Relativism and Bad Logic in Literature Circles

Literature CirclesI’m currently reading Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, and while I think it’s a fantastic resource for structuring a literature class, I have one problem with it that I wanted to discuss.  Daniels falls into some illogical reasoning when he talks about interpreting and responding to literature.

My criticism comes from a section in Chapter 3 on pages 39-40 called “Reader Response Literary Criticism.”  Daniels cites the work of Louise Rosenblatt who “insisted that there is no one correct interpretation of a literary work, but multiple interpretations, each of them profoundly dependent on the prior experience brought to the text by each reader.”

He then goes on to mention the work of Robert Probst as a modern-day interpreter of Rosenblatt’s ideas, who “explains how American teachers, in their hunger to push students up the cognitive ladder to the analysis of literature, forget or refuse to begin with students’ response to their reading.  Probst explains that in good teaching, the response always comes first.”

I don’t really have a problem with Probst’s idea of the importance of a reader’s response, but I think both he and Rosenblatt (and by implication, Daniels) are confusing the words “interpretation” and “response.”

Interpretation is the act of seeking accurate meaning from a text.  Accuracy has to be the primary concern in interpretation.  Daniels himself calls Probst an interpreter of Rosenblatt’s ideas.  If there is no one correct interpretation of a literary work, as Rosenblatt argues, then why do we need anyone to interpret her ideas?

Response, on the other hand, is something profoundly different.  Response is a complicated reaction to a text.  Response is emotional, subjective and powerful, but it is not interpretation.  I would change Rosenblatt’s quote to say that “there is no one correct response to a literary work, but multiple responses, each of them profoundly dependent on the prior experience brought to the text by each reader.”

I think deep down, Rosenblatt, Probst and Daniels understand this, perhaps without realizing it.  Take this illogical statement Daniels makes on page 38, where he says “While Probst and Rosenblatt both agree that there are better and worse readings of texts, there are not ‘wrong’ ones.”

How can there be “better and worse readings,” without “wrong” ones?  For a reading to be better than another there has to be a correct interpretation.  For a reading to be worse than another there has to be a wrong interpretation.

This kind of illogical thinking comes from a well-intentioned desire to be tolerant and respectful of students’ responses to texts, but it completely ignores the fact that students misunderstand or inadequately understand texts all the time.  To say that their interpretation is never wrong is absurd.  It’s relativism at its worst.

One student thinks Animal Farm is a cute story about farm animals, another sees it as a scathing politcal satire.  Are they both right?  No, of course not.  Animal Farm is not Charlotte’s Web.  But if teachers just pat both of them on the head and say, “Good job, I like the way you think,” then we are doing them horrible disservice.

Students are entitled to their own responses to a text.  One student may be appalled by a character’s action, while another may applaud it.  But that says more about the student than it does about the book.  It doesn’t take a literature teacher to help a student understand their reactions to a book–it takes a psychologist.  The literature teacher’s job is to help students move beyond their initial reactions–to acknowledge them, yes, and validate them–but to help them widen their horizons by moving outside of their own limited experiences and initial responses.  Our job is not to play “pop psychologist” with our students, but to give them the encouragement, skills and practice they need to understand others’ ideas.

I agree with Probst that teachers can sometimes get so caught up in the cognitive analysis of literature that we can forget about the power of story and emotion, but the answer is not to confuse terms.  The beginning of the answer is to acknowledge the beauty of reading great literature as both an affective and cognitive endeavor.  It hits us in our heart and our head, and teachers cannot ignore either domain.

Despite the problems in chapter three, I highly recommend Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups.  Daniels’ literature circle structure gets kids reading and talking about books in an organic and natural way, which really is the best way to become a good reader.

6 Responses

  1. Friedbeef says:

    Awesome post – thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Nick says:

    Thanks! Because of your comment I found your blog–what a great resource. I’ve just subscribed!

  3. Clix says:

    Hello again! I’ve been reflecting on this… and I don’t think the FIRST quote you pull is as objectionable as you seem to see it; I think more that Rosenblatt is saying that while there ARE many wrong readings of a text, there are also many possible correct readings – even ones an author didn’t intend. I think you’re right about Daniels, though – and I agree with you, to say that there aren’t any wrong interpretations is … well, wrong! 😀

  4. Nick says:

    Thanks for the comment! Here are some random thoughts quickly put together to help get my meaning across:

    I’m not sure I agree that there are many possible “correct” meanings. Correct in relation to what? If it’s in relation to the author’s intended meaning, then isn’t there only one correct interpretation–that which the author intended?

    I’m having a hard time imagining a correct interpretation that doesn’t match what the author intended. Isn’t that called reading too much into the text? Maybe in some fiction or poetry, when an author is trying to create a more direct experience, interpreting is somewhat irrelevant, especially if the author herself isn’t aware of any conscious meaning.

    But many authors (if not most) have an intentional message or purpose to their writing and they depend on intelligent readers to make sense of it. If the reader is diligent about understanding the author’s work, but interprets it differently than the author intended, isn’t it logical to say that either 1) the reader is not skilled enough to see the meaning, or 2) the author did not write well enough to get his or her meaning across? I find 1 or 2 more reasonable than saying the reader has discovered a meaning the author didn’t intend.

    I’m sure an author’s subconscious has an effect on his writing, but I can’t imagine it to have such an impact that it would create an entirely different meaning from the author’s conscious intention.

    I see interpretation as the attempt to seek accurate meaning from a text relative to the author’s intended meaning.

    I worry that accepting several “correct” interpretations (as opposed to being open to several “possible” interpretations) encourages students to impose their own world view on everything they read, spinning it to fit their own meaning, rather than trying to understand someone else’s point of view.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to your response.

  5. Clix says:

    Hullo again! Well, what I thought of as I was looking over this was a short story that I wrote for a creative writing class back in college. Originally it was going to be about these friends who went on a road trip after graduation, but as it turned out, the story was like ten pages by the time the graduation ceremony started, so I fiddled with it a bit and made it end after graduation. So it ended up being about saying goodbye to friends, etc. and I called it “They Didn’t Go to Utah After All” because that had been the early plan.

    Well, one of the other students pointed out that in the story, the friends had an opportunity to go beyond a casual relationship to something more meaningful and passed it up (in part because they knew they’d be saying goodbye, in part because they were somewhat immature). He interpreted not going to Utah as a metaphor for the failure to deepen the relationship.

    This had nothing to do with my subconscious. The truth was both simpler and more shameful: The real reason they didn’t go to Utah, and thus for the title, was because the story was due and I hadn’t finished it!

    His inferences were simple and logical.He supported his interpretation with evidence from the story itself. Therefore, I have a hard time saying he was wrong, just because it wasn’t what I had intended.

    I would see interpretation as the attempt to seek accurate meaning from a text, period. IMO, meaning is independent of student reaction AND authorial intent – though I think both matter. Authorial intent matters because it shapes the work. Student reaction matters because we do not live in the same culture/environment that shaped the author, thus influencing the work.

    It makes sense INSIDE my head. I promise. ;p


    Thanks for posing such an intriguing thought-poker!

  1. October 22, 2007

    […] here for full […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: