Chapter 2 The Iserian Reader A Structure of Response-Inviting and by tyndale


									                                     Chapter 2 The Iserian Reader:

               A Structure of Response-Inviting and Response-Projection

    2.1. The Presence and the Absence of the Reader

     “Books are to be read”. This statement is so self-obvious that few people have raised any
questions about it, not at least until the mid-twentieth century, when a number of literary
critics found it logically incomplete due to the omission of the agent. The grammarians,
however, have always told us that

           ... the passive enables the speaker/writer to leave the agent unmentioned, either because
            overt reference to the agent is considered irrelevant or redundant, or because for some
            reason it is considered better not to mention the agent explicitly. (van EK & Robat,
            1985, p.224)

The passive voice, as a grammatical category, should indeed have little bearing on the
speculation of literary theory, but the critics‟ concern over the absence of the agent is
significant to the present discussion, for it leads to a number of questions that constitute the
primary concerns of contemporary reader-oriented criticism. We may ask, for example, why
this agent is left unmentioned or perhaps considered “irrelevant” for so long in literary
criticism, and why a theory of reading without taking account of the reader‟s role is perforce
incomplete. These questions, of course, draw our attention to the reader in literary criticism,
but it would be a mistake to assume that the reader is but a recent discovery. In fact, critics
had been talking about it long before reader-oriented criticism brought it into prominence,
just as people had known all the time as common sense that books are read by the reader
long before the generative-transformational grammarians told them about the “deep
structure” of the sentence (cf., Jacokson, 1977, p.189). Yet it is interesting to see why it has
taken so long for critics to realize the real importance of the reader1.
     The fact that people have been talking about the reader, however, does not necessarily
mean that they have been talking about the same reader and the same reading activity and
experience. Differences in the following aspects, among others, may serve as an illustration:
i) The concept of the reader: The reader for the reader-oriented critics is usually a
specifically defined concept with special implications and functions. Even in discussions of
the general reader, there remains in the theorists‟ mind a specific image and a specific role

    D. Bleich has made a similar observation in Subjective Criticism (1978, pp.98-99).

(i.e., a reader in a particular situation at a particular reading moment fulfilling a particular
function). The traditional concept of the reader is however relatively undiscriminating, it
could mean “audience” in the sense of Plato‟s “citizens of the Republic”, or the general
“reading public” for the eighteenth century neoclassicists,2 or perhaps a variety of “reading
publics” for some of the modern critics who prefer to maintain this generalized concept (cf.,
Wellek & Warren, 1986, p.99). ii) The scope of concerns in the act of reading: The modern
reader-oriented critics, by extending their research into various aspects of the reader and the
act of reading (e.g., its literary competence as expounded by Culler, its psychological
patterns in Holland‟s exposition, its moment-by-moment reading experience in Fish‟s
description, to name only a few), have greatly enlarged the scope of concerns in reader-
oriented criticism, as opposed to the rather limited concerns (usually the reader‟s relationship
with reality and its own mentality, etc.) of the earlier critics. iii) The reading experience:
Most reader-oriented critics pay close attention to the actual reading experience of the reader
and its minute processing of the text (Bleich, Riffaterre, Iser, for instance), instead of talking
about “feelings”, “emotion”, or “reaction” in general terms.
     The unwarranted neglect of the reader in the history of western literary criticism is well
illustrated in an analogy made by Rosenblatt: The “figures” of the author and the reader,
with the book in between, stand on a darkened stage. “The spotlight focuses on one of them
so brightly that the others fade into practical invisibility”. Throughout the centuries, only the
book and the author have alternately received major illumination, whereas the reader,
though occasionally seen in passing, has tended to remain most of the time in the shadow,
and therefore invisible in most part of the performance. “Like Ralph Ellison‟s hero, the
reader might say, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”
(Rosenblatt, 1978, p.1). Rosenblatt‟s analogy shows that in the history of literary criticism,
the reader has never been given a fair treatment or the attention it deserves as much as the
book and the author.

    2.2. A Typology of the Reader

     When more and more critics turn their attention to the reader, they begin to realize that a
simple move from the author or the text to the reader is only a preliminary step towards a
more radical reorientation of emphases, and that the vague traditional concept of the generic
reader is inadequate for a proper description of the subject of the reading activity. They also
believe that one should study the nature of the act of reading, for as P.J. Rabinowitz points
out, “it is now hard to find serious literary theorists who do not, in one way or another, feel
the need to account for the activities of the reader” (Rabinowitz, 1989, p.81). But the first
question is of course who is the reader, or who are the readers. When Iser starts to propose
his theory of reading, he faces the same question and asserts that “[any] attempt to
understand the true nature of this cooperative enterprise [i.e., the interaction between the text
and the reader] will run into difficulties over the question of which reader is being referred
to” (Iser, 1987, p.27). Hoping to find an answer to this question, Iser undertakes a

 See, for instance, “Preface to Shakespeare”, in which “Mr. Johnson occasionally appeals to “the readers of
Shakespeare” (Johnson in Bate, 1970, pp.208-219).

classification of the main concepts of the reader, as elaborated by other reader-oriented
     Iser identifies four categories of the reader: the “real reader” referred to by critics when
“the history of responses” is being studied, and the “hypothetical reader”, when “the
potential effect” of the text is the object of investigation. The latter category can be further
divided into the ideal reader and the contemporary reader. Then comes the third category, the
“psychologically describable reader”, and finally, a group of readers under the category of
“the reader as heuristic models”3. We shall first present these four categories of the reader in
the form of a diagram, and then see how Iser looks critically at each of them before he
postulates his own concept of the reader:

                        Real Reader
                                                        Ideal Reader
                        Hypothetical Reader
                                                        Contemporary Reader
    Reader              Psychologically Describable Reader

                         Reader As Heuristic Models

    Category 1: The Real Reader
     Iser describes this type of reader as one “invoked mainly in studies of the history of
responses, i.e., when attention is focused on the way in which a literary work has been
received by a specific reading public”, whose judgment of the work “[reflects] various
attitudes and norms of that public, so that literature can be said to mirror the cultural code
which conditions these judgments” (Iser, 1987, p.28). In other words, the “real readers”, or
members of a particular reading public, are historically real people. To reconstruct these
readers, one needs to know, among other things, the norms (both literary and social) of their
time, their emotions and attitudes aroused by the work, and the critical judgments they
passed on it. Here Iser must have in mind the work of his colleague H.R. Jauss, whose
“aesthetics of reception” deals chiefly with the “history of responses”.
    In his early endeavor to establish a “dialogical” relationship between literary production
and reception, i.e., between the work and its readers, Jauss formulates his central notion of
the “horizon of expectations”. The concept, however, remains vaguely defined, because
nowhere has Jauss ever stated its meaning in explicit terms (cf., Holub, 1984, p.59). But
    For Iser‟s categorization of the reader, see The Act of Reading (1987, pp.27-34).

generally the concept is taken to mean what Suleiman explains as “the set of cultural,
ethical, and literary (generic, stylistic, thematic) expectations of a work‟s readers “in the
historical moment of its appearance” (Suleiman in Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, p.35). These
expectations are important insofar as they form the basis on which the writer selects and
organizes his materials in order to evoke the reader‟s expectations, and on which the work
achieves its aesthetic effect by gradually destroying these expectations. Therefore, the
knowledge of the expectations of the first readers of a particular work would necessarily
provide clues to an understanding of the work itself. But as these original expectations,
together with the first readers themselves, have disappeared with the passage of time, readers
of later generations should, as Jauss insists, reconstruct the horizon of expectations to restore
the dialogical relationship between the work and its first readers, in order to engage
themselves in their own dialogues with the work (Jauss, 1989, pp.20-36). This means the
historical understanding of a work depends on the reconstruction of the horizon of
expectations, which entails the reconstruction of a historical audience. In his discussion of
the reception of Flaubert‟s Madame Bovary by its first readers, for instance, Jauss
reconstructs the readers around 1850‟s in France, who at that time “had foresworn all
romanticism and despised ... naive passions”. He also points out that the official criticism of
the time rejected the novel for denying “everything real” and attacking the social norms of
the day, and that the critics refused to accept Flaubert‟s formal innovations (ibid., pp.27-28).
Thus by reconstructing the horizon of expectations of Madame Bovary’s first readers, Jauss
recreates the “real readers” of the time.
    For Iser, however, this recreation is problematic because the reconstruction “naturally
depends on the survival of contemporary documents” (Iser, 1987, p.28), and so does that of
the horizon of expectations (which depends on “both extrinsic and
intrinsic data”4). But as “the further back in time we go ... the more sparse the
documentation becomes” (ibid.), the critic would then have to give up the vain attempt to
search for the documents and turn, instead, to the work itself for identifying the
expectations of the real reader. As a result, the horizon or the real reader thus
reconstructed would be drawn either from the text provided by the author5 or from the
social and historical knowledge of the critic himself. The lack of adequate documents
means that it is rather difficult to establish what Jauss has called “the objectifiable system
of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance” (Jauss,
1989, p.22). In this case, the real readers tend to become hypothetical readers.
   Iser‟s suspicion of the reliability of the horizon of expectations and of the real reader,
however, does not suggest that he is unaware of their values, or that he is belittling the
importance of their reconstruction. He is simply alerting us to their limitations, and preparing
us for our acquaintance with a new type of reader.

    Category 2: The Hypothetical Reader

  Suleiman (1980, p.36). This can also be seen from the historical documents involved in Jauss‟ discussion
of the novel.
  The reader thus reconstructed resembles the “implied reader” as postulated by W. Booth (Booth, 1987,

    Unlike the real historical reader in Category 1, the hypothetical reader owes its existence
to the critic when the latter creates it as the receiver of the potential effect of a particular
work. There are two types of the hypothetical reader (as shown in the diagram), but what
concerns Iser more is the first type, the ideal reader, because the second type, the
contemporary reader, though often casually mentioned by critics, is difficult to specify.
Unlike the real reader and the contemporary reader, the ideal reader is a “fictional being”
that crops up now and then in discussions of contemporary theory, often with different
references and implications. P.J. Rabinowitz, for instance, defines it as theoretical models
(such as G. Prince‟s “narratee”, W. Gibson‟s “mock reader”, and even Iser‟s “implied
reader”) that help to show the ideal operation or processing of the text (Rabinowitz, 1989,
pp.81-82). Critics like Fish and Culler also label their own models of the reader as specific
types of the “ideal reader”. Iser, however, does not identify this concept with any of these
models, yet he emphasizes that the notion of the ideal reader is somehow inherent in many of
them, causing problems that are not to be solved on their own terms.
    Iser‟s disapproval of the “ideal reader” serves to highlight some of the “problems” with
this concept, which are crucial to the understanding of both the nature of literary
communication and the Iserian theory of reading. This is evidenced by his complaint against
one of the assumptions of the concept that the ideal reader, being “ideal”, would have to be
able to “realize in full the meaning potential of the fictional text” (Iser, 1987, p.29). It
should be pointed out that none has ever openly made such an assumption, and that the ideal
reader, like Iser‟s implied reader, is more of a model than of any actual reader. However, the
assumption which may have implied in the model disturbs Iser for at least two reasons: i)
The exhaustion of the meaning potential of a work is simply impossible, and this can be
borne out both diachronically and synchronically. Diachronically speaking, the meaning
potential of a text should comprise all the responses the readers have made in history and are
still making as long as they keep on reading it. Thus the meaning potential of Hamlet in the
present century alone would include, among numerous others, the response of T.S. Eliot
early this century that it is a failure, the responses made by other critics in 1950‟s that it is
not (Weitz, 1964, pp.37-43), and perhaps future responses that it is both or neither.
Synchronically, the responses of readers to a given text even at a particular historical
moment are bound to be so varied that they can hardly be compacted into the knowledge of
an ideal reader. A.L. French, for instance, cites three contradictory readings of Hamlet the
prince in the middle of this century in England: that he is a rotten being; that he is initially
good but corrupted by the depraved court; and that he is really a “sweet prince” (French,
1972, p.73). It is unthinkable that any single reader can come up with all these three
interpretations and more. Therefore, the ideal reader who is supposed to be capable of
encompassing all the potential meanings of a text is only an illusion. ii) The concept of the
ideal reader can be more harmful than it is impossible, because the total exhaustion of the
meaning potential would mean the total consumption of the text, which, as Iser observes,
“would itself be ruinous for literature” (Iser, 1987, p.29). For once a literary work ceases to
offer its readers anything new, it will have lost its raison d’ tre. The concept of the ideal
reader, thus understood, is erroneous to the extent that it is blind to the fact that literary
works do survive and are still producing new effects on readers. Shakespeare‟s life (whether
his real life or his artistic career) is short, as the title of a book (A Short Life of Shakespeare)
indicates (Williams, 1950), but his works have lived long with generations of readers, as the
title of another book (Shakespeare's Living Art) proves (Colie,1974).

   The fact that literary works keep on producing effects on the readers, and that each reader
comes up with his own unique responses may also be explained in terms of Iser‟s concept of
the repertoire. Since the literary allusions and the social norms embodied in them invariably
undergo some kind of transformation, they necessarily invite the reader to establish new
connections, i.e., to look for the significance of this transformation. This establishment,
according to Iser, is largely dependent upon the individual reader‟s personal and social
backgrounds, and therefore the connections thus established tend to be different from person
to person. Here again, the weakness of the notion of the ideal reader becomes apparent, for
the ideal reader is nothing but an ahistorical being without personal and social identity, and
as W. Booth has pointed out, he is the kind of “pure” reader who has no beliefs and faiths,
and therefore “could never possibly exist” (Booth, 1987, p.140).

 Category 3: The Psychologically Describable Reader
    The reader in this category refers to one “whose psychology has been opened up by the
findings of psychoanalysis” (Iser, 1987, pp.27-28). The typical psychoanalytical reader is
found in the work of N. Holland, who defines his psychoanalytical reading of texts as
“transactive criticism”, and his reader as the “transactive reader”, namely, one who “works
explicitly from his transaction of the text” (Holland in Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, pp.362-
363). Let us first examine briefly what this transactive reader does in the reading process,
and then we may proceed to raise a few points pertinent to the present discussion.
    Holland maintains that a person reveals his unique personality in the various things he
does and the various ideas he expresses. Behind these “behavioral transformations”,
however, lies an “invariant”, the “unchanging core of personality”, which he calls the
“primary identity”, or “identity theme”, a term he borrowed from the modern psychologist
Heinz Lichtenstein, and upon which he builds his theory of transactive criticism. For
Holland, literary interpretation is inseparable from the question of identity. It is in fact a
function of identity, for differences in interpretation can be accounted for in terms of the
differences in personality, both being “variations upon an identity theme” (Holland in
Tompkins, 1984, p.123). But what is more important is Holland‟s discovery that the
“overarching principle” of the function of identity is that “identity re-creates itself” (ibid.,

       [The] individual (considered as the continuing creator of variations on an identity theme)
       relates to the world as he does to a poem or a story; he uses its physical reality as grist
       with which to recreate single, enduring identity ( Holland quoted in Ray, p.67 ).

That is to say, the reader, while reading, makes use of the text to replicate his own
characteristic patterns of desires, anxieties, expectations, etc.. This, as Holland seems to
argue, is the purpose of reading a literary work, and it is also what his “transactive reader”
actually does in the act of reading.
    Like most other reader-oriented critics, Holland also believes that the reader does not
come to the text as a tabula rasa, but he differs from them in his argument that what the
reader brings with him to a text are not his competence (as Fish and Culler have argued) or

his foreknowledge (as Jauss and Iser have suggested), but certain expectations, or a pattern
of related wishes and fears. Then in the reading process in which identity recreation is carried
out, what the transactive reader does is to find in the text the match for his expectations (e.g.,
similar wishes and fears), and then to respond by defending against them with his
characteristic strategies, either to gratify the wishes, or to defeat the fears. Once the deep
wishes and fears are defensively adapted, the reader will be able to derive from the text
“fantasies of the particular kind that yield him pleasure” and, therefore, begin to enjoy the
text by transforming the guilt and anxiety aroused by the fantasies into “a total experience of
aesthetic, moral, intellectual or social coherence and significance” 6.
     The brief description given above concerning the recreation of identity through what
Holland calls the DEFT (defence-expectation-fantasy-transformation) mechanism serves to
show that the “transactive reader” is neither the real reader nor the ideal reader, but an
abstraction of any actual reader who reads psychoanalytically, or rather, who is read
psychoanalytically by the text he is reading. This concept of the transactive reader as well as
the psychoanalytical reading process embodied in it is of course without problems. We may
ask, for example: Does the reader‟s response to a literary work prove nothing but a
“replication” of his identity theme? Or can literary reading be invariably described in terms
of psychoanalytical categories? (Cf., Bleich, 1978, p.120 passim; Ray, 1984, pp.66-69)
From Iser‟s point of view, the transactive reading theory cannot clearly define the
relationship between the reader, the text, and their interaction, nor can it specify the
characteristics of literary transaction and the conditions for such a process. Holland does
sometimes talk about the reader‟s experience, but this experience is mostly a psychological
one (the fulfillment of desires, etc.), and is usually the product of the transaction, rather than
its process, which for Iser constitutes aesthetic experience per se.
    The concept of the transactive reader has undoubtedly extended our investigation of the
reader into the deeper realms of his unconscious, but as a key element in a theory of reading,
it is inadequate for a satisfactory explanation of the complex process of literary reading. To
use Culler‟s words, Holland “fails to study reading as a process with its own operations and
goals” (Culler in Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, p.55).

    Category 4: The Reader as Heuristic Models
    The reader of this kind comprises a group of concepts proposed by various contemporary
literary theorists to serve as heuristic models for their respective reading theories.7 This
category is important for the present discussion because Iser‟s “implied reader” is, to a great
extent, one such model along with many others which we shall soon look at individually.
   Stanley Fish is perhaps the best known and most polemic American reader-response critic
of all . Many of his early ideas (the dramatic nature of reading, the temporal unfolding of
meaning, the active role played by the reader in the reading process, etc.) come closest to
those of Iser‟s, yet one great difference between them, among others, is reflected in the
concept of the role of the reader in their respective heuristic models.
  For a description of the reading process of the transactive reader, see Holland‟s “Unity” (in Tompkins,
1984, pp.123-127); and his Dynamics of Literary Response (1975, p.30); or in Hartman (1978, pp.21-22).
  In this sense, Holland‟s transactive reader fits in with this category as well. But here Iser‟s categorization
of the reader does not concern us so much as his discussion of it.

    In one of his earlier articles (Fish, 1982, pp.22-32, 42-52), Fish makes a detailed analysis
of his reader in the context of current critical debates over the reader and reading. He starts
the polemic with an attack on the “affective fallacy”, a term used by Wimsatt and Beardsley
to refer to the “confusion between the poem and its results”. Such a confusion, they believe,
is counterproductive and would inevitably give rise to “impressionism and relativism”,
leading to the disappearance of the text altogether (Wimsatt & Beardsley in Lodge, 1983,
p.345). In his attack, Fish argues convincingly that the meaning of the words of a text does
not always correspond directly to the meaning of the text itself, the latter being the creation
of the reader. The implication of this argument is quite clear: first, the objectivity of the text,
a tenet held sacred by the New Critics and other formalists, is now shown to be nothing more
than an illusion; and secondly, the interpretive activity of the reader thus becomes crucial in
the production of meaning.
   “But what reader?” Fish asks, as every other reader-oriented critic does in the face of the
vagueness of the concept which may refer to a variety of readers with different responding
mechanisms, and which consequently renders impossible any attempt at a generalization.
Thus every reader-response critic must in the first place give his reader an “identity” in order
to have a workable frame of reference for talking about responses, effects, and the reading
activity in a meaningful way. For Fish, this reader is someone who projects, expects and
corrects his responses all the way as he moves from one word to the next in his linear
processing of a text. In formulating his theory of reading, Fish draws on the theory of
Chomskian transformational-generative grammar in general, and that of Ronald Wardhaugh
in particular.
    The transformational-generative grammarians believe in a system of rules which all
speakers of a language share and which, once internalized, would enable the speaker to
produce and understand all the possible sentences in that language. Following this attempt at
establishing a set of abstract syntactic rules, Wardhaugh sets himself the more ambitious task
of formulating the rules of “semantic knowledge”, which “would characterize just that set of
facts about English semantics that all speakers of English have internalized and can draw
upon in interpreting words in novel combinations” (Wardhaugh quoted in Fish [1982],
p.45). What this means is that with this “semantic competence” one could identify and select
the meanings of individual words and combine these meanings into a “compatible” whole.
Therefore, one needs both the syntactic rules and the semantic rules to generate or
comprehend all the grammatically correct and semantically meaningful sentences so that
such a syntactically acceptable sentence as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” would be
immediately identified as semantically unsound. Fish borrows this idea from Wardhaugh and
applies it to his theory of reader response.
    For him, the syntactic rules, as constraints on the production of grammatical sentences,
would restrict the range of responses and make them “predictable and normative”, whereas
the semantic rules, as constraints on the choice of meaning, would determine “the probability
of responses”. As a result, Fish believes “one could presume ... to describe a reading
experience in terms that would hold for all speakers who were in possession of both
competences” (Fish, 1982, p.46). That is, anyone equipped with these two competences
would be able to understand as well as produce all the possible responses. The fact that the
semantic rules have not yet been very successfully formulated does not bother Fish much
because he thinks they are apparently there all the time as a mechanism regulating and

organizing one‟s responses. Such a mechanism, in Wardhaugh‟s words, is something “that
an ideal speaker of the language might be said to exhibit in an ideal set of circumstances”.
    With these two competences, Fish builds up his model of the reader, which he calls the
“informed reader”, characterized by three notable competences: i) competence in the
language of the text; ii) semantic competence; and iii) literary competence. The combination
of these three competences, as Fish assures us, would unfailingly make any actual reader an
“informed” one, and enable him to realize the potential and probable responses a text might
elicit. The “informed reader”, therefore, is an abstraction of the idealized actual reader.
    However, Fish has one problem with the transformational-generative grammar upon
which his concept of the informed reader is built. In TG grammar, the surface structure,
though serving as indications of the deep structure where meaning resides, is believed to be
unreliable and misleading if interpretation is not based on a correct reconstruction of the
deep structure. Therefore, the TG grammarians tend to turn away from the surface structure
and concentrate instead on the deep meaning underlying it. Fish takes issue with this practice
and asserts that in the case of his informed reader, both structures are necessary for the
shaping of a response or reading experience. But what disturbs Iser is not so much the
relative status of the deep structure in the informed reader as his role in the actual processing
of the text‟s surface structures.
    Iser has observed in his critique of Fish‟s theory that the informed reader must “observe
his own reactions during the process of actualization, in order to control them” (Iser, 1987,
p.32). What Iser is saying here is that Fish‟s reader himself functions as a controlling
element in the reading process, as the responses are regulated and organized by the three
competences internalized in the informed reader and thus preexist the actual processing of
the text. This difference about the controlling element in reading is ultimately again an
epistemological question, which we have dealt with at some length in the previous chapter.
Here it is enough to point out that such a difference already anticipates the Iser-Fish debate
that took place a few years later, and that with the controlling power invested entirely in the
reader, the Iserian process of dyadic interaction between the reader and the text necessarily
becomes non-existent.
    We have discussed very briefly four concepts of the reader that have emerged since the
advent of reader-oriented criticism in the 70s and are still frequently mentioned in
contemporary critical debates. Though we can not say that Iser has based his concept of the
reader directly on these concepts (for his concept of the reader can be traced back to his essay
on indeterminacy published in 1970, in which he expounds the relationship between textual
structures and the reader‟s participation), it is clear that he must have taken cognizance of
both their strengths and weaknesses to formulate a proposition of his own.

 2.3. The Iserian Model of the Reader or the Implied Reader

   We begin our discussion of Iser‟s reading theory by first recalling some of the
“limitations” of the concepts of the reader discussed in the previous section, in order to see
how Iser tries to avoid, or rather, to overcome them in his model of the reader. The problem
with the “real reader”, as we have seen, is that the reconstruction of the horizon of

expectations depends heavily on the availability of historical data. The “ideal reader”, on the
other hand, is believed to presuppose the total consumption of the work and therefore
demolishes the very basis of its potential effects on the reader. As for Holland and Fish who
try to locate meaning in the reader‟s mind (the unconscious for Holland and the internalized
competences for Fish), the link seems loose between the literary experience they are talking
about and the process of communication that takes place to shape this very experience.
Against these “limitations” Iser‟s concept of the reader stands as a good contrast. He says:

       If, then, we are to try and understand the effects caused and the responses elicited by
       literary works, we must allow for the reader‟s presence without in any way
       predetermining his character or his historical situation. We may call him, for want of
       a better term, the implied reader. He embodies all those predispositions necessary for
       a literary work to exercise its effect -- predispositions laid down, not by an empirical
       outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept
       has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and is in no
       way to be identified with any real reader. (Iser, 1987, p.34)

    The passage quoted above is a concentrated expression of Iser‟s basic ideas concerning
the construction of his model and his reactions to the other models. It shows i) the implied
reader, as a theoretical construct, could avoid the practical difficulties faced by the concept
of the “real reader”, ii) though it does not stand for any actual reader, the concept itself
implies his presence and his operation in the process of literary communication, iii) the
implied reader carries within itself the “predispositions” that ensure the literary work both to
produce the desired effects on the reader and to elicit relevant responses from him, and iv)
what constitutes a major difference between Iser and Holland or Fish is that the
predispositions necessary for the production of effects and responses are determined not by
personal desires or competences, but by the very structure of the text itself.
    The connection Iser establishes between his reader and the text not only “complements”
the models proposed by Holland and Fish, but more importantly, it fits in well with his
concept of the text discussed in Chapter 1. We may recall that Iser strongly argues that the
text comes to life only when being read; that is, the meaningful existence of the literary work
in his two-pole model depends on the involvement of the reader. This involvement, according
to Iser, is made possible by the “predispositions” now seen as both embodied in the implied
reader and determined by the text. Therefore, the concept of the implied reader, viewed from
a philosophical perspective, is again phenomenological in nature. Here the reader and the
text are no longer seen as separate entities, but the two sides of a coin, united into an organic
whole by the concept of the implied reader. Consequently, literary communication, which
appears as a difficult problem for Holland‟s transactive reader and Fish‟s informed reader,
becomes a natural event in Iser‟s concept, manifested as the potential of reader-text
     Iser‟s concept of the implied reader may be better apprehended through an examination
of its structure. From the above brief account it is clear that this structure should be able to
account for both the “predispositions” prestructured by the text and the actualizations
performed by the reader. For the former, Iser proposes the concept of “the reader‟s role as

textual structure”, and for the latter, “the reader‟s role as structured acts”. Each author, in his
composition of a fictional work, selects useful materials to create a world of his own
inventions, which in one way or another represents the author‟s view of the real world. But
few authors would present their views too explicitly or directly if they want their works to
achieve any effect on the reader. Generally, the author‟s view is expressed through the
various perspectives in the text, which perform two functions, namely, to “outline the
author‟s view and also provide access to what the reader is meant to visualize” (Iser, 1987,
p.35). The author‟s view in a novel, for instance, may be expressed through four
perspectives: those of the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader. These
perspectives represent on the one hand the meaning potential of the novel, and provide
guidelines on the other for the reader‟s actualization of this meaning potential. Each
perspective is closely connected with the other perspectives, and offers particular views of the
intended object. Thus, the views represented by the four perspectives are different from yet
related to each other, and are engaged in a constant interaction and permutation to form a
complex structure of interwoven viewpoints. This interaction of views results in their final
convergence on a meeting place which might be called the center of the structure. And this
center, embedded in the text, is accessible from an external vantage point from which it is
possible for the reader to observe the operations of the structure and to bring out, with the
guidance of the different viewpoints, a focal point which constitutes the meaning of the work.
   Thus the textual structure of the implied reader, as we have seen, is composed of or
prestructured by three basic components: the textual perspectives, their convergent place, and
the vantage point of the reader. The last two components, i.e., the convergent place of the
textual perspectives and the vantage point of the reader, however, only remain potential in
the textual structure and have to be actualized by the reader. This actualization is made
possible by the other component of the implied reader, i.e., the structured acts. The
perspectives and viewpoints prescribed by the text provide instructions for the reader to build
up mental images. The continuous replacement of these images results in shifts of the
reader‟s vantage point, reflecting his changing attitudes in the process of reading. Finally, the
textual viewpoints and the reader‟s vantage point meet at the convergent place, where the
meaning potential of the work is actualized by the reader‟s structured acts. The inclusion of
the structured acts into the concept of the implied reader is important, for, as we can see, it is
these acts that initiate the reader-text interaction and turn, as it were, the static presence of
the textual structure of the implied reader into a dynamic process of interaction.
    We may again take A Dream of Red Mansions for an illustration of the concept of the
implied reader. At the beginning of Chapter One, the viewpoints from the narrator‟s
perspective tell that the whole story is but the dreams and illusions of the author, therefore
the reader‟s vantage point decides that the story is purely fictional. But this is immediately
followed by the statement (another textual viewpoint) that the story is a record of the girls
the author has known well, and that the dreams and illusions actually represent the real
intention of the novel. So the reader changes his vantage point and believes that the story is
real. Then the origin of the story (another textual viewpoint) from the perspective of the
Reverend Void (空空道人) once again puts the reader in an uncertain position as to the
credulity of the story, but this uncertainty is soon cleared up, this time from the stone‟s
perspective, when the reader is told that the story is based on true facts without any
modification (“俱是按迹寻踪,不敢稍加穿凿,至失其真”). But this is not all, the reader‟s
vantage point may undergo another shift to the contrary when he comes to the Illusory Land

of Great Void (太虚幻境) revealed through the perspective of the plot, especially when he
reads the couplet

        When false is taken for true, true becomes false;
          If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.
                                (Tsao, 1978, Vol. I, p.9)

After these shifts of vantage point, most readers would finally agree, as indicated by the
author‟s viewpoints, that the pages of the novel are not full of fantastic talks (“满纸荒唐
言”), nor would they call the author mad (“都云作者痴”), but that they should read the
story carefully and try to understand the author‟s message (“解其中味”) (cf., ibid., p.6).
This is what we might call the final convergent place of the textual viewpoints and the
reader‟s vantage points, or the meaning reached by the reader about the credulity of the
story, after his interaction with the text under the guidance of the textual perspectives.
   From the above description of the implied reader, we may make several general
observations about the concept:
     1) Iser‟s theoretical construct of the implied reader is not an actual reader, nor is it an
abstraction of it. For any concept of the reader which centers chiefly on the reader to the
neglect of other elements in the process of reading is unlikely to give an account of literary
      2) The implied reader is thus best understood as a phenomenological construct of the
actual reader with two roles both as textual structure and as structured acts. These two roles
are interrelated and interdependent in that the textual structure provides framework of
perspectives for the structured acts to work within, while the latter implements the former to
determine a vantage point and to arrive at the convergent place. Yet, the two roles are also in
a sense separate, because only a separation allows of the possibility of a relationship between
them and makes possible their mutual interaction and final combination in the concept of the
implied reader. Just as the idea of the literary work is the result of the interaction between the
text and the reader, the two are “separate” though by no means “autonomous” objects.
    Iser seems to be aware of the separation when he talks about the two poles of the reader
as two distinct concepts. But in his exposition of the implied reader, he sometimes seems to
have laid too much emphasis on the one while more or less neglecting the other. For
example, he says the concept of the implied reader is “an expression of the role offered by the
text”, and “designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to
grasp the text” (Iser, 1987, pp.36, 34), and therefore “the implied reader‟s role must be the
focal point for the response-inviting structures” of the text (Iser, 1990, p.2). Here Iser is
obviously identifying the implied reader more with the textual structure, or the response-
inviting structure of the text than with the structured acts. We may recall that Iser‟s idea of
the text is unique for its appeal structure, i.e., the possession in the structure of
indeterminacies on the level of textual composition resulting from the textual repertoire and
the textual strategies. The textual structure of the implied reader, as we now see, is simply
another level on which indeterminacies result from the interaction between the textual
perspectives. But the implied reader is more than the response-inviting structure of the text

because its other role assigned by Iser, namely, the structured acts, is equally indispensable.
In the response-inviting structure of the text, the link between the text and the reader is
potential. In this sense, the reader‟s vantage point and the convergent place of the textual
perspectives in the textual structure of the implied reader are hypothetical. This is because
the reader, though anticipated and invited, is not actually present in either structure.
However, with the operations of the structured acts, what is potential and hypothetical is
gradually actualized. The possibilities embodied in the response-inviting structures in the
author‟s artistic creation and in the textual structure of the implied reader are realized by the
structured acts of the reader in his continuous interaction with the text. If we say that the
textual structure of the implied reader corresponds to the response-inviting structure of the
text, we may likewise see the structured acts of the implied reader as a response-projection
mechanism in the reader himself. In other words, faced with the appeal structure of the text,
the reader feels compelled to engage himself in an interaction with the text to actualize the
meaning potential. Therefore the concept of the implied reader is characterized by the fact
that it incorporates within itself not only the structure of the text and the presence of the
reader, but also the inevitable interaction between them. These are the three essential
elements of a situation in which a literary communication takes place. This unique character
of the implied reader not only overcomes the bias in favor of the reader as manifested in the
other concepts of the reader, but also proves that no theory of the reader is complete without
being able to account for the interrelationship between the text, the reader and their mutual

 2.4. Other Heuristic Models of the Reader

    We have discussed (in Section 2.2.) one particular heuristic model of the reader, namely,
Stanley Fish‟s notion of the informed reader, as an example of the fourth category of the
reader in Iser‟s classification. In this section, we shall review briefly some other such models
in the context of our discussion of Iser‟s implied reader to appreciate further the uniqueness
of this concept of Iser‟s.

     1) H.R. Jauss: The Historical Reader
      Jauss‟ concept of the “historical reader” appears in his 1980 essay “The Poetic Text
Within the Change of Horizons of Reading: The Example of Baudelaire‟s „Spleen II‟”. In
this essay, following Gadamer‟s triadic unity of the hermeneutic process (i.e., the
hermeneutic process as a unity of three moments: understanding, interpretation, and
application), Jauss divides reading, accordingly, into three consecutive levels of horizons:
aesthetically perceptual reading, retrospectively interpretive reading, and historical reading
(Jauss, 1989, p.139ff). We may recall that what concerns Jauss most in his early writings is
the historical reception and interpretation of the literary work. Here, however, it is interesting
to notice a shift of emphasis from the explication of the significance of the form (i.e., the
second level of reading, or interpretation) and the reconstruction of the horizon of
expectations (i.e., the third level of reading, or reception) to the investigation of the aesthetic
quality of the poetic work. This shift of attention arises from Jauss‟ complaint that
contemporary literary scholarship tends to reduce the three-step hermeneutic process to

textual analysis alone (the study of textual devices or form, for instance), and has, therefore,
greatly diminished the role of understanding (the aesthetic perception of a work) and the role
of application (the study of its reception) which is often thought of as “unscholarly” like the
book reviewers‟ criticism.
   This shift of priorities in Jauss from interpretation to “understanding” is itself an area for
exploration for no other reason than the fact that Jauss has devised a particular reader for this
level of aesthetic reading, labeled by Jauss himself as “the historical reader”:

        The role of this historical reader should presuppose that one is experienced in one‟s
        associations with lyrics, but that one can initially suspend one‟s literary historical or
        linguistic competence, and put in its place the capacity occasionally to wonder during
        the course of the reading, and to express this wonder in the form of questions. (Jauss,
        1989, p.144)

This definition, though brief, allows us to have a glimpse of the historical reader. First, this
historical reader is one who deals with the effect of a literary work and the reader‟s response
to it, and helps to reveal the nature of literary reading as an eventful and process-like
experience in more or less the same way as Iser‟s implied reader shows. But the historical
reader only wonders during the course of reading. Though this is a clear indication of the
reader playing a role and responding to the effects of the text, it does not, in fact, say much
about the intricate relationship between the reader and the text. Secondly, contrary to the
ideal reader who is free to use his perfect historical knowledge and literary competence, the
historical reader suspends both of these in order to have “the capacity occasionally to
wonder”. This is understandable, for a reader with perfect knowledge and competence would
only provide answers, rather than pose questions to bring about an aesthetic experience. The
question here is of course whether historical knowledge and literary competence are
hindrances to aesthetic experience. Iser‟s account of the reading process tells that they are
not. The aesthetic experience in the process of reading (i.e., the continuous interaction
between the reader and the text, or, in Jauss‟ favorite terminology, the “question-and-
answer” process) is in fact preconditioned by the fact that the reader possesses both
knowledge (historical norms) and competence (literary conventions). It is doubtful if the
reader‟s wonder or responses, unsupported by his literary competence and historical
knowledge, could really be called “aesthetic” experience. This is not to imply, however, that
for Jauss knowledge and competence are superfluous. They are in fact essentials to be
possessed, not by the historical reader, but by the “commentator”, the ideal interpreter
invented by Jauss, “who deepens the aesthetic impressions of the reader whose understanding
takes the form of pleasure, and who refers back to the text‟s structure of effect as much as
possible” (ibid., p.144). This means knowledge and competence are required only in the
interpretive reading (the second level of the three). And here arises another question about
the concept of the historical reader, namely, are the three "horizons" of reading necessarily so
exclusive to and incompatible with each other as Jauss believes them to be? Jauss does warn
us that his division of reading into three consecutive steps is only a phenomenological
account (ibid., p.140), i.e., the three readings are hypothesized only to show the proper way
of reading “a text of aesthetic character”. But his categorical separation of aesthetic
perception from literary interpretation, of the form of the poem experienced as a whole from

its fulfilled significance, easily produces the impression that it falsifies the fact that they
constitute an inseparable entity and the very aesthetic experience of literary reading.

        2) J. Culler: The Ideal Reader
    Knowledge and competence, which are suspended in Jauss‟ historical reader, are
however crucial to the “ideal reader”, a heuristic model invented by Culler in his theory of
reading. This ideal reader is someone who has possessed, or rather internalized, the literary
conventions, and whose reading and interpretation of literary works are therefore generally
acceptable. This concept derives from Culler‟s general concern over the problem of reading,
and is symptomatic of his unique structuralist stance.
    The difference between Culler‟s notion of structuralism and the more authentic types can
be perceived from their use of the word “poetics”. For Roman Jakobson, the arch-
structuralist, poetics is mainly concerned with “what makes a verbal message a work of art”
(Jakobson in Sebeok, 1978, p.350), hence his endeavor to differentiate poetic language from
non-poetic language in terms of linguistic principles derived mainly from Saussure. Tzvetan
Todorov, a leading French structuralist critic, is also of the opinion that poetics deals with
the special property “that constitutes the singularity of the literary phenomenon:
literariness” (Todorov in Newton, 1988, p.134). But this literariness is no longer to be seen
as constituted by the special features of poetic language, but by the abstract and general
structure of literary discourse, of which individual texts are various actualizations. Culler
takes over the French structuralists‟ idea of poetics and makes it the basis for the
construction of a general structure of literature, but this structure is composed not so much of
the sociological or psychological laws that inform the construction of literature as of the
literary conventions which regulate and guide the reader‟s experience of the text. With this
new concept of literary structure, the discussion is no longer confined to the work itself as
“an absolute being”8, but extended to the investigation of the reader and reading.
    Culler starts his discussion of the ideal reader with an analogy to linguistic competence: a
speaker always brings to the act of communication an implicit knowledge of the language, or
its internalized grammar, which forms the underlying structure of all the sentences he speaks.
Likewise, a reader of literary works must also possess some knowledge of literature. “To
read a text as literature”, he asserts, “one must bring to it an implicit understanding of the
operations of literary discourse which tells one what to look for” (Culler, 1975, pp.113-
114). This internalized grammar of literature, or “literary competence”, is according to
Culler literary conventions, the mastery of which would enable the reader to perform literary
readings acceptable to other readers as well, for such conventions constitute the very
institution of literature itself. Therefore, the task of a structuralist poetics is to “make explicit
the underlying system which makes literary effects possible” (ibid., p.118), and the concept
of the ideal reader represents obviously one of Culler‟s efforts to reveal this system.
    Iser would have no doubt welcomed Culler‟s account of the literary conventions, which
deals, however insufficiently, with literary effects and the activity of reading. But he would
surely have reservations about the concept of the ideal reader for reasons we have discussed

 See, for instance, G. Genette‟s structuralist idea about literary criticism (Genette in Newton, 1988, pp.136-

above9. Besides, Iser would also have objected to the concept due to its rather limited
bearing on the nature of literary communication and the reader‟s activity of reading. Culler
does talk about literary effects, but only relates it to the reader‟s knowledge of literature. The
reader‟s performance in the act of reading is to him unreliable because it “may not be a
direct reflection of competence” (Culler, 1975, p.123). This is quite understandable, for
what interests Culler most is the underlying system, or the deep structure, (literary
conventions, meaning-generating system, or knowledge) and not the effects of the work on
the reader and his reading performance, because they are useful only in revealing the
“literary grammar”, and are to be cast away as, in Fish‟s term, “a husk, or covering, or veil”
when they have done their work.

     3) M. Riffaterre: The Superreader
     In spite of the obvious differences in their respective models of the reader, Riffaterre and
Culler seem to have one thing in common: they all start with the intention to draw attention
to the reader, but end up in the contrary. In Riffaterre‟s case, this is clearly shown in his
critique of the structuralist analysis of “Les chats”, a sonnet by Baudelaire, made by L vi-
Strauss and Jakobson. To these two structuralists, the purely linguistic features of the poem
are the focus of analytic attention. Jakobson, following his famous dictum that “the poetic
function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of
combination” (Jakobson in Sebeok, 1978, p.358), proposes to have these two basic ordering
principles of speech for the study of poetry. It is true that people, in speaking and writing,
always make selections from words and expressions for the ideas they want to express, and
that they combine the words and expressions they have selected according to certain
combination rules to express their ideas. But the problem, as Riffaterre sees it, is that
Jakobson has made this selection-combination process a general formula to be applied to the
analysis of literary works as well. This means Jakobson has turned the purely linguistic
features of utterances into the poetic structure itself. But the mere description of linguistic
features is no substitute for interpretation and aesthetic appreciation. Pointing out that “no
grammatical analysis of a poem can give us more than the grammar of the poem” (Riffaterre
in Tompkins, 1984, p.36), Riffaterre proposes that we turn from the study of the language of
the text to the study of its effect upon the reader.
    The study is conducted by Riffaterre through the concept of the superreader as opposed
to Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss‟ “superpoem”. The superreader, in the case of Baudelaire‟s
sonnet, is composed of its author, the critics, the translators of the poem, and even the
footnotes made by the critics. In a word, it is a synthesis of a whole group of “informants” of
the sonnet, who have responded to its poetic effects. This is not to imply, however, that there
are as many superreaders as respondents. The former, as a theoretical construct, has no real
existence. But as an element of literary communication, it has a particular function in the
analysis of the text to the extent that it marks out clearly the effect the text makes on its

 For a discussion of the problems of the ideal reader, see above pp.28-29; for its possible implication in
Culler‟s model of the reader, see below p.43.

        Each point of the text that holds up the superreader is tentatively considered a
        component of the poetic structure. Experience indicates that such units are always
        pointed out by a number of informants who usually give divergent rationalizations.
        (Riffaterre in Tompkins, 1984, p.38).

In other words, the superreader, (i.e., “a number of informants”), is something used to
identify, through the responses of the various informants, the poetic features of the text, or to
prove the existence of a “stylistic fact”. In this way, Riffaterre‟s original point of departure
from the linguistic features (contained in the text) to the poetic features (specified by the
superreader) turns out to be a means to an end. What really concerns him is not so much the
respondents and their responses as the object of response. In other words, the superreader is
created, only to uncover those stylistically striking features in the text. Hence Tompkins‟
observation that “Riffaterre‟s goal in calling the reader into play is the specification of
poetically significant linguistic features” (Tompkins, 1984, pp.xiii-xiv).
    Iser would surely have appreciated Riffaterre‟s effort to bring the reader to critical
attention, and his exposition of the reading process as a temporal movement involving
interactions between the text and the reader, as well as the connection he has established
between the linguistic features and the reader. But Iser would be reluctant to accept the idea
that the reader exists only as a “locating device” to identify the poetic features of the text.
Besides, Riffaterre‟s concept of the superreader does not come quite as close as his critical
practice sometimes does to the actual nature of literary communication and the role of the
reader in that communication.

     4) G. Prince: The Zero-Degree Narratee, and C. Brooke-Rose: The Encoded Reader
   The same problem, to Iser, occurs in the concept of “the zero-degree narratee” proposed
by Prince and that of “the encoded reader” by Brooke-Rose.
     Prince‟s reader is characterized by the following traits: he possesses a measure of
linguistic competence but is unacquainted with literary competence, he has certain faculties
of reasoning, some basic knowledge of the rules of the narrative, but has no personal and
social identity and is completely ignorant of the events described in the story and the
conventions of the society. He is, we are told, someone competent enough to understand the
language and, consequently, the plot of the story, but is dependent on the narrator to such a
degree that the latter should provide all the explanations and information to enable him to
interpret the story. The purpose of setting up this zero-degree narratee is that Prince believes
that he could use it as a reference point to establish a typology of narratees based on the
degree of deviation of the various narratees from the norm, which is the zero degree narratee.
And this, according to Prince, would finally lead to a typology of the narrative “in which
fictions are classified ... according to the types of narratees to whom the story is addressed”
(Tompkins, 1984, p.xii). This effort at a classification of the narrative is itself not without
value, but the concept of the zero-degree narratee, used only for the construction of a
typology of the text, does not deal with the activities of the reader, and therefore, like
Riffaterre‟s superreader, has little bearing on literary communication as such between the
narrator and the actual narratee.

    The encoded reader, or the “reader encoded in the text”, proposed by Brooke-Rose refers
to the type of reader suggested by the code of the text, and is used to show the relationship
between the textual code and the reader. If the code is overdetermined (i.e., the information
conveyed by the code renders things too clear), the reader is said to be “overencoded”, and
we get a “subcritical” reader who is told everything. If the code is underdetermined (i.e., the
information makes things obscure), the encoded reader becomes “hypercritical”, and is
required to “cooperate actively” in order to work out the meaning of the code. Finally, if the
code is nondetermined or improperly determined (i.e., the information makes things clear or
obscure without sufficient reasons to do so), the encoded reader turns out to be
“hypnocritical”, and disappears.
    The concept of the encoded reader is useful in many ways: it reveals the encoded or
underlying structure of the text, the functioning of the various narrative elements, the
relationship between different levels of the narrative and, occasionally, it even touches upon
the effect of the text on the reader10. But, like the superreader and the zero-degree narratee,
the concept of the encoded reader is more of a textual phenomenon than one of reading, and
therefore it could hardly account for the process of literary communication.

     5) W. Gibson: The Mock Reader
    Unlike Riffaterre‟s, Prince‟s or Brooke-Rose‟s readers, Gibson‟s reader is not a textual
phenomenon. Gibson starts his discussion with a denunciation of the real author whom he
thinks of as “distracting and mysterious”, hence irrelevant, and appeals for a focusing of
critical attention on the “fictitious speaker” within the text. This idea about the real author
being unimportant and dispensable does not strike us as anything particularly new, for the
denunciation of the real author echoes the familiar formalist argument of the “intentional
fallacy”11, and the fictitious author also reminds us of what appears in traditional literary
discussions as the author‟s presence and intervention in the text12. But Gibson‟s discussion of
the author differs from that of the new critics in that it leads to a consideration of the reader.
Since there exists in the text an addresser whose voice can be heard throughout the process of
reading, there must be an addressee who participates in the dialogue with the addresser. This
addressee, however, is not the actual reader whose “complex and ultimately inexpressible”
personality makes it impossible for such a dialogue to happen, but a fictitious reader or the
“mock reader” created by the language, who “assumes that set of attitudes and qualities
which the language asks him to assume” (Gibson in Tompkins, 1984, pp.1-2). That is to
say, the mock reader, as a theoretical construct, is one who listens to and agrees with the
fictitious author, or it is the role played by the actual reader if he really wants to enjoy the
story he is reading.

   See, for instance, Brooke-Rose‟s account of the concept in “The Readerhood of Man” (Brooke-Rose in
Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, pp.120-148).
   Cf., the discussion on “Literature and Biography” by Wellek and Warren (Wellek & Warren, 1986,
   See, for instance, Wellek and Warren‟s discussion on the author‟s manipulation of the text in terms of the
modes of narration (Wellek & Warren, 1986, pp.222-224). Tompkins observes that the function of this
author in the formalist context is “to create distance between l literary text and its origin in history by
inserting between the author and his product another „author‟ whose existence was entirely a function of the
text” (Tompkins, 1984, p.xi).

    The importance of the concept and its relevance to the present discussion may be seen
from the following two points: i) Advanced as early as 1950, it represents one of the first
efforts to shift critical attention from the text to the reader with an emphasis on the reader‟s
experience of the language and on the dialogue between the reader and the text (in this case,
the fictitious author). It is also an attempt to set up a heuristic model of the reader for the
formulation of a theory of reading. All this can be easily related to the present-day
discussions of literary experience and the reader‟s involvement in reading. Therefore,
Tompkins is right when she asserts that Gibson‟s essay 揳nticipates the direction that reader-
response criticism will subsequently take” (Tompkins, 1984, p.xi). ii) What makes the
concept of the mock reader even more interesting and important is the probability that the
model may have directly influenced the formation of a similar model of the reader proposed
eleven years later by a better-known literary critic whose idea of the reader now becomes
inseparable from that of Iser‟s. And this is what we shall look at in the next part of the
present discussion.

    6) W.C. Booth: The Reader Created by the Author, or the Implied Reader
   Gibson‟s distinction between the real author and the fictitious speaker is further
elaborated by Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. The real author, Booth argues, creates in
the text “an implied version” of himself, or the “implied author”, whose presence can be felt
through the values and beliefs maintained in the work, and whose image the reader must
construct as he is bound to respond to the various commitments of the implied author.
    According to Booth, the real author, in creating his alter ego, also creates a counterpart
of the real reader. He says, “The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another
image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most
successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete
agreement” (Booth, 1987, p.138). That is to say, the peculiarity of this reader created by the
author is that his values and beliefs must coincide with those of the author‟s. For the actual
reader, this implies that he should agree to play the role of this created reader in order to
enjoy the literary work he is reading to the full.
    Iser would have no contention with Booth about the difference between the actual reader
and the special reader created in the act of reading, or about the difference between the real
author and the implied author. But some of the implications of Booth‟s argument must seem
untenable to him. He would challenge, for instance, the idea that the reader should suspend
his beliefs in order to be able to appreciate the work fully, for the sacrifice of the real
reader‟s own beliefs, in Iser‟s opinion, would mean
“the loss of the whole repertoire of historical norms and values” (Iser, 1987, p.37). But Iser
need not worry so much, for what Booth is describing here is a kind of ideal reading
plausible only in theory and not in practice. Elsewhere, Booth admits that this created reader
can not be separated completely from the actual reader, and he even questions the existence
of an ideal reader without specific beliefs (Booth, 1987, pp.138-140). One interesting thing
worth noting is that Iser seems to have derived the term, “the implied reader”, from Booth‟s
concept of the implied author. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961, Booth
does not state explicitly that the created reader, the counterpart of the implied author, is to be
called “the implied reader”, but he makes up for this twenty-one years later in the second

edition of the book, in which he gives a more explicit account of this created reader, who is
now described as one the text asks the actual reader to become, or one postulated or implied
by the implied author (Booth, 1987, pp.420-422). In postulating his concept of the implied
reader, Iser has unwittingly related it to Booth‟s idea of the two selves (the self as the created
reader and the self as the actual reader in everyday life) without realizing that such a relation
would confuse some later critics.13
   We have discussed, so far, the various models of the reader in the context of reader-
oriented criticism: their main characteristics, their strengths and weaknesses in comparison
with the Iserian concept of the implied reader. In the next part we shall attempt an
assessment and criticism of the Iserian concept of the implied reader in the light of the
various commentaries made upon it.

     2.5. An Assessment and Criticism of the Iserian Concept of the Implied Reader

    Our discussion of the various models of the reader makes explicit one characteristic
feature in reader-oriented criticism in general, and that is, with the proliferation of different
theories of reading, there emerges a great variety of concepts of the reader. The situation is
aptly described by Holub when he says “recent [reader-oriented] theory has occupied itself
with ... minute distinctions, producing a seemingly endless stream of increasingly 憆efined‟
reader concepts” (Holub, 1984, p.153). One question we may ask ourselves now is whether
these reader concepts really “differ from each other only in nuances” (ibid.), as Holub seems
to believe. The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because most of these concepts are heuristic
in nature and work with similar elements of reading. No, because their differences are more
striking than their seeming similarities since each concept deals with a particular problem of
reading. In the following assessment of the Iserian reader in comparison with the other
concepts of the reader we have discussed above, the purpose is not to make value judgments
among them, but to highlight the specificity of the Iserian model and its special contribution
to the theory of reading.
    1) It is obvious that Iser‟s reader is neither a real reader nor an ideal reader. The problem
of reading, as we have seen, has always baffled literary critics and caught them in a
dilemma. On the one hand, any discussion about reading is bound to be meaningless if it is
not grounded on the activity of the real reader; on the other hand, however, actual readers are
so many and so varied that their responses are practically impossible to define. The way out
for this dilemma, as many reader-oriented critics see it, is to posit a reader of a special kind,
a reader whose individuality is specifically defined within the framework of a specific theory
of reading, rather than deal with the reader in general. Even those who claim to be talking
about the “common” reader have to modify their object in one way or another to make it
more specific and identifiable. L.M. Rosenblatt‟s reader, for instance, may be more properly
called “the transactive reader”, rather than the “common or ordinary or general reader” as
she chooses to call it (Rosenblatt, 1978, p.138). But there is a potential danger in qualifying
the reader, because in order to differentiate one reader from other readers, the critics tend to
endow it with idealistic qualities such as the possession of certain perfect competence to

     For a discussion of this function, see the next section.

serve their own theories of reading. Therefore, many readers of this kind, such as Culler‟s
ideal reader, Fish‟s informed reader, and Riffaterre‟s superreader, come close to idealistic
readers, and the names themselves are suggestive of such a danger. Let us take Culler‟s
reader as an example.
    Culler‟s reader, we may recall, is one who has internalized “the literary knowledge”, or
the conventions of literature, and is therefore a competent reader, representing the “central
notion of acceptability” (Culler, 1975, p.124). Culler is obviously aware of the inherent
danger within the concept, and has more than once warned that the concept of the ideal
reader does not imply the existence of a “trans-historical” reader, that the concept of literary
competence does not suggest that there are competent or incompetent readers, and that the
ideal reader does not imply the possibility of an ideal reading (ibid., pp.120-127). But since
he insists that the ideal reader is someone who has possessed all the possible literary
conventions or “skills of interpretation”, and since actual readers are asked to justify their
own readings by the conventions internalized in the ideal reader, it is by no means easy for
Culler to avoid the danger of being idealistic and reductive. The very effort he has made to
avoid such a danger shows that the concept is liable to give rise to confusion.
    Iser‟s model, however, differs from other heuristic models in that, as a theoretical
construct, it both embodies the presence of the real reader and successfully avoids the
problems of the ideal reader. The presence of the real reader can be felt in the structured acts
of the implied reader, although these activities are expressed in the form of a heuristic model.
Furthermore, the structured acts do not necessitate a competent reader, since the model itself
is not confined solely to the reader or reading like Culler‟s or Fish‟s models, but one showing
the potentiality of reader-text interaction, or the potential structure that makes literary
communication possible. Literary and linguistic knowledge is indeed a prerequisite for a
literary reading. But if such knowledge is turned into “competences” and is made
indispensable to a model of the reader, it would then entail the possibility of ending up with
the kind of ideal reader discussed above. Iser‟s model is unique in that it shifts the attention
from a definition of the reader to the explication of its nature in light of literary
communication. In this way, he has not only avoided the awkward problem of competence,
but also ensured a much wider applicability for his model, because his is a structure that
accounts for the activities of all readers.
     2) If, as we have said, Iser‟s reader is neither a real reader nor an ideal reader, is it then a
heuristic model, like the other heuristic models of the reader we have mentioned earlier? The
answer, most probably, is in the affirmative, if we take a heuristic model to mean a
hypothetical construct offered for a specific purpose in the discussion.14 But there is one
difference between the Iserian model and the other heuristic models, a difference we have
already touched upon in the above discussion but will further elaborate because of its
importance to our understanding of the nature of Iser‟s model.
   Despite the fact that some of the heuristic models bear the same name15 and some of their
descriptions tend to overlap, no two models are essentially the same because the theories
underlying them are different. But when we compare Iser‟s model with the other heuristic
models we have discussed, we may find a striking similarity among the latter ones, namely,
  Cf., Iser‟s own idea of the heuristic model of the reader (Iser, 1987, p.30).
  For instance, both Iser and Booth employ the term “the implied reader”, and Holland and Rosenblatt may
call their readers “the transactive reader”.

all the other models are models of the reader whereas Iser‟s, in the strict sense, is not. In
other words, all the other models, despite their differences, have at least one thing in
common, i.e., they are all drawn in one way or another from specific groups of real, existing
readers, ranging from actual readers (such as the informed reader and the ideal reader) to the
less obvious ones (e.g., readers embodied in the text, such as the encoded reader and the
zero-degree narratee). Iser‟s model, however, being one of literary communication, is not an
abstraction of the actual reader like the other heuristic models, but a model comprising the
response-inviting structure of the text, the response-projection mechanism of the reader, and
their potential combination. The advantages of such a model are: i) By approaching the
question of the reader from the perspective of its communicative structure, it foregrounds an
aspect of reading that has hitherto been either neglected or inadequately dealt with in the
other models. ii) The model enables us to perceive reading in terms of the relationship
among all of its basic elements. iii) Iser‟s implied reader is a heuristic concept, or a
theoretical construct, but it also embodies a certain historical dimension (as can be seen in
the social norms and conventions in the textual structure of the repertoire, and the personal
dispositions of the actual reader serving as background in his structured acts of reading), and
therefore allows of historical actualizations.
     3) But this historical actualization of the concept of the implied reader has aroused
skepticism and criticism from some theorists when they come to examine the reader as
reflected in Iser‟s actualization of the concept, i.e., in his critical practice. T. Eagleton, for
instance, believes that “Iser is aware of the social dimension of reading, but chooses to
concentrate largely on its „aesthetic‟ aspects”, therefore his reader does not have a foothold
in history (Eagleton, 1985, p.83). S.R. Suleiman has made a similar observation when she
says that Iser‟s reader “is not a specific, historically situated individual but a transhistorical
mind whose activities are ... everywhere the same”. She gives credit to Iser‟s effort at
introducing a historical dimension to the description of the reading process by the use of the
repertoire, but complains that his readers are still “implied”, not actual (Suleiman in
Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, pp.25-26).
    We must admit that such criticism is, to a large extent, fair. Both critics have noticed
Iser‟s attempt at a historicization of his reader, and have rightly pointed out his failure. This
failure, in fact can be attributed to the concept of the implied reader itself. For although Iser
includes the repertoire and the reader‟s disposition in the concept, these two properties, being
phenomenological in nature, are not enough to make the reader in the concept a historically
implicated one. Equipped with these two properties, the reader is, at best, what Holub calls
“the ideal of an educated European” (Holub, 1984, p.97), rather than a “socially and
historically positioned” one (Eagleton, 1985, p.83). In this sense, the Marxist attacks on Iser
launched by the former East German critics are probably right when they point out that we
can see in Iser‟s reader “no ideology of the ruling class and no social mode of reception
determined by it”16.
    The next question we may ask ourselves is: what is the cause of this predicament of the
implied reader being largely ahistorically implicated? An apparent answer would be that this
is a problem of the heuristic model of the implied reader itself. But if we go one step further,

  The observation is made by Karlheinz Barck in “Gesellschaft-Literatur-Lesen: Literaturrezeption aus
theoretischer Sicht” (“Society, Literature, Reading: Reception of Literature from Theoretical Perspective”),
quoted by Holub (Holub, 1984, p.128).

we would find that what seems problematic is not so much the heuristic model as the
phenomenological thinking behind it. As a way of investigating the act of consciousness,
phenomenology endeavors to reveal the essence which predetermines the underlying
structure, hence the character, of the object experienced17. At the same time, all the existing
knowledge about the object, whether external knowledge or subjective reactions, should be
“bracketed”. “The consciousness thus investigated is said to be present to itself outside the
context of „real‟ time” (Maclean, 1986, p.125). It is clear here that in phenomenology the
experienced object is isolated from its social and historical surroundings. A
phenomenological approach to language and literature also bears the same ahistorical mark.
After “bracketing” the social and historical knowledge of a given literary work, “[a]
phenomenological approach to literature concentrates ... on the convergence between text
and reader; more exactly, it seeks to describe and account for the mental processes that occur
as a reader advances through a text and derives from it -- or imposes on it -- a pattern”
(Suleiman in Suleiman & Crosman, 1980, p.22).
    Therefore, in Iser‟s phenomenological account of reading, the reader is indispensable on
the one hand, because it is the cogito, the intending subject of intentionality, whereas on the
other hand, when it is seen as the cogitatum, the object of intentionality, it no longer exists as
a real, historical reader. Historicity being incompatible with the basic assumptions of
phenomenology, Iser has to “allow for the reader‟s presence without in any way
predetermining his character or his historical situation” (Iser, 1987, p.34)18.
  4) In the above discussion, we have seen some fair-minded criticism of Iser‟s concept of the
implied reader. It must be pointed out, however, that there are also misunderstandings and
misinterpretations, of which the following two are most typical:
       i) The Implied Reader as Abstraction of the Real Reader
    Ian Maclean, in an account of the implied reader, describes it as a real reader, who
represents the textual perspectives, wanders within them, does consistency building and,
guided by the text, brings out an interpretation (Maclean, 1986, pp.130-131). It is good of
Maclean to have noticed these aspects of the implied reader, but what he seems to have failed
to see is that the implied reader does not do, but is all these things.
    S. Mailloux seems to have a similar confusion about the concept when he says, in one
case, that Iser analyzes “the text‟s „implied reader‟” who “function[s] ... in a way similar to
Fish‟s ... „informed reader‟” (Mailloux, 1982, pp.47-48).
       ii) The Implied Reader as the Intended Reader
   P.J. Rabinowitz defines the intended reader as “the reader who engages in those activities
that seem to be called for by the strategies a particular text has adopted”, and includes within
this category not only Iser‟s model, but also other models of the reader (Rabinowitz, 1989,
p.84). In a similar manner, T.F. Berg identifies the concept of the implied reader as the

   “[Everything] should have essential being and therewith an Eidos to be apprehended in all its purity;
and this Eidos comes under essential truths of varying degrees of universality” (Husserl, 1974, p.53).
   Iser tries to keep in his phenomenological reader both its virtual presence in terms of “textual repertoire”
or “structured acts” and brackets its historical presence. This treatment of the historicity of the reader in a
way resembles the textualization of history and the idea of “praxis” (i.e., theoretical but not social practice)
favored by the post-structuralists (cf. Zhu, Gang, 1995, pp.173-175).

reader intended by the text, hence his observation that in Iser‟s theory the contemporary
readers are the implied readers, that later generations can become such ones (note the
bizarreness of the plural form of the concept), and his final conclusion that Iser believes that
“to become the implied reader is the object of all readings, contemporary or subsequent”
(Berg, 1987, p.260). T. Eagleton is similarly mistaken when he equates the concept with the
reader implied by the text and says that “every literary text is built out of a sense of its
potential audience, includes an image of whom it is written for: every work encodes within
itself what Iser calls an „implied reader‟, intimates in its every gesture the kind of „addressee‟
it anticipates” (Eagleton, 1985, p.84)
    Such confusions about the Iserian concept of the implied reader merit our attention, not
only because they represent a misunderstanding of the concept, but also because they become
the grounds of false criticisms of this concept. Furthermore, the situation is complicated by
the misuse and abuse of the term, which, though still closely associated with Iser, is being
employed by a variety of scholars and is thus invested with a variety of implications. For
instance, in a book intended for college students on how to read literary works, the concept is
used to refer to the readers directly or indirectly addressed by the narrator (Hackman &
Marshall, 1990, p.136). Berel Lang, in a discussion of the relationship between philosophy
and literature, also invokes the concept as a counterpart of the implied author, namely, “the
reader that is addressed” (Lang, 1990, p.37). Even W. Booth, who had used the term “the
implied reader” years earlier than Iser, admits to Iser that he is not quite sure what the
Iserian implied reader really means and would take it to be a “credulous reader in the text” 19
(Iser, 1989, pp.56-61). This transmutation through corrupt use reminds us of the fate with
Jauss‟ concept of “horizon of expectations”, which has been so freely adopted since the mid-
1970s by a variety of people, both specialists and non-specialists, that it may now be taken to
mean almost everything but Jauss‟ original notion (cf., Holub, 1984, p.69).

    It is a common belief that every literary theory is grounded on certain philosophical
postulates. Similarly, every reading reflects a particular literary theory, and every “reader” a
particular way of reading. Since contemporary reader-oriented criticism is characterized by a
proliferation of models of the reader, an investigation of these “reader models” will not only
reveal the similarities and differences between them, but also shed light on the respective
ways of reading and the literary theories and philosophical assumptions underlying these
    The Iserian concept of the implied reader attempts to overcome the deficiencies of other
contemporary models of the reader. It embodies within itself the response-inviting structure
of the text and the response-projection mechanism of the reader, thus making possible the
potential interaction between them. But being a heuristic concept, it inevitably simplifies the
complexity of the reader, although it has illustrated, better than any other model, the
relationship between the elements involved in the process of reading and the dynamic nature
of reading itself.

  It is interesting to notice that Rudolf E. Kuenzli, the organizer of the interview between Iser, Holland,
Booth and Fish, should regard Iser‟ implied reader as a “development of Booth‟s concept of the implied
author” (Iser, 1989, p.42).

     The concept of the implied reader is, in Holub‟s words, “the most controversial” of the
concepts Iser has introduced (Holub, 1984, p.84). Some of the controversies arise from
misunderstandings of the concept, others may be traced to the limitations inherent in the
concept itself, and indeed to its phenomenological basis. However, despite its imperfection,
the Iserian concept of the implied reader has greatly enriched our understanding of the nature
of literary reading, a contribution that can never be overestimated.


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