Affective stylistics is derivedfrom analyzing further the notionthat a literary text is an event thatoccurs in time—that comes intobeing as it is read—rather than anobject that exists in space.
The text is examined closely,often line by line or even wordby word, in order to understandhow (stylistics) it affects(affective) the reader in theprocess of reading.
Although there is thus a great deal offocus on the text, which is why sometheorists consider this approach transactionalin nature, many practitioners of affectivestylistics do not consider the text anobjective, autonomous entity—it does nothave a fixed meaning independent ofreaders—because the text consists of theresults it produces, and those results occurwithin the reader.
For example, when Stanley Fishdescribes how a text is structured, thestructure he describes is the structure ofthe reader’s response as it occurs frommoment to moment, not the structure ofthe text as we might assemble it—likepuzzle pieces all spread out at oncebefore us—after we’ve finishedreading.
Indeed, it is the “slow-motion,” phrase-by-phraseanalysis of how the textstructures the reader’sresponse for which affectivestylistics is perhaps bestknown.
That Judas perished by hanging himself, there isno certainty in Scripture: though in one place itseems to affirm it, and by a doubtful word hathgiven occasion to translate it; yet in anotherplace, in a more punctual description, it make itimprobable, and seems to overthrow it.(“Literature” 71)
According to Fish, the question “What does this sentencemean?” or “What does this sentence say?” yields little because thesentence provides us with no facts with which we could answer thequestion. Even if we notice that the sentence does say something—itsays that Scripture gives us no clear indication of whether or not Judashanged himself—his point is that the sentence tells us only that it isunable to tell us anything. In contrast, he notes, the question “Whatdoes the sentence do to the reader?” or “How does the reader of thissentence make meaning?” yields something quite useful. What thispassage about Judas does, Fish notes, is move the reader from certaintyto uncertainty. The first clause, “that Judas perished by hanginghimself”(which, as most of us know, is a kind of shorthand for “the factthat Judas perished by hanging himself”), is an assertion we accept as astatement of fact.
Fish offers these three examples of the kinds of endings the first clause leads us to expect.1. That Judas perished by hanging himself is (an example for us all).2. That Judas perished by hanging himself shows (how conscious hewas of the enormity of his sin).3. That Judas perished by hanging himself should (give us pause).(“Literature” 71)
These expectations narrow the possible meanings of the next threewords in the passage: “there is no.” At this point, the reader expects to see“there is no doubt,” but is given instead “there is no certainty.” Now the fact of Judas’ hanging himself, upon which our understandingof the sentence has rested, becomes uncertain. Now the reader is involved in acompletely different kind of activity. As Fish puts it, “Rather than following anargument along a well-lighted path (alight, after all, has gone out), [the reader]is now looking for one” (“Literature”71). In such a situation, the reader willtend to read on in hopes of finding clarification. But as we continue to read thepassage, our uncertainty only increases as we move back and forth betweenwords that seem to promise clarity—“place, ”“affirm,” “place,” “punctual,”“overthrow”—and words that seem to with draw that promise: “though,”“doubtful,” “yet,” “improbable,” “seems.” Uncertainty is further increased bythe excessive use of the pronoun It because, as the sentence progresses, thereader has more and more difficulty figuring out what it refers to.
In addition to an analysis of the reading activities that structurethe reader’s response, other kinds of evidence are usually gathered tofurther support the claim that the text is about the experience of reading.For example, most practitioners of affective stylistics will cite theresponses of other readers—of other literary critics, for example—toshow that their own analyses of the reading activities provided by aparticular text are valid for readers other than just them-selves. A criticmight even cite an extreme divergence of critical opinion about the textto support, for example, the contention that the text provides anunsettling, decentering, or confusing reading experience. This wouldn’tmean that the text is flawed but that by unsettling the reader itdemonstrates, say, the fact that interpretation of written texts, andperhaps of the world, is a problematic endeavor from which we shouldnot expect to achieve certainty.
Thematic evidence from the textitself is also usually provided to showthat the text is about the experience ofreading. For example, the reader-response critic shows how theexperiences of characters anddescriptions of settings mirror thereader’s experience reading the text.
As noted above, the textual evidence at this point isthematic: the critic shows that the theme of the text is aparticular kind of reading experience, such as thedifficulties involved in reading, the processes involved inmaking sense of the text, or the inevitability ofmisreading. Although many practitioners of affectivestylistics believe that the text, as an independent object,disappears in their analysis and becomes what it reallyis—an experience that occurs within the reader—their useof thematic evidence, as we’ve just seen, underscores theimportant role played by the text in establishing what thereader’s experience is.