Fish: “Interpreting the Variorum”

In his essay “Interpreting the Variorum” Stanley Fish makes the argument that the meaning of any literary work is crafted by the varying interpretations of the readers, and supports this claim by analyzing the different interpretative meanings of several poems by Milton. Much like Iser, Fish argues that every unique interpretation of a given literary work is significant, and “any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail” (Fish, 289). Fish furthers his argument, by saying that every reader has a unique experience in reading a literary text and takes away a different meaning from the text because of this. When two readers emerge with similar readings of a text, it is because of the notion of interpretive communities: those who share similar interpretive strategies in approaching a text.  Furthermore, Fish goes beyond Iser’s initial argument by concluding that it is the readers that shape the majority of the meaning and purpose of the text and the author plays little part in this process.

I found this essay to be a lot like Iser’s essay The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach. Fish’s essay, however, centered around the notion that every reader has a unique response to any given text, and takes Iser’s assertion that the reader plays an active role in the overall experience of a text, for granted. The part that I liked most about this essay was Fish’s idea that a literary text is “not meant to be solved but to be experienced” (Fish, 289) In many of my early English classes, we were taught to tediously pry a meaning out of every poem and story we read, and not just any meaning, but the one right meaning. Fish not only encourages the different interpretations and experiences that everyone has in reading a literary work, but celebrates these different meanings, and insists that all are “correct.” Fish disagrees with the traditional views of literature, that “there is a sense” and that it “is embedded or encoded in the text, and that it can be taken at a single glance” (Fish 296). It is very refreshing to read that one need not necessarily hunt and search for some hidden meaning encoded within the text, but merely experience the text and form a unique meaning out of that experience. Fish’s argument reminds me of a poem by Billy Collins entitled “Introduction to Poetry.” This poem encourages readers to experience a literary text for themselves, instead of “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”


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