If we cannot locate aesthetic value of texts in themselves (…) yet do not want to abolish questions of value altogether, it needs to be located elsewhere. The author, pronounced dead in post-structuralism, and in any case conspicuously absent in most mass-mediated forms of textuality, has proven an unsuitable basis for textual interpretation and evaluation. However, if we can distinguish texts and meaning creation as radically as Jenkins’s (1992) distinction between exceptional texts and exceptional readings suggests, the reader appears to be a no-better indicator of the aesthetic value of texts, since exceptional readings would thus appear to be based upon form of audience activity quite independent of texts themselves. If we cannot locate aesthetic value in the author, text, or reader alone, it is in the process of interaction between these that aesthetic value is manifested.

Sandvoss, C. (2007). The death of the reader: literary theory and the study of texts in popular culture. In Gray, J. A., Sandvoss, C., & Harrington, C. L. (Eds.). Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world. NYU Press.

In some ways this is a meta-paper about some big questions that the Cultural Studies turn to the active audience – and to fans specifically – raises. The key question Sandvoss is grappling with is, how do we judge the aesthetic value of a text? How do we know if it’s any good? He raises several challenges to such aesthetic judgements that Cultural Studies has come up against. One is the vastly expanded definition of “text”: Cultural Studies doesn’t just look at novels and poems, which is what we might ordinarily imagine as texts. It investigates TV shows, songs, games, ads and even, on occasion, crisp packets. Another challenge is the “death of the author” – the idea that what the author intended doesn’t actually matter hugely when it comes to what a reader or an audience gets out of a text. Not only that, but the author becomes an incredibly nebulous concept when we start thinking about texts like video games or TV shows. So authorial intent doesn’t really help us in judging the aesthetic value of a text. Neither, says Sandvoss, does the text itself, as Cultural Studies has become increasingly sceptical of the idea that the text has any intrinsic meaning: rather meaning is made by the audience. (Have a look at some of our previous posts for some ideas on how this is done in fanfiction.) So aesthetic value isn’t a feature of the author, the text, or the reader on their own. It must therefore lie in the interaction between the three. Sandvoss goes on to argue that aesthetic value can be measured in the gap or distance between reader and text. How much of a challenge is the text to the reader’s preconcieved notions about the world? How much does it make the reader think, feel, re-evaluate what they thought they knew? That’s where Sandvoss ultimately pins aesthetic value.

What do you think?

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