23 Jan 2016

Iser (§1) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” part I, summary


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. All boldface and parenthetical commentary are my own.]



Wolfgang Iser


“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”





Brief summary:
For any literary work, we have two poles of its reality: the text and the reader. But the literary work itself cannot exist exclusively on either pole. If it is just text without reader, it is meaningless scribbles. But if it is reader without text, then there is nothing in the reader’s mind that is substantially related to that work to begin with. The real literary work, then, is found at the intersection between reader and text, when the reader engages with the text and brings it to life through their imaginative and interpretative activities. This elusive existence of the literary work means that it has a virtual reality rather than a substantial actuality. This also means that readers are not passive receivers of the literary work. Rather, they play an artistic, creative role as well, since they must fill in gaps and add senses, significances, and meanings to the work wherever they are not explicitly given. Writers, then, are often aware of the vital role the reader plays in the creation of the literary work, and so they intentionally leave much out of the text so that the reader may contribute more productively to the work’s realization.





We will take a phenomenological approach to textual analysis, which means that we are interested in both {a} the text itself, and equally as much we are interested in {b} the conscious activity involved when reading a text. Iser distinguishes, then, two facets or poles to this mode of analysis: {1} the artistic, that is, the artist’s text itself, and {2} the aesthetic, which is the reader’s realization and concretization of that text (279). The text by itself is not the artistic work. What is needed as well is for the reader to bring that literary art work into existence. There is somehow a point of contact between reader and text, and since it is not fully a part of either end, it has a “virtual” location and perhaps a “virtual” existence.

The phenomenological theory of art lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. Thus Roman Ingarden confronts the structure of the literary text with the ways in which it can be konkretisiert (realized).1 The text as such offers different “schematised views” through which the subject matter of the work can come to light, but the actual bringing to light is an action of Konkretisation. If this is so, then the literary work has two poles, which we might call the artistic and the aesthetic: the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader. From this polarity it follows that the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text, but in fact must lie halfway between the two. The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized, and furthermore the realization is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader – though this in turn is acted upon by the different patterns of the text. The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as it is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.
[Ft1: Cf. Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks (Tübingen, 1968), pp. 49 ff.]
[Ft2: For a detailed discussion of this term see Roman Ingarden, Das literarische Kunstwerk (Tübingen, 196o), pp. 270 ff.]


[This idea of the literary work’s virtuality is not yet clear to me. I suppose the idea is that the text is actual, and the reader is actual, but the literary work is not found in either actuality, and in a sense, can never be located in any actuality. So perhaps it is virtual in at least two senses. {1} It is virtual in the sense that it has some mode of reality even before it comes into active existence through the convergence of text and reader. We would say that as long as the reader of Hamlet is alive, that person exists. And as long as the text is recorded in some medium, be it print, electronic, or even in the memory of actors, then the text exists. But the real work of literary art that is Hamlet only exists when the reader brings the text to life through their active engagement with it. Yet, we would not say that the living Hamlet loses all reality whenever it is not being read. Rather, it retains a virtual existence that can be awakened at any time. {2} It is also virtual in the sense that even when it is being actively realized, its plane of existence is not found in any obvious world, like the world of text or the inner world of the reader. We sort of know that it is there without knowing where it is. Also, I am not sure if and why we cannot say that it exists in the reader’s inner world. But perhaps this is because its other pole (its textuality) is necessarily exterior  to the reader, since the reader must encounter it, make sense of it, relate herself to it, and so on.] [I am not certain, but perhaps the next idea is the following. Because the literary work is always a virtuality, in the above two senses we mentioned, that means it is only realized when it is being actively processed interpretatively by the reader. It is not something that is immediately grasped in a finalized state. Rather, with each reading, new shades of meaning are brought out. Iser elaborates this notion with this beautiful concept of Laurence Stern’s that the writer both offers fertile material to the reader, but also gives the reader much freedom in determining how to shape and develop that material. In other words, the artistic activity of literature is not limited to the contribution of the writer, but includes as well that of the reader.]

It is the virtuality of the work that gives rise to its dynamic nature, and this in turn is the precondition for the effects that the work calls forth. As the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text in order to relate the patterns and the “schematised views” to one another, he sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself. Thus, reading causes the literary work to unfold its inherently dynamic character. That this is no new discovery is apparent from references made even in the early days of the novel. Laurence Sterne remarks in Tristram Shandy: “... no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.”3 Sterne’s conception of a literary text is that it is something like an arena in which reader and author participate in a game of the imagination. If the reader were given the whole story, and there were nothing left for him to do, then his imagination would never enter the field, the result would be the boredom which inevitably arises when everything is laid out cut and dried before us. A literary text must therefore be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader’s imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative. In this process of creativity, the text may either not go far enough, or may go too far, so we may say that boredom and overstrain form the boundaries beyond which the reader will leave the field of play.
[Ft3: Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (London, 1956), II, chap. II, 79.]

Iser then quotes from Virginia Woolf, who in her study of Jane Austin was remarking on how “the ‘unwritten’ part of a text stimulates the reader’s creative participation” (280). [The idea seems to be that the writer leaves a lot unwritten, so that the reader can “write” it themselves in their minds as they read. But these contributions on the reader’s part can then influence the way the rest of the text is read. So even seemingly trivial scenes can take on great significance, if the reader contributes sense to them that is not explicitly given in the text.]

The extent to which the “unwritten” part of a text stimulates the reader's creative participation is brought out by an observation of Virginia Woolf's in her study of Jane Austen: “Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character.... The turns and twists of the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present moment, half upon the future.... Here, indeed, in this unfinished and in the main inferior story, are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness.”4 The unwritten aspects of apparently trivial scenes, and the unspoken dialogue | within the “turns and twists,” not only draw the reader into the action, but also lead him to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader’s imagination animates these “outlines,” they in turn will influence the effect of the written part of the text. Thus begins a whole dynamic process: the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader’s imagination, set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own. In this way, trivial scenes suddenly take on the shape of an “enduring form of life.” What constitutes this form is never named, let alone explained, in the text, although in fact it is the end product of the interaction between text and reader.
[Ft4: Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series (London, 1957), p. 174.]




Wolfgang Iser. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3 (1972): 279-99.




  1. Corry! there's just so much fantastic stuff in that posting of yours and I am a terribly bad space of feeling not quite up to the mark and albeit I am writing a lot but those comments you foraged out and used here in this post I love and agree with them, pretty much and that's just after a barely 'justified' glance, or reading. It's really in line with some of the recent things in Recall that I've done even to the extent of calling a text of mine Unwritten .....

    That this is no new discovery is apparent from references made even in the early days of the novel. Laurence Sterne remarks in Tristram Shandy: “... no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.”3 Sterne’s conception of a literary text is that it is something like an arena in which reader and author participate in a game of the imagination. " I love all of that both the Sterne, the Iser, and the Woolf following. Ah, yes, sir, the virtual unwritten text which leaves a seam a gapsp in the reader's mind and one's as a writer.

    I've been thinking of you a lot and meaning to write but you know, thinking about is not doing so here I am leaving you this wandering crazy comment as I am deliriously unhappy and although writing am unhappy in a way that's novel, so it's bound to leader to brighter days, it's always that way. One weeps and sobs to uncover and discover newer matters and territories of self and other, of our body and tears. Of love and joy and god and love and all its interstices and combinations and you know, I love combinatories/ I am so taken with the idea , with the very notion it's as no one before me had ever really seen what they mean or are! haahah what a wonderous self illusion! how surprised I was finding that even the word existed before I used it! it took me a time and a while to realize how I used it and others might meet and not meet. But anyhow, look dear friend, I didn't mean to go on and really I know you love movies, and so I wanted to let you know
    about this fantastic movie Head-On(2004 ) directed by Fatih Akin . It's Agerman turkish film and really its fabulous film and I am sure you would enjoy and probably anyone you love or at least like it. I am not even finished watching but put it on pause so I could drop by here and tell you! So voila, and once my head is a better and lousy flu state is reduced, I will send you a decent email telling you about things, and the new book I am working on and so on so forth. Be well and my best to your dear wife .

  2. P.S. O of course, there's a few blips in that comment but I'm sick (flu) so pardon them and you're smart enough to make sense of them, mostly omissions. More anon. Now I am tempted to do a long riff but I think I will wait and make a more coherent remark about the ideas your expressing tomorrow or within the next week or so.

  3. Dear Clifford, I hope all things are improving and you are feeling better! While working on this material I am constantly thinking of you, so it is so great to see your comment! I will watch the film as soon as I can get a copy, which should be very soon. I had not heard of it, but other people also tell me it is great. My wife sends you her best as well. I would like to learn more from you as a poet and writer what you think about these ideas and how they might be a factor in your writing process. I will let you get your rest, but I will be in touch by email. Take good care and get well soon! Corry

  4. thanks alot,, it helped me very much����