Doing What Comes Naturally

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Something has happened in the quiet world of literary criticism. The signs are everywhere. A string of satiric novels by David Lodge and others have made the zany new vocabularies and conference goings—on of literary theorists into successful middle-brow entertainment. The rise of a new criticism influenced by feminist, psychoanalytic, Marxist, structuralist, and post- structuralist theories has also converged at a number of points with the interests of the mass-circulation press. Under headings such as “the battle over the canon,” newspaper articles around the country have reported controversies over curricular change which some educators denounce, along with specialized theoretical jargon, as disrespectful toward the literary monuments of the past, hence menacing our national greatness. Meanwhile the political controversy surrounding the recently discovered wartime journalism of the late Paul de Man has rendered the term “deconstruction” familiar, if not comprehensible, to readers who had no prior interest in French philosophy. The change is visible even in the photographs which have accompanied this sudden and unexpected publicity. No longer caught in conventional poses, secluded in a book-lined study or a tree-lined tableau of pastoral pedagogy, these newly newsworthy, newly public academics are often emancipated from tweeds, and even fashionably dressed—perhaps by association with the Paris intellectual fashions that seemed to begin all this in the 1960’s. By association with their democratizing tendency to question the line between high and popular culture, and between literature and criticism, some are shown congregating in a pizza parlor.

Stanley Fish has been one of the most prominent figures in all these changes. Though he made his initial reputation with a book on the highly canonical author of Paradise Lost, though his own prose, as comfortable in the pizzeria as the library, has never stooped from a standard of lucid, provocative, and entertaining appeal to the general reader, and though, finally, he is famous among specialists for his argument (taken up at length in the present volume) against the claims of “theory” to pull rank over existing practice, Fish is a quintessential creature of the new theoretical dispensation in literary studies. Indeed, in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies he makes one of the more engaging cases for it.

One key to the event, and to Fish’s special place within it, is suggested by the juxtaposition of “literary” with “legal” in Fish’s subtitle. Expert in the nuances and uncertainties of interpreting literary texts, literary criticism has made itself more important to society at large by lending this expertise to those engaged in interpreting other sorts of texts: legal decisions, historical and ethnographic documents, and so on. Nearly all critics hold that various different interpretations of the same text are equally possible. This working postulate, encouraged perhaps by the special nature of literature itself has expanded dramatically, in the period since the 1960’s, to become a theoretical manifesto about all interpretation as such. Criticism has in effect marketed its theory as a new, more “literary” worldview appropriate as well to other disciplines, often closer to science, whose own traditions have been less congenial to the notions of plurality and indeterminacy of interpretation. In the process, some of the greater prestige and authority of these other fields has rubbed off The law is a salient example.

Fish, who is a professor of law as well as literature, did much to push criticism’s new insistence that interpretation is not bound by the literary text. In Surprised by Sin (1971), his book about Paradise Lost, Fish made the highly original argument that John Milton’s meaning was realized not in the text as a whole (the previous orthodoxy) but only in the reader’s gradually developing experience of the text and in the activities of interpretation and self-criticism the text provoked. Though here Fish still held that the reader’s interpretive activity was controlled by the text, it was a short step to its liberation—and, without a pause, to its submission to a new authority. In the collection Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Fish answered his question in the negative. There is no text, he said, in the sense of something that dictates and controls the meanings a reader gets out of it. It might seem that this would open the door to a subjectivity or relativism in which anything that could be said about a literary work is as valid as anything else. Fish, however, rejects this position. Better readings are indeed discriminated from worse, he says, not by the text itself but rather by the “interpretive community” to which the reader...

(The entire section is 1994 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, May 21, 1989, p.22.