Study Guide

Stanley Fish Introduction

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Stanley Fish Introduction

Picture a literary theorist. Go ahead, we'll wait.

He's standing in an ivory tower, right?

Not this guy. Stanley Fish is more public intellectual than university-bound academic. Sure, you can check out his debate of late-Medieval and early-Renaissance poetry in an academic book published in 1965. But you can also find his writing on university politics, free speech, and the value of the humanities in the pages of the New York Times. He's even written about The Hunger Games and the 1960s TV show The Fugitive.

Our point? This guy is an intellectual juggernaut: a literary theorist, cultural commentator, legal scholar, teacher, and smarty pants all rolled into one. He's known for changing his mind about ideas; though if ask him about it, he's pretty likely to tell you to take a flying leap.

His contributions to literary theory are best summed up in his discussion of interpretative communities, an offshoot of reader-response criticism. Not one to accept the status quo, Fish rejected the craze of the New Critics, with their stuffy notion that meaning just sits in a text. Instead, Fish gave power to the reader's experience. That's right—power to the reader, not the text. May not sound like a big deal to you, but at the time, it was like your teacher changing your multiple-choice exam into a free-form personal essay question. This innocent little query started a blazing debate—but more on that later.

It wasn't enough for Fish to provoke frenzy among literary theorists—he had to go long and wide and critique the very purpose of education itself. He took on haters of intellectual thought for its own sake; you know, people who cast a cynical eye on the "value" of the humanities, publicly dissing it and threatening not to back down until "a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company" (source).

Don't get us wrong—Fish doesn't see any economic value in the humanities either. But guess what? That's not his point. This is a guy who values learning for learning's sake. Or, as Stanley might say: if reading A Tale of Two Cities doesn't get you a job as a hedge fund manager, great—then literature is doing just what it should.

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