The literary theorist Stanley Fish is known to have revolutionized literary theory in the 70s.
Instead of a focus on the author, trying to read to discern some hidden “meaning” that the author intended, Fish focuses on the experience of the reader as the major thing. He calls this reader-response criticism.
The reader reads the story, experiences something, and that experience is the key to figuring out the story. An experience that also involves errors in judgements. Meaning where the reader fails is part of the meaning of the story.
Let’s example the story “Low, close to the floor” in the eyes of the reader-response criticism.
1. A twisted sujet
The writer gives us a first-person view of the story. We see it from her eyes, and she seems like a very particular person. We have to work hard to build a proper chronological timeline of the events.
The fabula of the story
This is a story where not a lot happens. The story is told from a first person perspective. Here is what happened in the story, told in chronological order:
- Mother dies
- Years pass, and when father remarries, he gives picture to daughter. Wall is painted.
- Daughter keeps picture wrapped in apartment.
- First the daughters visit the mother’s tomb, dad doesn’t.
- They all stop visiting the mother’s tomb.
- 30 years pass, dad has talk with daughter. This happens a day after the second wife, Batya, dies.
- Father mentions that he missed the mother for thirty years.
- Father dies a few days later.
- When daughter leaves her Haifa apartment, she takes the picture and unwraps it. She hangs it low.
- She doesn’t visit dad’s tomb this year because of rain.
2. First person narration
This story is given from the first-person perspective. Everything is shown from the perspective of the author.
The author is not sharing her own emotions. She doesn’t share how she feels about her father, nor her mother. We infer about her feelings from the way she describes the father, and from what she doesn’t say.
She keeps her mother’s picture in its wrap, which can imply the emotional challenge to look at her mother, to remember.
Her sister and she stop visiting her mother’s grave, but the reason is for us to fill. This is a writerly text where the reader fills the gaps that the narrator fails to write.
We can also learn a lot from the physical yet very subjective description she uses to describe the father. “His clear, blue eyes were frozen”. “His eyes glistened now, two blue rocks.”
“His face were still grey, wood colored, and only the eyes lit up like two front headlights in a wooden crate.”
“He now had a strange, sawn voice, and he grabbed his fingers one to the other like they were iron tongs.”
Another place we need to be active is when we need to fill all the gaps that the writer leaves.
Death is not something you can grasp directly. By writing about silence, the author allows us to pause and fill the gap ourselves.
“One day I came and instead of the picture there was a white empty stain on the wall. I didn’t ask and he didn’t speak and we both knew what the light stain was.”
When speaking about something related to death, some preparation is needed. It’s also very emotional.
I need to speak with you, he said and kept weeping. Let’s speak, I said. Let’s go into the small room, he said. Let’s go into the small room, I said.
The author doesn’t complete her sentences.
“but dad, I said”. We fill the gaps instead of her.
“I made coffee. We did not speak a long hour.”
There are many repetitions throughout the story.
These are areas where the audience needs to interpret why the author is repeating the same sentence. It pauses the “giving meaning” part of the story, and forces us to give it our own interpretation.
The daughter is a logical person. She doesn’t show emotion.
She repeats what the father says.
“I need to talk with you” “let’s talk”
“Let’s get into the small room”
“Let’s get into the small room”.
The daughter doesn’t really handle the emotional side. “It was hard for me to look at him”.
5. Gaps in knowledge
There seems to be an agreed silence around topics of death. Things happen without discussing it. The wall where the mother’s picture was hung is painted over. The father doesn’t visit the mother’s tomb and then the daughters do the same.
Death is forgotten. The tomb that was already low is now unseen, and has turned into “one flat service with the ground”.