Your Guide to Multiple Reading Practices in LiteratureNovember 6, 2023
It’s the most fundamental concept in dealing with any study of Literature or any art form for that matter, the concept of multiple reading practices is basically a taxonomy of the different methods with which you can obtain meaning from a text. Your natural reaction to anything in life is generally a judgment, a natural human urge to make sense of your surroundings…similarly when applied to a reader’s reaction to literature you can utilize different established approaches to making sense of texts.
A Dominant Reading usually provides a reading of the text reflecting a broad consensus on what a text may mean, such a reading usually places a great deal of emphasis on how the reader believes the author has positioned them to respond. The reader usually reads the text in an ‘author friendly’ manner, although I’ve always been mystified as to how the reader determines what the intended meaning of a text was, on the part of an author, nevertheless this concept of a dominant reading persists as a type of reading which supposedly involves the reader traveling along the trajectory the author has designed to produce the meaning that the author intended. It is my personal opinion, that it is simply the ‘mainstream’ interpretation of a text which gains the de facto legitimacy of ‘author approved’ by sheer weight of numbers.
An Alternative Reading produces as the name might suggest, a meaning that is different from a dominant reading but nevertheless recognizes the purpose of the author in a text and does not ‘go against the grain’ of the text. The distinction between an Alternative Reading and a Resistant Reading, would probably be that an Alternative Reading is still heavily reliant on the text while a Resistant Reading implicitly requires to a greater extent ideological or contextual baggage which the reader uses to challenge the premise of a text.
A Resistant Reading ‘goes against the grain of the text’ and usually involves the reader being less reliant on the text and usually involves a much greater contextual influence; in terms of ideology, race, class or gender.
A Feminist reading foregrounds the representations of women: by that I mean the way key female characters are characterised and the values they hold, and the way the reader is positioned to respond to them.
Judith Fetterly author of ‘The Resisting Reader’ a seminal work in the area of Feminist and other recent developments in alternative readings, summarized the purpose of a feminist reading as “Feminist criticism is a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world but to change it by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relation to what they read.”
The underlying assumption of any Feminist Reading is an awareness or ‘consciousness’ on the part of the reader of a patriarchal hegemony reinforcing an oppressive set of roles and expectations for women, and literature as part of a dominant discourse for much of human history which has supported this oppression. Thus the reader usually identifies, in a feminist reading, whether the text is part of this cultural construct of oppressive gender roles or is seeking to subvert this patriarchal discourse.
The Danger in Feminist Readings
The danger in constructing a feminist reading is not accounting for the political distinctions and movement of feminism as an ideology. First off, feminism is hardly an ideology, you can’t construct a ‘feminist’ reading because no one knows what ‘feminism’ really means. This is because of the distinct political backgrounds and social agenda that ‘First Wave Feminism’, ‘Second Wave Feminism’ and ‘Third Wave Feminism’ entail.
Secondly feminist readings can not and should not be confined to superficial readings of a character’s values or rather how a character’s values is constructed by a text, and whether this constitutes ‘a liberal’ or ‘parochial’ attitude towards the role of women.
Feminist criticism is closely associated with Freudian psycho analysis, this can be seen in the feminist study of Frankenstein by Anne K Mellor which focused on the psycho-sexual developments in the text, the phallocentric discourse and motifs. This study found great and complex meaning in the positioning of images in the text and their sexual connotations, clearly feminist readings must account for more than characterization and plot. In fact a feminist reading, must, analyse the subconscious of the text in the way images are constructed, positioned and the order in which they occur; thereby providing a more definitive and profound implication for the politics of feminism.
It is politics that feminist theory centres around, not party politics, but the broader study of the exercise of power. This means a text can not be isolated from its political period, and the reading itself must find a political implication about the system that enforces a particular gender relationship.
This reading practice focuses on representations of race particularly the relationship between colonisers and the colonised, Post-Colonial literature is a broad body of work often with the shared theme of ‘writing from the margins’ or providing a voice for the voiceless. Often Post Colonial readings will focus on impact of colonisation and colonial or imperial ideologies that underpin colonisation. Post Colonial readings may identify in texts constructs of ‘the other’, perhaps symbolised by a marginalised character or setting.
Post Colonial readings are linked very strongly with Marxist theory, best seen in the recurring use in post colonial discourse of the term ‘subaltern’ pioneered by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The term was adopted by the pioneer of the ‘subaltern studies group’ Ranajit Guha, a prominent Post Colonial scholar of Indian origin. This term encapsulates the current concerns of Post Colonial scholars, Ranajit Guha and his school have examined the way Post Colonial power structures such as the Indian State after the British granted independence in 1947, still relies on the same ideas and political space, as the British Raj. This has led to the central concern of Post Colonial scholars with history, as the story of the victors, and their political intent to amend history this time accounting for the voices of the oppressed and marginalised. So Post Colonial readings share a Marxist concern with oppression and the voice of the marginalised.
However Post Colonial readings are more concerned with language as a means of reinforcing and perpetrating the colonial ideology and intent. Rushdie suggests the Post Colonial author seeks to ‘conquer’ the language that oppressed their people.
Problems facing a post colonial reading is best explored in Gayatri Spivak Charkravorty’s landmark essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ where she explores the role of the Post Colonial reader and his or her authority to articulate the voice of the subaltern. She concludes, the subaltern can not be translated by anyone other than the subaltern, therefore post colonial readings are limited in unearthing real representations of the ‘subaltern’ or other.
Marxist Readings emphasize this connection between ‘Base’ and ‘Superstructure; Base refers to the economic system of a society which Marx suggested was best reflected in the relations between employers and labour and superstructure which refers to social institutions and literature in particular. Thus Marxist theory identifies Literature as part of this societal superstructure; suggesting literature is influenced by, and in turn influences the economic ‘base’ of a society. This is the crux of a Marxist Reading identifying the influence of economic and political system on a text and vice versa.
This is achieved through focusing in on representations of the working class or proletariat, and representations of the bourgeoisie or middle class/employers and the interaction between them in a text. Another important aspect is class consciousness, to what degree does a text promote awareness of class? To what extent does identity depend on class? And to what degree does the text suggest justice or injustice within a particular economic system? Does the text promote change to these relationships and constructs (revolution)? i.e revolution consciousness
A highly complex reading strategy, which I confess, I have only a very elementary understanding of…The bare mention of Freud and Lacan is enough to confuse me… I suppose Freud’s reading of the Greek myth Oedipus is probably a demonstration of the cross purposes of Psycho-Analytic Readings and Psycho-analysis, where Freud’s reading of Oedipus influences his Oedipal theory on the development of the child etc…Thus to psychoanalysts their reading practice was not only a means of literary interpretation but a means of postulating their theories
Psycho-Analytic Readings focus on symbolism in particular within a text and usually analyses the author or a particular character to some depth. The basic fundamentals of this reading practice is this idea of the text as a dream, and the purpose of this reading practice to elicit the real meaning from this dream by following an analytical process placing importance on symbols, language and characterization.
Probably the most entertaining approach is to have a crack at your own interpretation of a text perhaps synthesizing some of the approaches above, but this method usually places the greatest emphasis on personal context, on the way the reader relates to a text and is influenced by his or her own context in the way he or she responds.
Contextual/New Historicist Reading
The emphasis is on placing a text in its historical context and its place in a broader literary movement, as well as the author’s own context; this approach reinforces the influence a society has on an author, and the importance of understanding the context of reception of a text, as a tool to making meaning. This reading practice focuses on the biases of the author, suggesting the importance of understanding an author’s psychology and influences. Another important aspect is recognising the critic’s bias, and stating the readers’ own context and how it influences their reading.
This practice is concerned not only with the text but more with the surroundings both of the authorship and reception of the text.
If you have a ‘close reading’ section in your English literature examination, or a section where you have to critically analyse an unseen text…You have the new critics to blame!
Reacting against the practices of New Historicism which emphasized the text’s linguistic, historical, political and social context and place instead of the actual text itself. In academic circles of the time it was considered the role of commercial critics to do textual analysis, and the role of the academics was to place the text within the literary canon in terms of politics. New Criticism rejected this emphasis with things outside the text.
New Criticism was profound in terms of reinvigorating the way we look at a text. In 1954 Beardsley and Wimsatt’s essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ suggested that it was wrong for readers to understand a text in terms of an authors political or social context or purported intent. Intentional fallacy saw the end of readings that tried to ‘fit’ texts into what we knew about the author for example often readings of George Bernard Shaw’s works succumb to poor analysis of an individual text and instead go for the easier ‘socialist’ reading clasping firmly Shaw’s affiliation with the Fabian society. To a new critic, this was unacceptable, a text should be analysed on its own, it had ‘autonomy of meaning’.
Other new concepts they pioneered included, heresy of paraphrase, the idea you could not arbitrarily ‘quote’ from a text, as the quote only has a meaning as an organic part of the whole text, it has no significance outside that frame. Another of their concepts was ‘affective fallacy’, in other words confusing what a text makes you ‘feel’ with what it means. They were concerned with paradox, irony and complexity in a text that could be reconciled into one superior, coherent reading. They believed in light of this poetry was the most beautiful and worthy form of literature.