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Making Sense of Literature
by John Reichert
University of Chicago Press, 1978
Cloth: 978-0-226-70769-3
Library of Congress Classification PN81.R36
Dewey Decimal Classification 801.95

In this commonsense approach to the fundamental issues involved in understanding and evaluating literary works, John Reichert examines the method and structure of rational critical argument and its relationship to the nature of reading. With clarity and vigor, he shows how we can cut through competing critical languages to sort right readings from wrong ones, better from worse. His incisive analyses are augmented by illustrations from distinguished critics writing about major literary works.

Reichert considers criticism broadly as the imparting of one's understanding of a poem or play or novel to another reader. When the rhetorical function of critical language is recognized, seemingly distinct approaches to literature can be seen as different though often compatible means to a single end. He contends that the critic's job is not to report a personal response but to describe how a reader—any reader—ought to respond to a particular work. This necessitates postulating the author's intention at every turn, so that criticism becomes an account of what the author does to the reader by means of the work.

Taking off from recent developments in the philosophy of language, Reichert proposes answers to questions such as: What is involved in the understanding of metaphor, irony, and fiction? What knowledge must the reader bring to the text to understand it? And in what ways may the meaning of the text be regarded as stable? He sets out to refute attempts by Beardsley, Peckham, Kermode, Culler, and Ellis, among others, to define the essential nature or function of literature. Finally, with a simple account of how the everyday assessments we make of people and actions apply to literary works, Reichert demonstrates that full evaluative arguments are never purely formal or "literary," but always, in a broad sense, moral.

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