To Instruct and Delight the Reader or To Expand Radically the Reader’s Role

The nature of rhetorical criticism, as Sonja K. Foss explains, occurs in our day-to-day lives. Because “[h]ow we perceive, what we know, what we experience, and how we act are the results of the symbols we create and the symbols we encounter in the world,” consequently, “we engage in a process of thinking about symbols, discovering how they work, and trying to figure out why they affect us” (Foss 3). As a result, “[w]e choose to communicate particular ways based on what we have discovered” (3). In addition to observing symbols in daily life, we, as readers, also decide how literature influences us or how we interpret literature. Rhetorical criticism studies how the audience is impacted by literature, whether the purpose of literature is to instruct, delight, inform, persuade, and so on.

The reader’s role is redefined from Horace to Iser in two major categories. First, classical or traditional theorists suggest that literature’s goal is to entertain or instruct the reader. Second, modern theorists suggest a more radical and active role of the reader in addition to expanding upon traditional theories in conjunction with other modern theories. Consequently, when the role of the reader changes across time for various theorists, the function of literature is redefined, which will be shown throughout this essay in response to various theorists. Literature evolves in several steps progressing from deciding what is to be “good” literature and what is thought to be morally uplifting to expanding the possibilities of reading.


Horace and Longinus emphasized the importance of instructing and delighting the reader. Horace claimed that “[p]oets aim either to do good or to give pleasure” (Leitch 130), and poets who are able to do this are “knowledgeable in the craft of poetry and observant of the principles of decorum,” which is “the discernment and use of appropriateness, propriety, proportion, and unity in the arts” (120). However, the reader does pass judgment if they boo the performances off stage. Horace knows the importance of whether or not a “work [is] approved by the fried-peas-and-nuts public” (128). Therefore, “[t]he pleasure of poetry for readers and theater audiences should be joined to practical and moral instructions embodied in the work, though Horace seems more preoccupied with delight and careful craft than with moral uplift” (121).

Longinus also focuses on how “sublimity uplifts the spirit of the reader, . . . arousing noble thoughts, and suggesting more than words can convey” (133). Longinus differs from Horace, who “coolly stresses rhetorical strategies rather than the erratic genius of authors” (134). Yet Longinus follows the tradition of Aristotle because although “Longinus considers the emotional psychology of the author as well as that of the audience” (135), both Longinus and Aristotle “take note of the formal techniques and psychological effects of literature” (134). Longinus places emphasis on the reader by dissecting how sublimity affects the audience. This is seen in Book 7, or the tests of the sublime, because Longinus suggests these tests on the craft of the text to determine whether or not it is able affect the audience.


Both Sidney and Johnson find instructing and delighting the reader important but focus on the instruction of morals. Sidney argues that poesy has “this end: to teach and delight” (Leitch 258), almost mimicking Horace word for word. Sidney copies Horace when he says that art should educate and entertain, but Sidney emphasizes that art should teach morality. The power of poetry rests in the fact that it is appealing to readers; the more entertaining the reading, the more likely readers are likely to listen to the morals. As Sidney explains, “Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature” (257).

Poetry can make people better because the work of the poet “seem to have some divine force in it” (256), and the poet “showeth so much as in poetry, when, with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings” (258). Sidney makes the poet almost quasi-divine, since the poet becomes a creator with a god-like imagination. Poetry also has great political import. Sidney’s audience is courtly, focusing on the humanist potential of educating potential rulers for leadership.

Approximately two hundred years later, Dr. Samual Johnson, who “was an intense, discerning reader” (363), would argue about the importance of poetry conveying intense morality. Johnson considered “[p]oetry . . . the highest learning” (371) and thought poetry should “teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform” and emphasized the necessity of showing vice to “always disgust” (370). Johnson believed in absolute virtue or vice; because “the power of example is so great, as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited” (369).

A poet’s job became essentially to select truths most beneficial to society: “The chief advantage which these fictions have over real life is, that heir authors are at liberty . . . to select objects, and to cull the mass of mankind” (369). While Sidney’s audience was courtly, Johnson’s audience was the youth (“That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to the youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears” [368]). The printing press enabled the mass production of literature. Johnson believed in educating the masses through literature or poetry, while Sidney’s audience was that of a tiny percentile of educated males in court. Therefore, Sidney aimed at moralizing the (already) elite.


In “Death of the Author,” modern critic Barthes displaces the notion of the author and emphasizes the birth of the reader; this perspective, in turn, contributes to critiquing liberal humanism and impacts literary studies by challenging universal truth and what it means to be human. Barthes embodies “a transition from structuralism to poststructuralist perspective” through offering a “more relativistic assessments of texts and their role in culture” (Habib 72). By focusing on language, meaning of the text is established by the reader through looking at relations because meaning belongs only in the realm of the reader. But meaning is constantly evaporating because a person cannot fix meaning.

As Barthes explains, “To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text” (Richter 877). Yet the death of the author is also the death of the critic, which implicates literary criticism. A critic deciphers the text, its words and meanings, but “[i]n the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled” (Richter 877) because the reader is disentangling the culture and language. The difference is that the critic is decrypting to find meaning, while Barthes’s reader experiences the joy of multiplicity by creating meaning as opposed to decrypting authorial meaning.

There are implications for Barthes’s reader, since there is no fixed subject, because if you as a reader arrive at meaning, then you have misunderstood the text. Barthes explains, “[A] text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Richter 876). There is no there there because there is no fixed meaning in the text.

As a result, Barthes’s post-structuralist critique has impacted literary studies of reading literature. Readers are entitled to have their opinions. Because there are a greater variety of opinions, there are two possible results. First, readers could be more tolerant or accepting of different interpretations. However, the second result comes from human nature interacting in society. As people develop more opinions, these opinions will become more separate, and greater diversity will occur. Factions will result, and readers will become more defensive of their interpretations. The risk will be more fighting instead of greater tolerance of different interpretations.

Another post-structuralist influence on literary studies could fall under reading the Bible as literature in university settings. Because there will be a million different readings, there will be a million different meanings, which will then open up the reader to believing whatever. When readers read the Bible as literature, people are more likely to believe in no absolute eternal truth. Readers will read the Bible and then reinterpret its teachings. Both of these examples counter against the liberal humanist tradition of universal truth. The death of the author also impacts the anthology because it blows up the studies of literature. No female, gay, African American, or Asian literatures were included in the anthology, but now they are included. These new inclusions of diverse writings challenge liberal humanism by showing that there is not only one way to be human.


Iser offers a distinct way of understanding readers and their relationships to a work of art by drawing on a phenomenological engagement with the text; Iser operates within a Husserlian framework when considering dynamic relations, while also moving beyond that framework in the search for truth. Although it is difficult to define, phenomenology is the process of analysis that makes dynamic relations of an object of study. Husserl, who reacted against Neo-Kantians, maps out the relationship of world, body, and mind.

Iser’s reader response theory does follow “the phenomenological approaches to literature, which focuses on literature as it is experienced by the thinking subject, the ‘I’ in the center of our conscious world” (Richter 972). Iser’s duality, however, centers in a text between two poles: “the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the esthetic to the realization accompanied by the reader” (1002). It is through the “convergence of text and reader” that “brings the literary work into existence … not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader” (1002).

Both Husserl and Iser view the process of relation as dynamic. For Husserl, pure consciousness is looking at the actual set of relations of phenomena between the consciousness of the subject and the object. As a result, pure phenomenology becomes a dynamic relation, which is the object of analysis. Phenomenological reduction involves stripping down all cultural baggage—the body—and material reality—the world. The mind then becomes limitless by getting away from the tyranny of the particular, which enables pure consciousness to occur and humans to control the construction of the world subjectively. Iser believes that reading is dynamic (Habib 155). Iser quotes Husserl’s idea of “pretentions, which construct and collect the seed of what is to come, as such, and bring it to fruition” because “the literary text needs the reader’s imagination,” and in a text, “individual sentences work together” and “form an expectation” (Richter 1004) for the reader.

However, for Husserl, refuting the Kantian particular categories and following the processes of pure reflection will reveal the universal, or in other words, truth—but only within the individual’s mind. In contrast, Iser moves beyond the Husserlian framework because he argues that truth will actually change because we, the readers, are constantly changing. Readers find “‘interpretation[s]’ threatened . . . by the presence of other possibilities of ‘interpretation’” because readers “become more directly aware of them” through “shifting of perspective that makes [readers] feel that a novel is much more ‘true-to-life’” (Richter 1010). Therefore, Iser argues that readers will find different truths depending on the associations of where the reader converges with the text. As a result, the function of literature changes from being dogmatically moral (think Johnson) to being more open in its various purposes for informing the readers on the variety of truths that can be gleaned from its pages.


Iser and Fish also contrast each other when speaking of the reader. Iser claims that through the reader’s imagination, each time a reader approaches a text, there is the possibility to discover new things with new perspectives from each reader. Iser insists readers want to know the consciousness of what to discuss. The relationship between the reader and the text is a dynamic process because “[a]s the reader passes through the various perspectives offered by the text, and relates the different views and patterns to one another, he sets the work in motion, and so sets himself in motion, too” (Leitch 1524).

As readers change their perspective, they connect the texts and fill in the gaps because “the situations and convention regulate the manner in which the gaps are filled, but the gaps in turn arise out of the inexperience ability, and consequently, function as a basic inducement to communication” (Leitch 1526). Some critics, such as Fish, find Iser’s work vague and believe that there would be an infinite amount of interpretations of the text; however, this is not true, and “[m]eaning is constantly revised in a process that Iser compares to the feedback loop” (1522) or the hermeneutic circle. For Iser, the work of art is not just art; the work of art is also something that we, the readers, will experience and tell each other about.

In contrast, Fish claims that the text, which really does not matter, disappears in the larger cultural context in relation to the community experience. For example, Fish says, “An author hazards his projection, not because of something ‘in’ the marks, but because of something he assumes to be in his reader” (Leitch 1992). Consequently, “The very existence of the ‘marks is a function of an interpretive community, for they will be recognized . . . only by its members,” while people not in that particular interpretive community will use different strategies “and will therefore be making different marks” (1992). The work disappears (“I have made the text disappear, but unfortunately the problems do not disappear with it” [1992]) in the context of community. Objective and subjective become meaningless. As a result, reader experience is all that remains, suggesting the text disappears in the context of experience.

Both Iser and Fish have made significant contributions to theory and to the study of literature because perhaps “prominent modes of criticism in the past could ignore the role of the reader since they tacitly assumed that there was one kind of reader (i.e., white, male, and the recipient of a privileged education” (1523). Iser’s and Fish’s work has undoubtedly influenced the ability to allow a variety of reading perspectives from readers, female and minority groups, that have not had a voice before.


Rhetorical criticism occurs in the area between the audience and the text. In the “Introduction” of David H. Richter’s The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, Richter shows that while “[a] mimetic critic . . . might enjoin an aspiring poet to observe human nature well, the more accurately to imitate human actions in his poetry,” “[a] rhetorical critic might advise the poet in the very same words, but in order to prompt the poet to discover what pleases the various classes and age groups that comprise his audience” (3). Ultimately, rhetorical criticism, which was prominent from the classic era of Rome, Medieval times, the Enlightenment era, and modern times, aims at looking at the ways a text instructs, delights, and moves an audience. Unmistakably, rhetorical criticism is a timeless issue that is revisited over and over again.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Fish, Stanley E. “Interpreting the Variorum.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration & Practice. Waveland & Press, Inc.: Long Grove, 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Habib, M. A. R. Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: A History. Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Print.

Horace. “Ars Poetica.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler, No. 4. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Johnson, Samuel. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Longinus. On Sublimity. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Defense of Poetry. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.


To Instruct and Delight the Reader or To Expand Radically the Reader’s Role

3 thoughts on “To Instruct and Delight the Reader or To Expand Radically the Reader’s Role

  1. I wonder if, through technology we have come full circle to the world of Horace and the writers of antiquity. Then an important, perhaps primary, means of transmission of a work of literature was through performance: a reading. There was a direct relationship with the audience, and the feedback would be immediate; indeed the final version of the text we have received may have been the result of that feedback in a live environment, be it rapturous applause or projectile fruit.

    The printing press and mass readership diluted that relationship, the publisher intervened. merit was based on either sales, or commentary from a small intelligentsia of critics.

    But now the artist and the audience are reconnected, through digital editions, previews, beta readings the direct link has been reestablished, if amplified on a massive scale. The audience is once more able to directly influence the process of creation. For Horace or Martial performing for their patrons and guests, or Homer wandering from taverna to taverna we now have blogs and twitter…

  2. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make
    your point. You definitely know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your blog when you could be giving
    us something enlightening to read?

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