Friday, May 13, 2011

The Gap

A little more than a week ago, Jillian (of the wonderful blog A Room of One's Own) asked her readers to recommend texts on literary theory.  In her comments, Katherine Cox mentioned a series of Yale lectures available for free online.  I am in the midst of trying to finish knitting a wool sweater before it gets to be too hot and humid to knit--and onscreen lectures are just what I need to keep me occupied while I stitch.

This morning I've been watching the fourth lecture, where Professor Paul Fry talks about the work of Wolfgang Iser.  Iser, one of the founders of reader-response theory, is especially fascinated in the hermeneutics of reading.  That is, he is interested in that conversation that goes on between the author and the reader.  The meaning of a text happens in a "virtual" place where the author's ideas and the reader's ideas come together.  This place is a place of uncertainty, of flexibility, of openness.  There are an infinite number of readings as individual readers come to a book, filling in the gaps between their previous understanding and the text, each in their individual ways.

Prof. Fry states that the "gap" between text and reader is not merely an abyss of unknowing.  Instead, it is a place of great productivity.  Fry suggests the gap in reading is parallel to the workings of a spark plug.  In order to make electricity come into being, the points of contact must be "gapped" or kept apart at a precise distance.  The space cannot be too small or too large in order to ignite.

I love this metaphor.  When I read a book whose ideas are too far removed from my understanding, I wind up feeling alienated or overwhelmed.  On the other hand, if an author does not go beyond what I already have experienced, it is likely to bore me and be quickly forgotten.  Iser suggest that there must be "a violation of expectation" that requires the reader to do a bit of work.  A book that creates that perfect gap between text and this reader--the place that encourages the electrical currents in my brain to ignite--has the potential to surprise me, open my eyes and transform me.


  1. A very nice post, and great to learn that these lectures are online. So many avid readers might really enjoy seeing their reading experiences anew through the work of someone like Iser. A few years ago, I met Dr. Louise Rosenblat, also a founding thinker in Reader-Response theory; I heard her give the keynote at a conference and discovered she lived not very far from me! I was very lucky to get to know her a little more after that. I heartily recommend either of her books, "Literature as Exploration" and "The Reader, the Text, the Poem." She used "Poem" to mean the literary work (not just poems, but stories, and novels) which was created through the "transaction" of the reader with the text. Here's her bio: As you can see, she lived to be 101, and I met her in her 90s, still publishing articles and very active! She was an amazing pioneer.

  2. I haven't had time to listen to these yet. The metaphor is so true. (Thanks for the mentions.) :-)

  3. Thanks for the link to the Yale Lectures-I just complete a wonderful book on the short story, The Lonely Voice by Frank O'Connor-it is not really a highly theoretical or abstract work but it really helped me understand why I am drawn to short stories-the book is flawed by some attitudes that O'Connor has but it is still a brilliant at times beautiful book-I hope to post on it soon-

  4. I love that spark plug analogy. And that the gap, far from being a problem, is where the real action happens. Must check these out!

  5. Lucy: I will definitely look up Rosenblatt's works. These sound like fascinating books. And I love the idea of calling all literary productions poems. It calls attention to the deep space for interpretation--almost always more obvious in poetry than in novels.

    Jillian: I hope you get a chance to watch some of the lectures. I wasn't especially moved by the first three, but they have really taken off since then. I am quite fond of the piece of "literature" he uses to try out the application of the various theories: "Tony the Tow Truck."

    mel: Sounds like a great read! I'm off to see if my library has a copy. Thanks for the tip.

    Emily: Please let me know what you think if you try out the lectures. Like I said to Jillian, the introductory lectures didn't grab me--but they didn't turn me off, either, since I was knitting desperately. I'm looking forward to the upcoming lectures!


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