Jean-Paul Sartre

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How does Sartre's view in "What is Literature?" compare to other philosophers' perspectives of literature?

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Reflecting his views on existential responsibility, in "What is Literature?", Sartre proposes that the author and reader ideally engage in a dialectical "going-and-coming" relationship: 

It is the joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others. 

So, the author writes/creates a text but this creative act is incomplete until the text is read. The author acknowledges the freedom of readers to exist and read/interpret his text; conversely, the readers acknowledge the author's freedom to exist and write. Since the author recognizes the reader's freedoms in this way, he (author) recognizes that the reader is not simply a blank slate waiting to decode the author's text. Rather, the reader has the freedom to interpret the text and therefore, in Sartre's view, reading is "the synthesis of perception and creation." 

This freedom of the reader is similar to Reader Response Theories which propose that the reader's interpretation of a text is as valid as the author's intent. Roland Barthes, in "The Death of the Author," proposes a similar theory of the reader. Like Sartre's view, this is all about freedom. In a sense, a text is never "finished" because it can always be read by another and thus reinterpreted. 

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. ("The Death of the Author") 

This shows how both Barthes and Sartre treat reading as a free, creative act and this derives from the dialectical relationship between author and reader. 

Cleanth Brooks was a Formalist critic who focused on the autonomy of the text. He discounted the role and interpretation of the reader in textual criticism. Brooks, and other Formalist and New Critics, looked at the literary text itself to study its form and structure. Their project was to be a science of literary objects, whereas Sartre and Barthes understood literature as a social practice and this is why they thought about things such as freedom, consciousness, and social context. 

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