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(Note: The last three quotations are cited in The Reception of Doctrine: An Appropriation of Hans Robert Jauss' Reception Aesthetics and Literary Hermeneutics.)
[T]he quality and rank of a literary work result neither from the biographical conditions of its origin, nor from its place in the sequence of the development of a genre alone, but rather from the criteria of influence, reception, and posthumous fame. [From Towards an Aesthetic of Reception.]
I'm pretty much a straight shooter in this one. Yeah, it's one of my finger-wagging moments, but what I'm saying is way important—that a book is good not because of when or where it was written or because it was the third Gothic novel ever written. It's good because the readers made it good.
Readers make the books great by receiving them as wonderful works, not because the book is out there in the middle of nowhere being great and just waiting to be discovered. A lot happens to a book when a writer lets it loose in the world. Writing is just the beginning.
[Formalism and Marxism fail] "to bridge the gap between literature and history" [because they] "conceive the literary fact within the closed circle of an aesthetics of production and of representation. In doing so, they deprive literature of a dimension that inalienably belongs to its aesthetic character as well as to its social function: the dimension of its reception and influence." [From Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics.]
I know. I talk a lot about Marxism and Formalism, but that's because they were two of the most influential schools of thought when I was throwing together my ideas on reader reception, so I constantly had to contend with them. Like all other critics, I had to point out all of the things that were wrong with the other ideas so that people would pick mine as they walked down the shopping aisle for a good theory.
My critique here is that Marxism overplays the importance of history for literature, and Formalism underplays it. That's where I come in. I may sound a bit like a broken record, but my point is that there's more to books than writing and representing. Someone has to read the book, and the book has to have an impact on that someone.
Medieval literature was no longer to be interpreted as a connecting link between antique and modern, but rather to be comprehended in its own historical worlds as the model of a culture that was exemplary in its very strangeness, and to be discovered through a new approach—the horizon of expectations […] and through studying the history of the function of literary genres. [From Outline of Romance Literature of the Middle Ages]
I include this little nugget mostly because I feel that it gives a helpful idea of what I mean when I throw around terms like horizon of expectation. Before I came along, readers would pick up books and just understand them in terms of their own context. They didn't really get that something like medieval literature wasn't the same thing as a modern work like a novel.
I stood up and said: let's recognize medieval literature for what it is—medieval. I pointed out that the medieval period had its own thing going on, and wasn't just a holdover between classical and modern. All that stuff at the end of the quotation is basically my call to study how readers at specific times received the genres prevalent at that those times.
In order to become conscious of this otherness of a departed past, a reflective consideration of its surprising aspects is called for, an activity which methodologically entails the reconstruction of the horizon of expectation of the addressees for whom the text was originally composed. [From The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature]
I know it sometimes feels like you're the first and only one to read a book—it feels like it's your discovery. Well, it's not. I think it's important that we think about books as living objects that move through time. With every new era come new readers, who have fresh and different perspectives, and who therefore read a book differently. Not everyone does a Marxist Queer Theory reading of Moby-Dick, shocking through it may sound.
Consider, if you will, who actually read Moby-Dick when it first came on to the scene. Those readers had their own ideas. In fact, most readers panned the book, and Melville died a pretty lonely death. (Let's put it this way: he was not on any Barnes and Noble mugs back then.) They just weren't into the now-classic novel the way we know you are—or soon will be.
The dispute […] brought both sides ultimately to the same conclusion, which was that ancient and modern art in the long run could not be measured against the same standard of perfection, because each epoch had its own customs, its own tastes, and therefore its own ideas of beauty. [From History of Art (Geschichte der Kunst)]
Hey—this is no big revelation, but as literary history marched on, readers and critics and other such folks began to see change in their books. Innovations became traditions, tastes changed, history modified the way people received and read certain works, and standards evolved. The idea of a literary history began to form. Each period had its own idea of what made a book beautiful—a lot like how ideas of human beauty change.