The Professor Knows

Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities

by Stanley Fish
Harvard University Press, 394 pp., $17.50

Stanley Fish is a prominent professor of English who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University; he is a seventeenth-century scholar of distinction and a force among those literary critics who not merely assert but exercise the broader claims of their subject. In Is There a Text in This Class? he provides us with a decade’s reflections on what literary criticism is and what literary works are. Thus Fish follows the general practice of contemporary literary criticism, which insists on the right both to determine the method it uses and to define the objects it investigates. In this way it resembles philosophy.

The first essay, entitled “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” appeared in 1970 and Fish calls it with hindsight an “early manifesto,” for the central idea of this essay, revised and extended, provides the content of the four John Crowe Ransom Memorial Lectures, delivered in 1979, on which the book ends. The stronger of the intervening essays fill in the steps by which a bright idea about critical method is gradually elaborated into a far-reaching theory about the literary object.

The book then has a definite intellectual unity, and it is something of a perversity that Fish chooses to present it as though it were principally the chronicle of his own formation. In the notes appended to each essay where the circumstances in which it was written are set out, and again in the introduction to the book where these circumstances are strung together into a sequence, Fish slips into addressing his readers as though they were his future biographers. He begins the introduction, “What interests me about many of the essays collected here is the fact that I could not write them today.” That may be so, but readers who aren’t already what this book would call workers in “the Fish industry” will be less gripped by this fact; they will prefer to think about the direction of the arguments and the overall character and quality of the theory and will find there quite enough to interest them.

“Literature in the Reader” begins as an animated attack upon the New Criticism. According to the New Critics the literary work was identical with the text, where this meant (roughly) the sequence of words as they might be found on the printed page. This being so, the task of the literary critic could only be to study what the words of the text, individually or in combination, were or said. Of necessity the New Critics became—the word is Fish’s—“formalists.” Fish’s claim is that this is a restrictive view of criticism and by adopting it the New Critics denied themselves an invaluable mode of access to the literary work: that which is provided by the actual experience of reading the text. What Fish would like to see criticism undertake is “an analysis of the developing responses of the reader to the words as they succeed one another on the page,” and he offers examples. By taking sometimes single sentences, sometimes…

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