Science Fiction Studies

#44 = Volume 15, Part 1 = March 1988



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 the text.

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 orientations.

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. Diss., 1979.

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. (Tbingen: Gunter Narr, forthcoming).

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