BOOKS IN REVIEW
Kenneth M. Roemer
Prescriptions for Readers (and Writers) of Utopias
Peter Ruppert. Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary
Utopias. Athens: Georgia UP, 1986. xiv + 193pp. $19.00.
Paying attention to how readers read utopia is nothing new. Classics scholars have
examined how Aristotle read Plato's Republic; students of popular works, such as
Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, have analyzed how readers acted out their
interpretations of utopia by forming experimental communities, reform clubs, and political
parties; and, on a more theoretical level, in 1973 Darko Suvin ("Defining the
Literary Genre") implied the importance of readers by incorporating the concept of
"cognitive estrangement" into his definition of utopian literature. What is new is
that during the early 1980s a few scholars have begun to explore the possibilities of
using various types of recently developed reader-response theory to interpret utopian
literature. (For example, see the articles and parts of books in the "Works Cited"
list by Gary Saul Morson, Peter Fitting, Lee Cullen Khanna, and me.) Like the applications
of feminist perspectives to analyses of utopian literature during the 1970s, the use of
reader-response criticism offers exciting possibilities for fresh and engaging
interpretations. Thus the appearance of a book-length study written from this perspective
is certainly a welcome event.
The book, Peter Ruppert's Reader in a Strange Land, offers us four theoretical
chapters:--(1) "Introduction: Readers in Utopia"; (2) "Disputed Boundaries:
Defining the Utopian Terrain"; (3) "The Role of the Readers: Between Possibility and
Necessity"; and (7) "Conclusion: The Efficacy of Contradictions"--and three more
specific chapters focusing on a few examples of three types of literary utopias: the
eutopia (More); the dystopia (Huxley, Orwell, and especially Zamiatin); and the ambiguous
utopia (Wells, Piercy, and Le Guin).
The primary goal of both the theoretical and the case study chapters is to define ideal
readers of literary utopias and objects worthy of their efforts --viz., ideal utopian
works. In part Ruppert's ideal readers are defined by negation. They are not primarily
interested in extracting from "fixed texts" blueprints for social application or
extracting constructs of ideal societies that become the stuff of literary or intellectual
histories. Hence social activist readers and intellectual historians such as the Manuels
are less-than-ideal readers. Neither are ideal readers ingenious readers who perceive
utopias as playful and symbolic fictions that resolve or at least harmonize the conflicts
of the "real" world. (Ruppert places Northrop Frye in this category.) Instead ideal
readers perceive utopian texts as invitations to discover questions, conflicts, and
utopian concepts relevant to their own reality and questions relevant to the imaginary
better world they perceive in the text.
To be more specific, Ruppert's ideal readers should be able to engage
actively in two interrelated types of dialectical activities. First they should
be able to juxtapose the utopist's descriptions of the real and better world, perceive the contradictions between
the two, and use their awareness of these contradictions to perceive, in new ways, the
problems and the potential of their own society. This process of perceiving
juxtapositions, contradictions, and new angles on the present prepares the ideal readers
for their second activity: discovering inconsistencies and contradictions in the
utopist's construct of a better world. These discoveries in turn engage the readers in
their own attempts to imagine a "third alternative" (to the "real" world and
to the utopist's better world) that represents answers to or at least contemplations about
the gaps and contradictions they perceived in the utopist's better world.
Ruppert presents three types of examples or paradigms of his ideal readers. Bellamy's
Julian West becomes one exemplar. His experience in the Boston of A.D. 2000 has taught him
to see differently. Hence, when he returns to 19th-century Boston in his nightmare, he
sees this once familiar cityscape through a series of juxtapositions and contradictions
that have defamiliarized the familiar and sensitize him to the disturbing poverty and
oppression that had formerly been invisible to him (pp. 66-67). Of course, West fulfills
only the first activity of the ideal reader, since he does not perceive the contradictions
in the world Dr. Leete describes. Another paradigm of the ideal reader is represented by
a select group of critics, most notably Louis Marin (Utopiques: Jeux d'espaces and
"Toward a Semiotic of Utopia"). Ruppert presents Marin's ability to perceive
contradictions in More's Utopia as a model for the reading activities of readers
of literary utopias (pp. 81-89). Ruppert's own textual analyses, leading to constructions
of implied readers capable of performing the interrelated activities mentioned above,
constitute his third and most frequently used type of examples of ideal readers.
In theory, Ruppert's ideal reader should be able to respond to any literary utopia by
discovering the types of contradictions that lead to new ways to perceive their
environments and new ways to contemplate utopian possibilities. He demonstrates this in
his brief discussion of Bellamy's Looking Backward, whose extrapolated utopian
construct is often described as "closed" or "static." In the hands (or
imaginations) of Ruppert's ideal readers, this utopia becomes much more open (pp. 62-68).
Nevertheless, it is clear that the truly worthy objects of contemplation (or liberation)
for the ideal readers are: (1) traditional utopias that focus on one vision of a better
world but present that world ambiguously (the prime example being the skeptical and
inconclusive presentation of More's Utopia); (2) traditional dystopias that
suggest the harmful possibilities of the extremes of control and of individual freedom
(the paradigm here is Zamiatin's We); and (3) the "open" or
"ambiguous" or "inconclusive thought game" utopias represented by Wells's Modern
Utopia and, more recently, by Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Le
Guin's The Dispossessed. Ruppert prefers these three types of utopias because
they leave ample room for his ideal readers to exercise their abilities to juxtapose and
discover contradictory viewpoints and to imagine "third alternatives." The dialogues
between these texts and the ideal readers can, according to him, result in exciting acts
of co-creation that make new meanings for the texts and liberate the readers so that they
can see their world anew and become more creative imaginers of utopian possibilities.
The degree to which readers accept Ruppert's definitions of ideal readers and ideal
utopias will depend, at least in part, upon whether or not they accept his general
assumptions about the functions of literature and the act of reading and his particular
assumptions about the most important functions of utopian literature and the most
appropriate method of studying utopian literature. He clearly believes that one of the
most significant functions of literature is to startle readers into new perceptions of
reality and potentiality. This belief is expressed in several key passages in which he
defines the central functions of utopian literature:
For the efficacy of utopian literature lies neither in its capacity to inspire actual
social reform nor solely in its status as a form of fiction. Instead, the importance of
these works lies in their disturbing and unsettling effects on readers, that is, in the
very ambivalence and doubt they arouse in us. (pp. 4-5)
Rather than providing readers with a window into the future--whether Marxist or
capitalist or socialist--utopian literature produces a more important effect in
undermining the reader's complacency and apathy about the existing moment in history and
in arousing the kind of doubt and dissatisfaction that nurtures utopian activity in the
first place. (p. 19)
Utopias do, however, present a dimension that is not fully accounted for by the concept
of cognitive estrangement, for they not only defamiliarize or 'make strange' a deformed
social situation but also seek to familiarize a clear alternative--a fictive 'other'
situation in which all forms of estrangement have been overcome. (p. 39) [This clear
alternative obviously does not apply to the ambiguous utopias, and Ruppert's ideal readers
can see the contradictions in the utopian societies of the unambiguous utopias.]
Considering Ruppert's concept of the functions of utopian literature, it is not
surprising that he was attracted to Wolfgang Iser's model of an "implied reader"
willing to be affected by the "gaps" and "invitations" in the text--willing to
be disturbed enough to "complete" the perceived hints and incompleteness in the
"network of response-inviting structures" of the text (p. 49). His concept of the
functions of utopian literature and the act of reading form the foundations of his
approach to studying utopian literature:
...I will examine the potential effects of literary utopias, both in terms of how these
effects have been inferred by various readers and how I think they ought to be inferred.
My view, essentially, is that utopias are best understood in the context of a dialectical
model of the reader/text relationship--one in which the reader's position is not
entirely in the text, nor entirely outside it, but alternates productively between these
positions. In such a dialectical approach, reader and text are inextricably bound
together: the activity of the reader is elicited by the text, and the text cannot be
realized in the absence of the reader's performance. (pp. 5-6)
If we can accept Ruppert's assumptions about the functions of utopian literature, the
act of reading, and the best method of studying utopian literature, then his definitions
of the ideal reader of utopias and of the ideal utopia become convincing interpretative
tools for students of utopian literature. Even if we feel uncomfortable with some of his
assumptions and definitions, Reader in a Strange Land still offers provocative
challenges to rethink standard readings that define utopias as fixed texts housing
one-dimensional social blueprints, that ignore the non-sociopolitical elements of the
work, that offer superficial definitions of closed and open utopias, and that ignore the
potential effects of literary utopias on readers.
Unfortunately, for this reader, several elements of Reader in a Strange Land render
it more a provocative than a convincing study. In the first three chapters, Ruppert tends
to repeat his general views about readers and utopias too frequently, and
occasionally--and despite the repetition--the identity of the word "reader" or
"we" is unclear. (On page 22, for example, does "we" represent the modern
academic reader, the typical reader of any age, or the ideal implied reader? See also the
use of "the reader" on page 64.) In both the theoretical and the case-study
chapters, Ruppert's interpretations of utopian texts would have been more convincing had
he been better acquainted with scholarship about particular works. For instance, his
discussions of Bellamy and Wells would have been more substantial had he been aware of
articles that discussed the very passages and issues he considers (see Khanna: 77-79;
Roemer, "Contexts and Texts," pp. 220-22; and Roemer, "H.G. Wells," pp.
119-28). Furthermore, his fascination with dialectical structures sometimes results in reductionist readings. He reminds us that literary utopias project more than a utopian
society; they also include descriptions of historical settings (e.g., More's England in
Book I of Utopia) that, contrasted to the utopia, disturb readers and encourage
them to see their society in new ways (p. 7). As Kenneth Dowst has argued convincingly
(pp. 34-61), this dialogue is at least a triologue, since the utopist's
descriptions of "the present" are highly selective verbal constructs designed to
make the utopia look wonderful. Before readers contrast the utopist's
interpretation of the present and utopia, they compare their own views of their
society to the utopist's construction of the present. The results of this
comparison will fundamentally affect how readers then compare the utopist's view
of the real and utopian worlds. Similar arguments could be made that would take
into account the constructs of utopian societies that the readers bring to
Ruppert's fascination with dialectical structures raises a more fundamental question
about his decision to stress only one type of reader-response criticism. This decision
certainly adds coherence and unity to his book, and I feel a bit strange voicing this
complaint because I am partial to Iser's theories. Nevertheless, Ruppert's emphasis on the
ideal reader's ability to discover significant juxtapositions, contradictions, and
ambivalences, especially in complex and ambiguous utopian texts, often sounds very similar
to Formalist or New Critical readings of Modernist texts, readings that celebrate the
reader's ability to discover irony and ambivalence. I am not claiming that Ruppert's brand
of reader-response criticism is merely warmed-over New Criticism. His orientation is very
different. But a reader who is not acquainted with various reader-response theories but is
grounded in New Critical ways might well ask how much is "new" in Ruppert's readings
of More, Bellamy, Wells, Piercy, and Le Guin.
Readers who are acquainted with reader-response criticism might also ask about the
disadvantages of so clearly prescribing one form of reader-response criticism. (At times Ruppert's tone becomes quite exclusive, as when he quotes from Zamiatin's We:
"along the knife's edge is the road of paradoxes--the only road worthy of a fearless
mind" [p. 115]). Implicitly and explicitly throughout the book, Ruppert looks down upon
the many types of readers--particularly those "inactive" or "passive"
readers who only perceive social blueprints in utopian texts--who do not respond to
textual invitations and gaps as they should. I sympathize with his impatience because he
is offering a provocative means of re-energizing how we read utopian literature. But if
his implied, ideal reader represents only a small fraction of the range of possible and
actual responses to reading utopian works, then how much is he really telling us about the
"Activity of Reading Literary Utopias"?
I am not arguing for the abandonment of implied utopian readers. I do, however, see
tremendous advantages in a more eclectic approach to reader-response interpretations of
utopian literature--one open to inquiries about the documented activities of "real"
readers (whether they be book reviewers, members of Bellamy Clubs, or late-20th-century
students in literature classes) and also open to applications of Jonathan Culler's concept
of "competent" readers conditioned by reading conventions, Stanley Fish's and Steven Mailloux's concept of "interpretive communities," and other reader-response
Possibly the most significant effect of Ruppert's provocative and important book will
be to encourage readers to perceive the invitations and gaps in his emphasis on one type
of reader-response examination of utopian literature. If these readers have the stuff of Ruppert's ideal readers, they will be disturbed enough to point out the gaps and to
imagine their own ways of utilizing several reader-response theories to expand our
concepts of the literary utopia. Theoretically, that should make Ruppert happy.
Dowst, Kenneth Irving, Jr. The Rhetoric of Utopian Fiction. Pittsburgh Univ.
Fitting, Peter. "Positioning and Closure: On the 'Reading Effect' of Contemporary
Utopian Fiction," in Utopian Studies 1, ed. Gorman Beauchamp, Kenneth M. Roemer,
& Nicholas D. Smith (Washington, DC: UP of America, 1987), pp. 23-36.
Khanna, Lee Cullen. "The Reader in Looking Backward," Journal of General
Education, 33 (1981): 69-79.
Marin, Louis. Utopiques: Jeux d'espaces. Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1973.
________. "Toward a Semiotic of Utopia: Political and Fictional Discourse in Thomas More's Utopia," in Structure, Consciousness, and History, ed. Richard
Harvey Brown & Stanford M. Lyman (London: Cambridge UP, 1978), pp. 261-82.
Morson, Gary Saul. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's "Diary of a
Writer" and the Traditions of Literary Utopias. Austin: Texas UP, 1981.
Roemer, Kenneth M. "Contexts and Texts: The Influence of Looking Backward,"
Centennial Review, 27 (1983): 204-22.
________. "H.G. Wells and the 'Momentary Voices' of a Modern Utopia," Extrapolation,
23 (1982): 117-37.
________. "Perceptual Origins: Preparing Readers to See Utopian Fiction," in Utopian
Thought in American Literature, ed. Arno Heller et al. (Tübingen: Gunter Narr,
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