What I want to use this blog for in future is for bits and bobs of thinking about reception, which is both my job (my main research interest is how people make sense of, use, and circulate the texts they read – books, TV shows, videogames, films…) and my hobby (mostly what I do is talk about the texts I’ve read, whether in conversation with friends, in teaching literature, or by writing fan fic). But it occurs to me that before I can start jumping in with a series of posts which will probably look quite unconnected, I should set up what it is I mean by ‘reception’. And AS IT SO HAPPENS, I have a paper – originally drafted as the introduction to my book-in-progress, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, but then given as a seminar paper to the Classics department at Bristol in my last semester there – which explains it pretty well, or as well as I’m able at the moment. I’ve put it up here as a pdf.
Reception, in a word, is a way of talking about books (and other texts) which takes into account the different meanings we make out of them and the different uses we have for them, and which tries to make as visible and sharable as possible the processes by which we come to make meanings out of books. The paper argues that although “talking about books” is an everyday and ordinary experience, which doesn’t require any special expertise beyond literacy (by the way, why not donate to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation?), it’s surprisingly difficult to map the complex, interrelating and often invisible forces and structures, from many different domains of human experience, which make those everyday conversations possible. I write in the paper:
What is in a book – even at the apparently simple or literal level, the level of the events which make up the plot, of what happens in a narrative – is not a simple question, then. It cannot be answered simply with reference to the ‘words on the page’, not only because those words themselves are the end product, not the origin, of interpretative acts, but also because in order to become meaningful, these words need to be interpreted, and they are interpreted according to particular conventions or rules which cannot be extrapolated from the ‘text itself’, from the words on the page: these rules come from outside the text. A lot of what a book is is not in the book, but in its context, or in its readers.
Given that, the central question of the book I’m writing is this:
Anything can mean anything – so why, in practice, doesn’t it? How do we know that Macbeth is not a murder mystery? Who decides which readings are legitimate, which contexts are appropriate and which are inappropriate?
This is the point where talking about books (or talking about talking about books) cannot avoid engaging with history, sociology, politics, and cultural studies. Reading is not an individual act which takes place in the privacy of the reader’s mind: it is a sociocultural system, involving an intricately knotted set of relationships between reader and text, reader and other readers, reader and institution, reader and context(s). Successfully producing and circulating a new reading of a text therefore involves a struggle not so much against the text as against other readers, institutions or disciplines.
The work of producing a new reading involves a struggle not just on the conceptual level, over meaning or interpretation, but also, on the level of institutional and even state power, a struggle over legitimacy and over truth. The right to produce and circulate one’s own meanings – to insist on one’s own truth – is central to the workings of literary studies as a discipline, but its implications go far beyond the boundaries of that discipline, connecting disciplinary and conceptual struggles to broader political projects of resistance. Indeed, many (if not all) contemporary political and legal struggles can be understood as interventions into what words or texts are able, in specific contexts, to mean: must the word ‘marriage’ refer only to a relationship between a man and a woman? Must the word ‘woman’ refer to someone who was assigned female at birth? These are not simply abstract questions of interpretation: they have concrete effects on the legal status, privileges and rights of many people.
What I’m hoping to do on this blog is to talk about the work of producing readings, both theoretically – in posts like this one – and practically, in posts like the one I made a few months ago on the world-building in The Hunger Games. I hope you’ll find it interesting – and I hope people will respond with works and readings of their own.