Are Lit/Crit professors done with reader response theory? Or perhaps they are just moving beyond it to its natural culmination -- autobiography as criticism. I wonder about this because I have been rummaging around recently in some old (as in 10-20 years old) trends in textual analysis. What brought it to mind was actually a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Stanley Fish, granddaddy of the reader response critics. The editorial itself is pretty silly. It is about politics and academics' opinion of Donald Trump. Fish apparently thinks academics, particularly historians, have no special insights into the Trump phenomenon; the academic Stanley Fish, of course, has profound insights. His argument is self-refuting. But the piece got me thinking about Fish's career trajectory, as well as that of those who hitched their analytical wagons to his. It seems to me that reader response, although a useful tool, has shot its bolt.

Most believe Fish's greatest contribution to literary criticism to be his famous book about Milton, Surprised By Sin. The basic notion is that Milton's subject is actually the reader, who Milton forces to undergo a spiritual reexamination when led through the story of Adam, Eve, and Satan. Thinking more broadly, the reader participates with the writer in producing the text. It's an interesting notion, up to a point.

Fish was recruited by Duke to energize their English department, and he did; some say he blew it up. Since then he's gone on to a string of influential administrative positions in higher education, as well as continuing to write provocative, even inflammatory books and essays. His intellectual offspring appear to have moved on as well, following what I think is the natural progression of reader response theory. They write about themselves reacting to the text. They also write a lot of autobiographies only distantly related to literature. In effect, they make literary criticism all about their reaction to it and to life. For example, Jane Tompkins, Fish's wife and also a prominent reader response theorist, wrote an autobiographical book called A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. She has subsequently championed teaching literature at the graduate level as students' feelings about the text. Many have called this incredibly narcissistic, and I agree. People can get a PhD knowing little about the text, its historical context, or much else. But it is the natural culmination of reader response to a text, an object produced by, as some have termed it, the "author function."