On the Reading Process

Notes on Critical Literary Philosophy and Pedagogical Practice

Ann Woodlief (awood@vcu.edu) and Marcel Cornis-Pope (mcornis@vcu.edu)
Virginia Commonwealth University

This course in "Critical Reading and Writing" was developed by Marcel Cornis-Pope (see his book, Hermeneutic Desire and Critical Rewriting, 1992), Professor of English, VCU, and Ann Woodlief, Associate Professor of English, VCU, to be taught as an introduction to literary study, primarily for English majors. It developed primarily from a faculty seminar in the English department in spring of 1993, and so is also indebted to the ideas of other English faculty, particularly Bill Griffin, Debra Raschke, Walter Coppedge, Charlotte Morse, and Greg Donovan.
NOTE: We hope that you will give us full credit for any use you make of this. Please notify us by e-mail if you wish to download any elements of the course, including this essay. We would also appreciate your response to it.

See also  a more recent chapter, The Rereading/Rewriting Process: Theory and Collaborative, On-line Pedagogy [published 2002)

 The purpose of the course is not only to teach students the essentials of literary discourse, but to help them develop their own voices and interpretations. Reader-oriented (or reader response) theory was, therefore, our major base, although certainly post-structuralism, new historicism, semiotics and feminism all played a role. The course involves a great deal of interactive response writing from all students--and the teacher--on each work. It also recognizes that students--and teachers--always bring certain personal, cultural and literary repertoires to their reading which need to be explored and compared. In addition, people have one agenda when they read a work for the first time, and very different ones, when they reread. Developing a strong interpretation requires being very conscious of all of these processes and changes in reading, understanding individual responses better by comparing them with others, and thus seeing multiple interpretive possibilities. In a sense, by comparing readings at both the first reading and re-reading stages, students come to understand which points are most compelling and persuasive--and which are idiosyncratic and/or poorly based on text.

 The theoretical basis for the course is best described by Professor Cornis-Pope in a description of the reading protocols and their rationale (written for a graduate literary criticism class):

Reading Protocols

"The reader is left with everything to do, yet everything has already been done; the work only exists precisely on the level of his abilities; while he reads and creates, he knows that he could always create more profoundly; and this is why the work appears to him as inexhaustible and as impenetrable as an object." (Sartre, What is Literature (1949)

A. Theoretical Premises

..."the making and revising of assumptions, the rendering and regretting of judgments, the coming to and abandoning of conclusions, the giving and withdrawing of approval, the specifying of causes, the asking of questions, the supplying of answers, the solving of puzzles" (Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?, 1980, 00. 158-9)

 "There is no escaping this process, for...the text cannot at any moment be grasped as a whole. But what may at first sight have seemed like a disadvantage, in comparison with our normal modes of perception, may now seem to offer distinct advantages, in so far as it permits a process through which the aesthetic object is constantly being structured and restructure." (Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading, 1978, p. 112).

 "As a recreative mode, critical interpretation participates in an endless process of translation and readjustment by which a culture takes possession of its texts. Interpretation is thus promoted from its subordinate position within the traditional literary paradigm, to an active participator in the process of cultural negotiation. Its role is to reinstate tension and dynamism in literature, valorizing areas discounted by the objective, intentionalist paradigm of criticism: semantic indeterminacies, ideological investments, gender relations, 'affects and values,'...'public norms of language.'...Interpretation opens a space of conflict and variation, negotiated differently by every reader." (Marcel Cornis-Pope, Hermeneutic Desire and Critical Rewriting, 1992, pp. 11-12.)

"By reading we uncover the unformulated part of the text, and this very indeterminacy is the force that drives us to work out a configurative meaning while at the same time giving us the necessary degree of freedom to do so." (Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader, 1974, p. 287).

..."The significance of the work...does not lie in the meaning sealed within the text, but in the fact that the meaning brings out what had been previously sealed within us....Through gestalt-forming, we actually participate in the text, and this means that we are caught up in the very thing we are producing. This is why we often have the impression, as we read, that we are living another life." (Iser, The Act of Reading, pp. 157, 132.)

 ...[Meanings] will not be objective because they will always have been the product of a point of view rather than having been simply 'read off'; and they will not be subjective because that point of view will always be social or institutional. Or by the same reasoning, one could say that they are both subjective and objective: they are subjective because they inhere in a particular point of view and are therefore not universal; and they are objective because the point of view that delivers them is public and conventional rather than individual or unique." (Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?, pp. 335-6).

"The ability to perceive oneself during the process of participation is an essential quality of aesthetic experience; the observer finds himself in a strange, halfway position: he is involved, and he watches himself being involved. However, this position is not entirely nonprogrammatic, for it can only come about when existing codes are transcended or invalidated." (Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 134).

 "Our knowledge of our behavior can become available only through language and thought. We are thus motivated to acquire self-awareness, which in turn gives us the capacity to regulate and to produce further, more complicated, more adaptive motives to govern growth." (David Bleich, Subjective Criticism, 1981, p. 64).

 "The process of reading thus entails a progressive growth of insight: of the reader into the text as something other than himself, and into himself as one who is transformed by his encounter with the texts." (Samuel Weber, "Caught in the Act of Reading," in Demarcating the Disciplines: Philosophy, Literature, Art, 1986, p. 185.)

B. The Reading Process


1. Defining the horizon of expectations.
The term "horizon of expectation (Hans Robert Jauss) designates an area of "collective" assumptions, genre conventions and cultural ideologies shared by texts and readers. In retracing the work's "horizon of expectation," reading can tease out the sociocultural contexts activated by a work, and participate in their reformulation. Similarly, by identifying his/her own expectations, a reader can begin to understand the assumptions, experiences, preconceptions that he/she brings to the process of reading.

 2. Identifying assumptions, interests, preconceptions.

  • What assumptions do you have about the author of the text?
  • Have you read any of his other works?
  • Knowing when and where this story/poem was written, what are your expectations of theme, character treatment, techniques?
  • Do you have any expectations of genre from glancing at the text?
  • What suggestions/expectations does the title convey?


  • What are your dominant feelings before reading this text?
  • Are you looking forward to reading a text by this particular author?
  • Does the author, genre, type of literature appeal to you?
  • What are your general expectations from reading?
  • Does it matter if you read for pleasure or for "study"?
  • Do you use different techniques and assumptions in reading "for pleasure'?
  • Are you aware of any of your strengths and weaknesses in reading?

First Reading

Rationale: We are trained to react in more or less similar ways to narrative texts during first reading. Strong generic, textual and cultural expectations regulate our responses. Many of us read fiction self-indulgently, seeking a reconfirmation of our expectations and biases. The reading process itself relies heavily on sequential and holistic procedures, on "naturalization" (Jonathan Culler), "consistency-building" (Iser), "selective attention" (Louise M. Rosenblatt). We read for closure and coherence, singling out solid clues and eliminating problematic ones. We smooth over contradictions and follow the narrative to settled conclusions even when we distrust the narratorial voice. On the other hand, we find stories that thwart such expectations disappointing, obscure, and "dry."

 The following methodology is meant to disrupt--through analytic questions--the linear progress of first reading. It is also intended to give us a critical awareness about the various operations that we perform during reading, as we try to make sense of literary texts. Most of the questions below encourage readers to pay more attention to textual details and language clues, to notice their constellations, to reflect on their inconsistencies and on the extent to which they resist a totalistic reading.

 While you read, pause periodically and make a note of some of the following:

  • details of plot or character that are emphasized, or that you have singled out as significant;
  • narrative sequences, their role in foreshadowing and building thematic coherence;
  • words, clusters of images that stick in your memory; your immediate response to these textual sequences;
  • associations, connections, fantasies triggered by the text's situations; specific insights they offer about text and reader;
  • "gaps," contradictions, unresolved questions in the story's plot, characterization or overall structure;
  • what seems to carry forward the flow of reading, or, on the contrary, obstruct it;
  • narratorial voices, their authority and trustworthiness;
  • expectations upon opening this story and how these are fulfilled/thwarted by the text;
  • your overall reactions to the story, aspects you found challenging or hard to accept.

These early response notes can take varied forms, from unedited annotations and questions, to more elaborate and explorative comments on specific problems in the text. Make these annotations while youread, without editing or reformulating too much.


Rationale: NO reading is complete without a closer examination of the "presentational aspect" (rhetoric, literary strategies, cultural implications) in the text and its effects on readers. First reading often yields an incomplete, impressionistic interpretation that tends "to settle too soon, too quickly" the text. Having little more than first reading responses to depend on, readers will resort in their written "explications" to a literalist, "blocked" pattern approach: "they lift various segments out of the text and then combine them through arbitrary sequential connections (usually conjunctions)--a composing mode that is marked by a consistent restriction of options to explore and develop ideas." (Mariolina Salvatori, "Reading and Writing a Text: Correlations between Reading and Writing Patterns," College English, 45 [1983]: 659) Rereading allows us to retrace and analyze our first reading responses, relating them back to the text's generic and cultural features, but also to the assumptions, biases, and experiences that we bring to the text. Rereading should be more self-conscious, explorative, reformulative: "Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us 'throw away' the story once it has been consumed ('devoured'), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading...alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere)." (Roland Barthes, S/Z, 1974, pp. 15-6.)

 One way of making rereading more effective is to organize it around specific questions that call for a comparison between first and second reading, between response and critical interpretation. Readers will be asked to reexamine their position toward the story after second reading, to ponder some of the exclusions, distortions, misreadings they have perpetrated during first reading. They are also asked to speculate on how successfully they have attended to details, howq closely they have monitored the progress of the story through inferences, predictions, connections. This is an example of a second-reading questionnaire:

  • how did the story's general purport and orientation change after second reading?
  • what aspects of the story have you "misremembered," adapted to conform to your first reading?
  • what possibilities of the text have you ignored (not account for) during earlier reading?
  • what "mysteries" or "gaps" in the narrative have you tried to settle and how successfully?
  • what aspects in the story are still unresolved, what questions unanswered?
  • who did you identify with during first reading, and how did this identification affect your understanding of the story?
  • have your generic or thematic expectations about the story changed?
  • is the story more/or less satisfying after second reading, and why?
  • as you begin to sort out the textual "evidence" in support of an interpretation of the story, which details do you find useful, and which seem difficult to resolve with your interpretation?
  • has this approach to reading given you more confidence in your judgments and helped you understand the intricate details of the text better?

Ideally, the reader should pursue an uninterrupted interpretative process, with an active, transformative rereading already implied in first reading. But in common practice, or in some of the current psychological and semiotic theories of interpretation, first and second reading are perceived as separate, even conflicting. First reading is described as sequential, superficial, mimetic. Only a second, retroactive reading can produce "significance" by identifying and reconfiguring the various perspectives of the text (Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry, pp. 81ff)

 A critical-comparative rereading refocuses the reader's attention on the work as an elaborate structure of discourse, on the text's rhetoric and ideology usually missed in first reading. While first reading depends primarily on the expectation of pleasure (of a vicarious or hermeneutic kind), rereading draws on critical (self)awareness. Enjoyment is not absent from this second phase of reading, but it involves the transformation of experiential pleasure into the analogical pleasure of intellectual experiencing which connects the reader to the broader contexts of his culture (Northrop Frye). A successful reading will emerge from the interplay of naive absorption and critical reexamination, participation, and self-reflection.

C.  Working with reader-oriented theory and the reading/rereading process in actual classes has certain pedagogical implications:

  • Students need to read, write, reread, and rewrite, exploring leading questions related to each genre/work in order to think critically about a text;
  • To keep this reading/writing process from being too subjective (and thus sometimes wandering far from the text), it needs to be done collectively and comparatively, negotiating questions and meaning as a class and not just as an individual. Thus students gradually come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their individual readings, when challenged by other readings and responses to their own reading, and so learn to develop stronger and more persuasive interpretations;
  • Every student must participate fully in order for the class dynamic to work, and in order to develop the strongest, most detailed readings of a work;
  • Students must have as much information about biographical, socio-cultural and historical contexts and leading, open questions related to the text as possible, but presented in a voluntary, timely fashion (i.g. they should have it available when they "ask" for it);
  • The teacher's role, then, is more of a coach and collegial reader than the authoritative establisher of interpretation, participating as a more knowledgeable rereader but still another reader in the class whose interpretation should be comparatively muted.

Very likely there are other principles, but these will satisfy for a beginning! In addition, it must be noted that the principles of reading process theory have been adapted drastically, depending on the level of the class and the literary experience of the students.

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