What “Nothing” Means: de Man and Didion after the Reader
This essay is about the relation between what the rise of the reader meant to literary theory and what it meant to literature in the period widely perceived as the era of theory – roughly the mid-sixties through the early eighties. I focus on how theory’s interest in the reader – as formulated and radicalized by Paul de Man and Stanley Fish – is shared in overlapping and opposing ways by ambitious novelists of the period – Joan Didion, in particular – and thus becomes a central aesthetic problem for the novel. My primary interest here is in showing how the question of the reader means one thing when asked in the context of the history of criticism: What is reading? What are the appropriate methods? How does one recognize the truth of interpretation? And how it means something significantly different when asked in the context of the history of the novel – or, more generally, the history of art. To this end, the essay raises a series of questions about the novel, and art in general, arguing that a theoretical and aesthetic reconfiguration takes place around the role of the reader during the era of theory: Namely, how, by way of rethinking the relationship between the reader and the novel and between the novel and theory, novelists and other artists produced their own account of what the novel – what art – should be.