while they are reading” (1996: 12; see also 18–19). These may be mere notes jotted down for one’s own benefit, but they ask students to capture/formulate a thought in a few words. This is an important first step, as Jerome Bruner states in reference to Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language (1996): “Language is (in Vygotsky’s sense as in Dewey’s) a way of sorting out one’s thoughts about things. Thought is a mode of organizing perception and action” (1986: 72).
This stage ends with a post on an online discussion forum. Students can decide which of their jottings is worth sharing with the whole group, but they are also invited to comment on other students’ contributions. The first time around this can take the form of free associations. Here is the unedited post of a Ukrainian exchange student responding to the first part of March: Book One. She did not study English, but joined our group out of an interest in comics.←93 | 94→
Just finished reading the passage and I wish he tell more stories about his childhood:-). With this “chicken story” I am totally retreated into my childhood memories. How come I am not a leader of any Civil Rights Movement yet?!!!:-) The page number 30 really impressed me because I did almost the same thing with the birds when I was in my ‘teens. With my friends we found a place where we did “an official” graveyard for the dead sparrows, which we found dead somewhere in the surroundings from time to time. And yes, we also puted a hand-made cross on each grave. I even found out that I missed one thing in my childhood adventures - to baptise animals:-)
Poor boy… I understand his protest against chicken on the dinner table as I had exactly the same thing with my favourite rabbit. And i still can’t understand how does my mother dare to break our gooses neck with her hands as each time I see her feeding them, she is so kind to this animals. It is a great pleasure for me to remind my childhood though these pictures and images. I am really curious about the story and looking forward until I can read it all.
P. S. and I still speak with my canary bird at home. Luckily I got married recently and now I can speak with my husband instead))) (12 October 2015)
This response may be unusual, but it illustrates a few important points. This student attempts to understand the text by relating it to her own experiences. She can ‘feel’ what this episode means without understanding how it relates to the entire narrative in several significant ways. Her reading is far from trivial and provides several opportunities to relate her own experiences to thematic concerns that become more transparent in later parts of the narrative. There is also empathy without a confusion of identities. But most importantly of all, she has not been retrained to ignore her own responses in favour of standardised answers or a narratological approach. Aidan Chambers, who tries to promote reading literature with younger learners as close to real life as possible, believes that students should be “encouraged to gossip informally to each other and to their teachers about their reading” (1996: 3), as this is what they would do with narratives they encounter in a private setting. He goes on to argue that, in everyday life, people “retell the story and talk about what they liked and didn’t like” and “delay discussion of meaning (interpretation and significance) till they have heard what their friends have to say. In other words, the meaning of a story for that group of readers emerges from the conversation” (1996: 8). In this sense, the discussion forum offers an opportunity to collectively find orientation and work towards a first tentative understanding of the text before this process is intensified during the next stage. Concerning the types of responses, one can observe certain recurring phenomena, e.g. that the first posts influence the ones that come later or that students occasionally react to narratives in extreme terms, just as they do in real life (love/hate). However, there are two measures in place that regulate contributions to a certain extent. Despite the fact that the forum is closed to the general public ←94 | 95→and thus offers a protected environment, it is still accessible to everyone within the group, including the teacher, which requires at least some consideration what is worth sharing with others. Secondly, guiding questions can point out what is worth recording in the first place, which may then serve the development of one of these responses into a post.
In their section on reading response journals Nünning and Surkamp offer a list of prompts that ask students to relate to the text on a personal level (cf. 2010: 54): jotting down thoughts and feelings, associating the text with personal experiences, making a list of questions or unresolved issues, noting down first impressions of characters, thinking of similar texts, making predictions about the following chapters, remembering the most striking element/scene etc. There are just a few modifications I would suggest: a first encounter with literary characters can be ambivalent, so I would not ask for love (“really liking”) or hate (“really loathing”) reactions, but have students focus on aspects of the characters’ lives that they (1) can easily relate to; (2) can somewhat relate to; (3) cannot relate to. Questions of this type encourage a broader spectrum of responses. Although some questions can ask for negative reactions, the overall purpose of the initial encounter should be to motivate students and get them interested in the text. Still, it may be prudent to offer students an opportunity to voice their concerns, either as part of the guiding questions or during the initial discussion in class.
In some cases it makes sense to work with so-called “response points” (Benton & Fox 1985: 6; see also Dodge 2005: 34, 41–2). The two most obvious ones are right before the reading starts and immediately afterwards. In the first case, one has to be careful of self-fulfilling prophecies, as questions can be very suggestive (Do you generally like romantic comedies?) and strongly influence the reading. In between, there are turning points, chapter endings, cliff-hangers, surprise revelations etc. that may warrant a look backwards, an evaluation of the present situation and/or some anticipation of what is to come. Although these activities involve an artificial interruption of the reading flow and some form of preliminary analysis, they are not too intrusive and can be useful as early forms of minding and noticing, helping students to connect with the narrative.
As stated above, students then choose one of their answers on the worksheet and post it on the discussion forum. Feedback shows that some students find this step already quite challenging and spend a lot of time thinking about which point to choose and how to present it. This is exactly what Benton has in mind for this step, which is to encourage a transition from first impressions towards the formulation of an idea in writing. It invites students to reflect upon their answers, make sense of what they have noted down and rephrase a bullet point until it becomes a meaningful contribution to a group discussion. At the same ←95 | 96→time, they are asked to comment on one of the other posts, which requires an active engagement with other perspectives. Some students are brave and go first, others only read, comment and then post. There is no need for teachers to be constantly present and comment on every single idea, especially not the first time around, but during the next meeting they have to refer to the state of the discussion online and organise pair or group work that reflects the points already raised. Otherwise the students’ responses would become detached from class work and relegated to a separate, ‘unofficial’ network. Two important advantages of these online posts are that they provide teachers with a first orientation how students have responded to the text and students, who are reluctant to speak up in class, with an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing co-construction of meaning.
Stage 2 remains the vital link between home reading and in-class discussions throughout the sequence of lessons. New perspectives and insights feed into the next round of questions for home study, which, in turn, set up the next session. What changes throughout is the balance between aesthetic and efferent reading in favour of the second. While the first set of guiding questions is almost exclusively dedicated to personal responses, the second begins to ask students to actively trace new and ongoing developments they have noticed. When reflections on the first part did not contain any efferent reading, this is an opportunity to revisit scenes from previous chapters and approach them from a different angle, e.g. in view of new revelations.
There are at least seven types of activities that work well for the forum: personal responses and emotions (e.g. likes & dislikes; favourite line/panel/scene; strongest emotional response; biggest question mark); posting passages/panels/stills and commenting on them (e.g. social tensions & conflicts; turning points; an interesting use of colour); imaginative and creative explorations and transformations (e.g. adding characters’ thoughts to a panel or still); value judgements and ethical considerations (e.g. taking sides, pros & cons); presenting the results of online research (e.g. cultural references, intertextuality); comments on other students’ posts (negotiation of meaning); or the recommendation of websites or YouTube clips (e.g. background information). Concerning the comments on other students’ posts, it may seem superfluous that they congratulate each other on what they have found out or that they are surprised by how they have responded to the literary text in a strikingly similar fashion, sometimes even elaborating on a point or providing additional examples, but in each of these cases something important is happening. They are testing their own ideas to see which of them are widely or partly shared or do not find a lot of support. More often than not – especially at ←96 | 97→university – some students are courageous enough to defend a minority view, especially when they do not like a text. All these perspectives provide excellent starting points for further discussions.
With some groups it is possible to develop a sense of discovery, that there are things to be found within the text and online that can be shared and appreciated. Students can post quotations/paragraphs (prose), lines (poetry), stills (film) or panels/pages (comics) that they find intriguing; that illustrate/contain a strong view or emotion; that represent a turning point; that remind them of previous situations/scenes; or that showcase an interesting use of language/style. Bredella repeatedly argues that “understanding literary texts activates our cognitive, affective and evaluative competencies” (2010: 47; see also 6, 18, 33; see also Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: 42, 44–9), so these should be catered to and then further developed in class discussions.
Collie and Slater offer a whole range of ‘snowball’ activities that are designed to keep track of what is happening in the narrative on a macrostructural level (cf. 1988: 51–6). While some of them revolve around simple summaries of chapters, others are more intriguing, such as “Reassessing” (1988: 53). Here students are asked to do the same activity again, such as judging the main character’s current situation and predicaments. This automatically invites comparisons to the previous iteration and students learn in a very visible way how dramatically characters, situations and relationships can change. It makes sense to work with a portfolio in such a context (cf. Benton & Fox 1985: 122; Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 55) to keep track of the different activities and collect learner texts and ideas for later, more efferent and product-oriented stages of the reading process.
The essentialism of character portraits and constellations seems odd for entire narratives, but they make sense in this strongly contextualised, process-oriented format, precisely because they help to trace and visualise change. Alan Palmer comments that “we tend to overestimate the importance of a person’s character in finding an explanation for the way in which they behave in a particular situation and underestimate the importance of the situation that they are in” (2004: 245). Evidently, Collie and Slater hold on to such an essentialist notion of character (cf. 1988: 81, 112), which they believe is gradually revealed as a fixed set of traits that can be neatly combined into a complete picture at the end of the reading. For obvious reasons, this is incompatible with the basic idea of character development and the progressive nature of the reading process. Palmer has a point in that scenes do not communicate objective information about isolated story constituents, but reveal the particular entanglement of characters with each other and the story world. Our ‘knowledge’ of characters is not grounded in facts (age, nationality, religion, siblings, hobbies etc.), but in our experience of ←97 | 98→their responses to other characters and situations. We get a feeling of who these characters are in specific contexts and learn more about them by comparing their reactions and relationships across time.
Depending on how much time teachers have to treat the narrative in class, more analytical questions concerning the main focus of the sequence can be added to the guiding questions for the second reading at home and then be pursued with greater intensity. This is always a balancing act, as students should still be given the opportunity to relate the findings to their own interests and experiences. Rosenblatt does not tire of warning teachers of an abrupt transition from aesthetic to efferent reading tasks: “Out of misguided zeal, the student is hurried into thinking or writing that removes him abruptly and often definitely from what he himself has lived through in reading the work. It therefore becomes essential to scrutinise all practices to make sure that they provide the opportunity for an initial crystallization of a personal sense of the work” (1995: 66–7; see also 268; Benton 1992: 88). Her attitude is mirrored in Benton and Fox’s credo “to honour the validity and importance of the individual’s response” (1985: 7). At the same time, Rosenblatt is concerned with “stock responses” and “stereotyped, superficial, and unshaded reactions” (1995: 98; see also 95), which suggests that an exchange of ideas is necessary to overcome superficial or narrow views.
The online part of stage 2 has the added benefit of functioning as a teaser. The students are offered glimpses into other readings and may be curious to find out more about how others have responded:
Learning what others have made of a text can greatly increase such insight into one’s own relationship with it. A reader who has been moved or disturbed by a text often manifests an urge to talk about it, to clarify and crystallize his sense of the work. He likes to hear others’ views. Through such interchange he can discover how people bringing different temperaments, different literary and life experiences, to the text have engaged in very different transactions with it. (Rosenblatt 1994: 146; see also Pike 2003: 64, 69–70)
Bredella repeatedly stresses the importance of speaking about reading experiences (cf. Bredella & Burwitz-Melzer 2004: xiii), of intersubjectivity as defined by Jürgen Habermas (cf. 2010: 9–10) and of the negotiation of meaning as a central aspect of individual meaning-making (cf. 2010: 62). Both Dewey and Rosenblatt single out the appreciation of art as a communal activity that is especially conducive to the negotiation of shared beliefs and meanings: “For it is by activities that are shared and by language and other means of intercourse that qualities and ←98 | 99→values become common to the experience of a group of mankind. Now art is the most effective mode of communication that exists” (Dewey 2005: 298; see also Eldridge 2010: 254; Rosenblatt 1998: 911; Benton 1986: 34–47).
Rosenblatt, who can be quite pessimistic about readers’ first impressions of a text, sees this next step as a necessary corrective: “He [The reader] needs to become aware of the points at which his own concerns have led to excessively emotional or biased reactions, or his lack of experience and knowledge have prevented adequate participation in the work. He needs to scrutinize his response to the various aspects of the work, in order to achieve a more unified patterning of it” (1960: 309; see also 1995: 267). Chambers is more sympathetic in this regard: “An understanding of meaning isn’t arrived at straightaway and all at once. It is discovered, negotiated, made, arrived at organically as more specific and practical questions […] are discussed” (1996: 43; see also Benton & Fox 1985: 126, 147).
To preserve an openness of interpretation, a free exchange of ideas and “a refinement of each reader’s unique experience” (Benton & Fox 1985: 102), it is essential to organise the third stage in the form of pair or group work and reduce the role of the teacher to that of a facilitator of independent learning. Although referring to the reading of poetry, Benton and Fox stress a number of points that show the importance of pair and group work to the students’ engagement with the text.
The sort of benefits that accrue in pair and group discussions of poems and which are much harder to achieve in all-class discussions are: the willingness to tolerate uncertainty, misunderstanding and ignorance; the sense that whatever they make of the poem it will be uniquely theirs; the awareness that, since they are in control of the talking, they can return to parts of the poem when they like and so fit their sense of the details into a growing appreciation of the whole. (1985: 30)
This provides students with the opportunity to test and refine their readings in small circles of peers before going into a lockstep discussion of the narrative. Some may still hesitate what to make of the text and may need more input before making up their own minds. This is Chambers’s main argument who likes to call this stage the “think-tank” (1996: 16):
The private motivation here of joining in discussion is a conscious attempt to sort out with other people matters we recognize as too difficult and complex for anyone to sort out alone. The public effect of this conscious pooling of thought is that we come to a “reading” – a knowledge, understanding, appreciation – of a book that far exceeds what any one member of the group could have achieved alone. Each member knows some part of it, but no one knows it all. (1996: 17)←99 | 100→
It is not hard to see a link to Lev Vygotsky’s approach to learning through social interaction and scaffolding in particular (cf. 1966: 103–4, 107; Bruner 1986: 73–4), but here it is the group that provides the necessary guidance.
Since emotional and intellectual responses are intertwined in the students’ evocation of the narrative, Rosenblatt believes that the “discussion of literary experiences makes possible rehearsals of the struggle to clarify emotion and make it the basis of intelligent and informed thinking” (1995: 226), which means that students can learn “to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context” (1995: 217). Collie and Slater offer a very helpful summary of these points:
Pair and group work are now well established as a means both of increasing learners’ confidence within the foreign language and also of personalising their contact with it. Although it may seem paradoxical we have found that shared activity can be especially fruitful in helping the learner find a way into what is usually an intensely personal and private experience, that of coming to terms with and inhabiting an author’s universe. In the creative endeavour of interpreting this new universe, a group with its various sets of life experiences can act as a rich marshalling device to enhance the individual’s awareness both of his or her own responses and of the world created by the literary work.
On a more practical level, working with a group can lessen the difficulties presented by the number of unknowns on a page of literary text. Very often someone else in a group will be able to supply the missing link or fill in an appropriate meaning of a crucial word, or if not, the task of doing so will become a shared one. Shifting attention away from the text itself to such shared activity is often conducive to the creation of a risk-taking atmosphere. With the group’s support and control, the individual has greater freedom to explore his or her own reactions and interpretations. Above all, we hope that the group will stimulate learners to reread and ponder the text on their own. (1988: 9)
This “sharing of responses” (Delanoy 2002: 87) feeds into the rereading of texts while the group is still working on the book. Thus, a return to the narrative is a natural part of group work. When students disagree on a point or cannot remember the scene in detail, they go back to the text and attempt to find evidence. This ties in with Benton’s general conceptualisation of the reading process: “ ‘Detective imagination’ is still the best précis I can find to describe the author-reader relationship” (1992: 44). In contrast to prose fiction, where it can be hard to find a particular scene without any previous mark-ups, comics are much easier to navigate. Panels or even whole pages can be read at the same time and directly discussed, especially when the verbal text is strongly reduced. These spontaneous forms of rereading do occur regularly with university students, but may require some encouragement with students in secondary education. Collie and Slater also see benefits for fast readers who rush through the text – either because they are transfixed or want to get through it as quickly as possible: “Group activities or ←100 | 101→task sheets also make the ‘rapid’ student reread, sometimes with a new focus of attention, and this is usually very beneficial from both a linguistic and a literary point of view” (1988: 13). Rosenblatt is convinced that rereading is an essential part of the students’ communication about the text:
We are used to thinking of the text as the medium of communication between author and reader […]. Perhaps we should consider the text as an even more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretations. We may help one another to attend to words, phrases, images, scenes, that we have overlooked or slighted. We may be led to reread the text and revise our own interpretation. Sometimes we may be strengthened in our own sense of having “done justice to” the text, without denying its potentialities for other interpretations. Sometimes the give-and-take may lead to a general increase in insight and even to consensus. (1994: 146; see also 1995: 272)
Contrary to a situation in which students have to guess what teachers want to hear, they get a chance to learn something from and about each other (cf. Delanoy 2002: 157). More importantly, “in respect of story-reading, we have no idea where our pupils are unless we begin from some description of reader-response” (Benton 1992: 34; see also Delanoy 2002: 86, 157), which, in this case, is provided in the form of online posts, in-class discussions and short group presentations, which is the last step of stage 3 and carries over into stage 4. The latter are essential to inform the whole class about the progress of the individual groups, which may have worked on different topics. Depending on how much time the class has to study the text, a stage 3 discussion can be very free, like a book club session, or more organised by deciding which aspects the groups should focus on. These can be based on the questions listed on the first worksheet.
When teachers take over for the duration of this stage, a lot of important things have already occurred. They have witnessed three consecutive steps of the students’ engagement with the narrative – online posts, group discussions and the short presentations of results – and they are keenly aware of how everyone has responded to the text. There are six significant differences to walking into a class discussion unaware of the students’ first responses: (1) experienced teachers do not have to test students on whether they have read the text; this is fairly obvious from looking at the personal responses, which are relatively difficult to fake. (2) All students have been actively involved in some capacity – even the quiet ones. Ideally, they have found some orientation and are able to verbalise their first, or already their refined responses to the narrative. (3) Leaving ←101 | 102→aside the initial framing, teachers’ own readings have not affected the views of the students yet; diverse interpretations are still actively pursued. (4) There is no need to start a discussion of the narrative from scratch. One can quickly enter an ongoing debate that is already meaningful to the students and directly refer to online posts, group discussions and preliminary results. (5) While reading and listening to the students’ responses teachers have had an opportunity to compare the students’ concerns with their own plans for the sequence and adapt the strategy accordingly. (6) It is much easier to address potential difficulties the whole group or single students have had with the text. Especially during the first iteration of stage 4 it is necessary to address misreadings, points of criticism or an outright rejection.
When we started to discuss the adaptation of John Green’s YA novel The Fault in Our Stars in a course on film in the EFL classroom (2015), I invited students to be honest and post their first reactions online. This is how a male student responded to his first viewing:
So I watched the movie without knowing really anything about it, apart from it being a love story with two sick teenagers in the main roles. I also knew that it has been regarded highly by many people so I felt that I would have a good idea about how the movie would play out. Unfortunately, I was right. I don’t want to say that it is a bad movie but I fail to see how it offers anything new or special. I really liked the supportive cast and also the first half of the movie, it has a good sense of humor and the interaction between Hazel and Gus is fun to watch. However, the movie keeps following this pattern in the second half of the movie where obvious “plottwists” decide the dynamic of the movie and alot of the good aspects from before fail to transit and adopt to the new situation. (11 October 2015)
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
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- ISBN (Book)
- Open Access
- Publication date
- 2020 (May)
- aesthetic reading comics autobiography teaching literature conceptual integration theory blending cognitive literary studies Wolfgang Iser experientiality
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 504 pp., 27 fig. b/w