You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake: interpreting literary texts

Is there a text in this class?

Is there a text in this class?

It seems self-evident to think that our tastes in literature and our interpretation of texts is grounded in our unique selves. The meaning and effect we find in reading is the sum of our parts, or even more so, created and sustained through an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated configuration of our individual personality, experiences and background.

I remember hearing as a child that each snowflake had a unique design, and later seeing that most wonderfully demonstrated in those unforgettable photos of microscopically-enhanced individual snowflakes, their geometric, symmetrical details organised into mind-boggingly endless possibilities. And then being told – you’re as unique as that snowflake, beautiful and individual.

Thinking more broadly, such beliefs are probably sustained through a necessity of considering ourselves as individuals, a sign of how far our ego protects us by identifying us as special amongst a morass of different, sometimes competing, external forces, including other people. Whatever the reason, it’s permeated our culture for some time, and we may remember finding it illustrated in the snowflake example from our shared cultural heritage.*

You might reasonably think that as a unique snowflake (leaving the beauty aside) that there would be very little consensus when it comes to interpretation. Following this through, as individuals, we experience meaning and effect as relative to our persona. Extended logically, we should all generate different interpretations, have different tastes, given that we have uniquely individual lives.

But we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes (at least when it comes to interpretation of literary texts).

Some time ago, the literary critic and theorist Stanley Fish ran some experiments with his class to see the extent to which they agreed on details of the texts they read. (His experiment and results can be read in his work, Interpreting the Variorum and the brilliantly titled, Is There a Text in this Class?). What he found, in brief, was that there was a large degree of consensus within what became known as ‘interpretative communities‘. These communities shared common ideas, backgrounds, experiences: they might, for example, have taken a class on Romantic Poets before they read Blake; or their economic and social circumstances may have been similar; they may also be aware of the authorial intent (although the usefulness of this is another matter). Fish’s work is quite old now, but it’s still relevant, and highly influential.

Despite the division of people into communities, his work shows us that our interpretations and tastes are largely a product of the social groups in which we sit – our ‘uniqueness’ does not, at least in these terms, extend to an indivisible relativistic singular – a person, a ‘unique and beautiful snowflake’. This helps explain why some books become classics, or even that some are published at all – because an agent or publisher will decide what they think the market will like. That market is just another interpretative community. What is more, those books, when published, are no less subject to the writer’s own contract with his or her interpretative community; ideas, inspiration and so on are a product too of the community in which the writer belongs (the notion of intertextuality is useful here).

It doesn’t mean that our take on books and our reading is not valuable, not least to ourselves. Rather, it means that your reading in a broader sense is a product of the interpretative communities – for there will be more than one – in which you reside. Reading (and writing), far from being a solitary endeavour, might be more social than we first think.

* In this case I mean, a Western one; I suspect but don’t know for sure if this idea exists elsewhere in quite the same way.

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2 thoughts on “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake: interpreting literary texts

  1. you’re as unique as that snowflake, beautiful and individual

    … and yet essentially identical in many important ways. Each of those snowflakes is made of water, and has six-fold radial symmetry; warm them above 0C and the individuality melts away.

    I really like the metaphor of snowflake individuality: there’s a lot to it.

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