A literary critic of the reader response school, and one of the few wealthy english professors of the world. He proposes that the text of a work has little or no effect on the way the work is interpretted because the author of the work cannot predict how his words will effect the reader. Readers belong to an interpretive community which is a constantly shifting set of values and mental associations which defines how its members will interpret works read. No community is constant, and it is the rise and fall of various communities that causes statements like "nobody reads that anymore." This theory is itself the product of the interpretive community to which Fish belongs and is no more true than any other: indeed, there is no truth that pre-exists interpretation. A theory of which explanantion is a violation.

Stanley Fish (b.1938) is a paradoxical academic figure, as while he has come to be identified as an icon of the new literary criticism (the "New Readers" school, along with Derrida and Bloom), his academic origins are in Milton and (other) 17th Century poetry, very traditional areas of literary study. What is wonderful and remarkable about Fish's scholarship is that, almost in a Hegelian way he has devoted his career to finding syntheses among disputing academic camps, theories and ideas.

From the beginning, Fish was interested in where meaning was located in the act of readership, the interaction between reader and text. In 1971, when he published Surprised by Sin, the book that made him famous, there were two prevailing academic camps about Milton. The first (whose origins date from William Blake) claims that in writing "Paradise Lost" Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it", essentially that Milton (consciously or not) has made the Devil appealing, and the center of the action and narrative of the poem, whereas Adam, Eve and God are lofty, boring, and allowed to fade into the background. (If you have ever read Paradise Lost, you know exactly what I'm talking about.) In other words, that Milton's intentions were to inspire the reader with the glory of God, and (symmetrically) to show the baseness, depravity and evil of the Devil and his minions, but his poetry achieves exactly the opposite. The other academic camp, consisting of literary theologists like C.S. Lewis, found this idea repulsive and claims that the poem is a straightforward glorification of the divine, and does not work against itself.

Surprised by Sin ingeniously unifies these ideas by suggesting that it is the act of readership that is important; when the reader finds Satan and his fellow cast-out angels appealing it is tantamount to the realization that we are fallen from grace. That is, we are living in a postlapsarian world of temptation, imperfect communication and fallen language that is a consequence of the ejection from the garden, the central event of the poem. It is only natural then, that in reading the poem we find Satan to be more persuasive, charismatic and enticing. To realize this is to contemplate our separation from the divine, and is exactly the point. In other words, the poem is a giant "gotcha!", and on purpose. The idea absolutely revolutionized Milton scholarship, and launched Fish into the limelight of academic literary criticism.

As his career progressed, he became more and more interested in the reader-text relationship, and by the time he published another seminal work, Is There a Text in This Class? (1980; a collection of essays he wrote in the 1970s) he had revised and expanded his ideas on the centrality of the reader in the textual experience. Now there was an "interpretive community" that collectively decided on the meaning and importance of texts. In a reflexive way, texts as literary objects are called into existence by the act of readership, interpretation and (eventually) scholarly consensus.

By now you may see where this is going, because such a theory has a direct bearing on canonicity and the political correctness debate that came to the forefront of literary academia in the 1990s. The importance of Fish's "interpretive community" is that it is a function of time, space, social norms and other historical accidents rather than any sort of absolute. This idea is expressed beautifully in There's No Such Thing As Free Speech (1994), where Fish goes after both the intellectual left for its blind faith in relativism and political correctness, and the right for its presupposition of and reliance on values it claims are universal, timeless and immutable.

Stanley Fish is currently Arts and Sciences Professor of English and Professor of Law at Duke University.

Thanks to: my Milton professor, who was one of Fish's graduate students at Yale and taught me most everything I know about the 17th century, and Critical Theory Since 1965 (ed. Adams, Searle) which I used to check the dates

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