"The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology." British Journal of Aesthetics v35, n1 (Jan, 1995).
Reviewing ISER'S The Implied Reader (1974) in the TLS (11 July 1975), Frank Kermode lamented the omission of Iser's early essay "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction" (1971) as being the clearest single statement of its author's purposes. Nearly twenty years on this sentiment gains an extra validity for, with hindsight, this early paper now takes on the character of a professional manifesto. Not only did it sketch out a historical perspective on indeterminacy to be elaborated in The Implied Reader, and the main concepts of a theory of aesthetic response to fiction, later developed in The Act of Reading (1978), but it ended with a question which was not to be answered fully until this most recent work. In 1971, Iser wrote: `What is it that makes the reader want to share in the adventures of literature? This question is perhaps more for the anthropologist than for the literary critic'. By 1989, in the last chapter of Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, he had begun to explore the phenomenon of why such a medium as literature should exist and what its presence, almost since the beginning of recorded time, indicates about our "anthropological needs". "What are these needs, and what does this medium reveal to us about our own anthropological make-up? These are the questions that would lead to the development of an anthropology of literature" (Prospecting, p. 264). The present book represents just such a development. Given the pluralism of modern literary theory, Iser's project over two decades stands not only as testimony to the intellectual development of a major literary critic, but also as an alternative agenda for literary studies. For Iser offers literary anthropology as nothing less than the proper function of literary theory, the philosophical foundation in which all subsequent theory might be grounded.
This is an important and challenging book both in its ideas and its language. There is some
repetitiousness both within this volume and of concepts and examples used in his earlier books. Nonetheless, Iser has charted literary anthropology in two senses--psychologically and historically. Whether he has answered his question about our anthropological make-up through this procedure is less certain. In attempting to theorize the elusive nature of fictional experiences there is often the sense of Iser clutching at ghosts; and there are no concessions to his implied reader whom the text defines as one patient with polysyllables and comfortable with a sustained high level of abstraction. Real or implied, Iser's reader has no easy ride.