Throughout my lifelong and simultaneously brief study of literature and literary theory, the relationship of author-to-reader/reader-to-author has been the subject of only the most cursory examinations. The structures proposed by Geoffrey Leech and Michael Short in Style and Fiction provide a useful basis for further exploration of that relationship and its linguistic, stylistic, and philosophical implications, intrinsically far-reaching by their association with language, and crucial to the comprehension of what does and does not take place when a reader takes up a text, engaging with the author in a struggle to control meaning.
An author has many means at his disposal to craft and control the meaning (or meanings) of a text in order to insure that the audience grasps the purpose of his having written at all. In most circumstances, however, the author’s sole opportunity to assert such meaning is in the process of writing. Beyond that point, the message is firmly in the hands of the reader, whose comprehension is divorced from the author’s and at potentially great liberty to derive meaning according to personal standards, beliefs, and values. As Leech and Short suggest, the two sides come at each other through "a common fund of knowledge and experience" which within a text creates an "implied author" and "implied reader" (259), the abstract figures assumed to be on either end of a text, standing in place for the genuine articles, each unknown to the other.
This two-sided structure does not explicitly address the fact of a necessarily contested middle ground. Without precise knowledge of the "real author" and "real reader," each creates a complete set of implied figures—there is not one implied author but two, likewise two implied readers. Before further analysis can proceed, the real author and reader’s conceptions of the implied intermediaries must be close enough in likeness to enable the real reader’s initial critical engagement with the text. The figures will, in most circumstances, conflate to a manageable body of negotiable differences; sometimes, however, they will not, and a text can very much fall into the wrong hands, resulting in misinterpretation. The grossly deviant interpretations generated by inappropriate "encyclopaedic knowledge" brought to bear are only the most visible examples. While Leech, Short, and Fowler agree that a line exists between the acceptable and discountable, none go so far as to suggest where it might be drawn or by whom. Historicity, biography, and the even far less reliable psychology may aid in locating the boundaries of legitimacy, but cannot make them hold fast. Only the exertion of strict authorial control may limit the range of interpretive possibility, an exercise antithetical to the longevity of the text, specifically in the case of the novel.
If a novelist does not want to be misinterpreted, of course, his only recourse is never to publish. If communication and not impenetrability is the goal—admittedly, not always the case, and a subject more appropriate to separate vitriol—Riffaterre’s "superreader," possessed of all the knowledge "historical, philological, and cultural" (Fowler, 239) required to "correctly" interpret the text must be the preferred and only implied reader from the author’s point of view. Ideally suited to the purpose of analysis by virtue of precise attunement to implicatures beyond the surface of that text, the author’s implied reader—to use a somewhat reductive example—is the one who gets all the in-jokes, enjoys to the fullest the "secret communion" described by Leech and Short. The very presence of deliberate references to elements beyond the text implies a reader who will comprehend, or at least seek out the object to be comprehended, though some great work may be involved. His expectations may be relatively high or low, depending on the work in question; the authorship of Finnegan’s Wake, for example, implies a reader of phenomenal quality, whereas a romance novel demands much less effort. Authors, in search of their superreaders, narrow the field of real readers by altering the standards required of the implied—thus, the range of interpretation is also narrowed, and the author’s control over meaning tightened.
That being said, anyone wearing a nametag with “Superreader” on it is fooling himself. As the real author cannot enter the text itself, so his implied reader cannot escape it. Real readers can only infer an author’s intent, and in doing so create implied readers of their own, approximating the requirements and identifying themselves as appropriate or inappropriate readers of the text to a greater or lesser degree. Theirs is a much broader field, its breadth permitted by the common fund of knowledge. Most schemata deployed by an author can be recognized and engaged with from quite a distance; disbelief can be suspended from thin wires, and there are many more matches to be made between real reader and implied reader on this side of the structure. The discrepancy in knowledge between the superreader (whose appropriateness is unattainable) and the implied reader (as determined by the real reader) creates the space wherein interpretation occurs. The meaning of a text is either "perfectly" sent but "imperfectly" heard, or vice-versa. However, it always falls to the reader to fill in the breaks in transmission, and he does so from the least common areas of the common fund of knowledge. The implied reader is the real reader’s skeleton key—if they match closely enough, though they be by no means an exact fit, the text will open, and authorial control over meaning will be compromised.
But it is the compromises that keep a text alive. As long as the common fund remains common enough, and different interpretations can reasonably be brought to bear, meaning within a text may be indefinitely regenerated, and the text’s value continually reasserted. If an author could exercise total, precise control over the meaning of his work, that work would be short-lived, or very narrowly appreciated. Model airplane instructions do not make the canon of English Literature, and being too "on the nose" in a novel is generally condemned as a major stylistic flaw.
On rare occasions, however, the common fund of knowledge can provide enough information for identification of and with an implied reader without providing a crucial element absolutely necessary to the interpretation of the text. An understanding of politics and economics is largely all one needs to engage with A Modest Proposal (an obvious choice for this demonstration), but appreciation of its satire can only be activated by specific knowledge of Swift and the tenor of writing in the 18th Century, or through the understanding that the proposal is so outlandish it could not have been sincere. This is almost always the case, leading to the "successful" interpretation of the text. But it is not too difficult to imagine circumstances in which the intended irony—founded upon precisely the shared values of implied author and implied reader—is overlooked. According to the real reader (who failed to see the humor), the ability to engage with and interpret Swift’s suggestion makes him no less the implied reader of the text, despite disagreeing with it.
It does, however, indicate a serious rift between the implied authors on either side of the structure. Swift’s implied author was one who did not really mean what he said, because the superreader would surely understood what was meant, and reflect that understanding back onto the implied structure. The reader’s implied author, in this case, would genuinely run for office on the Cannibal Platform. The lack of distance between real and implied author on both sides readily permits conflation, creating two very different and irreconcilable Jonathon Swifts. This disjunction of authors may be no less critical to the struggle over meaning than that of readers.
The lesson of A Modest Proposal admittedly cannot be applied to the bulk of literary texts, many of which can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of ways, depending on what knowledge is allowed to come into play. In exchange for the efforts of his readers, which give long life to the text, the novelist must accept, by the very form of how he writes, less than total control over meaning. Misinterpretation is the risk one takes. The common fund of knowledge must be relied upon to link the implied figures on both sides of the structure, deployed tightly enough by the author to limit interpretation, thoroughly enough by the reader to explore beyond the boundaries of the strictly personal. There are implied expectations and agents on both sides of Leech and Short’s structure. Each has a responsibility to the other.
Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford University Press, New York. 1996.
Leech, Geoffrey and Short, Michael. Style in Fiction. Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, New York. 1981.
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