Discourse and the reception of literature: problematising ‘reader response’

Bibiographic details

Allington, D. (2008). Discourse and the reception of literature: problematising ‘reader response’. PhD thesis, University of Stirling.


In my earlier work, ‘First steps towards a rhetorical hermeneutics of literary interpretation’ (2006), I argued that academic reading takes the form of an argument between readers. Four serious weaknesses in that account are its elision of the distinction between reading and discourse on reading, its inattention to non-academic reading, its exclusive focus on ‘interpretation’ as if this constituted the whole of reading or of discourse on reading, and its failure to theorise the object of literary reading, ie. the work of literature. The current work aims to address all of these problems, together with those created by certain other approaches to literary reading, with the overall objective of clearing the ground for more empirical studies. It exemplifies its points with examples drawn primarily from non-academic public discourse on literature (newspapers, magazines, and the internet), though also from other sources (such as reading groups and undergraduate literature seminars). It takes a particular (though not an exclusive) interest in two specific instances of non-academic reception: the widespread reception of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses as an attack on Islam, and the minority reception of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy The Lord of the Rings as a narrative of homosexual desire.

The first chapter of this dissertation critically surveys the fields of reception study and discourse analysis, and in particular the crossover between them. It finds more productive engagement with the textuality of response in media reception study than in literary reception study. It argues that the application of discourse analysis to reception data serves to problematise, rather than to facilitate, reception study, but it also emphasises the problematic nature of discourse analysis itself.

Each of the three subsequent chapters considers a different complex of problems. The first is the literary work, and its relation to its producers and its consumers: Chapter 2 takes the form of a discourse upon the notions of ‘speech act’ and ‘authorial intention’ in relation to literature, carries out an analysis of early public responses to The Satanic Verses, and puts in a word for non-readers by way of a conclusion. The second is the private experience of reading, and its paradoxical status as an object of public representation: Chapter 3 analyses representations of private responses to the Lord of The Rings film trilogy, and concludes with the argument that, though these representations cannot be identical with private responses, they are cannot be extricated from them, either. The third is the impossibility of distinguishing rhetoric from cognition in the telling of stories about reading: Chapter 4 argues that, though anecdotal or autobiographical accounts of reading cannot be taken at face value, they can be taken both as attempts to persuade and as attempts to understand; it concludes with an analysis of a magazine article that tells a number of stories about reading The Satanic Verses – amongst other things. Each of these chapters focuses on non-academic reading as represented in written text, but broadens this focus through consideration of examples drawn from spoken discourse on reading (including in the liminal academic space of the undergraduate classroom).

The last chapter mulls over the relationship between reading and discourse of reading, and hesitates over whether to wrap or tear this dissertation’s arguments up.


Prof. Lynne Pearce (University of Lancaster)
Dr Stephen Penn (University of Stirling)


Dr Bethan Benwell (University of Stirling)
Prof. Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University)