Reading the Reader of “Tristram Shandy”: Formal Prospectus

The art of reading has changed dramatically throughout the history of the printed word. The reader’s purpose in reading has remained constant throughout history: readers continue to read and critically analyze elements of the text. However, the methods by which individual readers respond to a text, through their reading practices, has been altered significantly as a result of the extra-textual materials available to analyze the text.

In my paper I will argue that the role of the reader has changed little throughout the history of reading, but the methods by which a reader responds to a text have changed significantly as a result of not only reading theories, but also of the extra-textual material available to the reader. To affect this argument, I will be focusing on the role and methods of readers in reading Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and using William H. Sherman’s John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance.

The first section of my paper will discuss the role of the reader in the eighteenth century as contemporary readers of Tristram Shandy and compare this to the role of twenty-first century readers in reading the same novel. This section will focus specifically on the role of the reader in analyzing the text, and propagating ideas about the text to the reader’s society. In analyzing the role of the reader in both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, I will specifically be focusing on who is reading Tristram Shandy and how this affects their role as a reader.

The second, and most important, section of my paper will discuss the methods of the reader and will focus on the transition to modern reading methods. These reading methods, becoming increasingly scientific as a result of the development of literary criticism, are important in determining how reading practices have changed over the past three centuries. In order to effectively analyze these methods, I will be looking at three important areas of analysis: eighteenth century reading and the focus on genre; twenty-first century reading and the focus on form; and finally an analysis of the materials used for reading.

My analysis of eighteenth century reading will focus primarily on the genre of novels and the society’s interpretation of this genre. In my preliminary research, I have found that eighteenth century readers were preoccupied with how the novel functioned as a representation of society. A novel such as Tristram Shandy, created significant turmoil for eighteenth century Londoners as a result of its discussions of distraction, fidelity, and autobiography. For these readers, Tristram Shandy was controversial and Sterne was consistently called upon to justify this controversy.

In contrast, twenty-first century readers are significantly more focused on the form of a novel. Rather than focusing on what the novel says about the current society (it is presumed that it says little about a society three hundred years removed), twenty-first century readers continue to read Tristram Shandy in order to provoke discussion on elements of the physical text: the marbled/black/blank pages, the asterisks, the frequency of terms, and the implications of dashes, dates, and other elements that can be extracted from a text in a form of algorithmic criticism.

Finally, I will discuss how these changes are paralleled by the increase in materials available for use in analyzing text. In the eighteenth century, much of the extra-textual material existed in the form of other texts (what we now call intertextual critique) or in the form of the literate discussing the text amongst themselves, a limited audience necessitated a limited body of criticism. As printing has become more common, less expensive, and more accessible, the amount of material available to scholars critiquing any particular novel has also increased. This, in conjunction with the increase in literacy and in access to published material (and in the ability to self-publish) has definitively altered the kind of material that critics have access to and are able to use in an analysis of any particular novel. In researching Tristram Shandy, it is possible now to access hundreds of articles, books, and other online or print media on any subject within the novel that was simply not available in the eighteenth century. As a result, the methods of readers have changed.

In conclusion, my paper will discuss the contrast between the methods of readers in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries and how these methods differ as a result of the materials with which readers read. Although, as I argue in the first section of my paper, the role of the reader has remained the same, it would be difficult for a critical reader of the eighteenth century to recognize the practice of a critical reader of the twenty-first century, and vice versa.

Annotated Bibliography

  • Beaumont, Matthew. “Beginnings, endings, births, deaths: Sterne, Dickens, and Bleak House.” Textual Practice 26:5. (2012): 807-827. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.

This article will be used in analyzing narrative form from the perspective of the twenty-first century reader, and also as a comparative point for other eighteenth century novels.

  • Fawcett, Julia H. “Creating Character in “Chario Oscuro”: Sterne’s Celebrity, Cibber’s Apology, and the Life of Tristram Shandy.” The Eighteenth Century 53:2. (2012): 141-161. Project Muse. Web. 13 March 2013.

This article will be used to discuss contemporary interpretations of Tristram Shandy and the autobiographical perception of Sterne’s novel. I will also use this article to articulate the focus of the eighteenth century reader on the genre of a text and how this directly contrasts to the twenty-first century reader’s focus on form.

  • Gorelick, Nathan. The Unconscious Enlightenment: The Origin of the Novel and the Logic of Fantasy. Diss. University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2010. ProQuest: UMI, 2010. Web.

This dissertation will be used as a reference source in the discussion of genre and the eighteenth century conception of the novel.

  • Phillips, Natalie. Narrating Distraction: Problems of Focus in Eighteenth Century Fiction, 1750-1820. Diss. Stanford University, 2010. ProQuest: UMI, 2010. Web.

This dissertation will be used as a reference source in the discussion of eighteenth century reading practices and lifestyles.

  • Renwick, W.L. English Literature 1789-1815. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. Print.

This book will be used as an analysis of the history of English literature, unbiased by the twenty-first century and sufficiently removed from both eras of study to be effective in providing a detailed description of both eighteenth century literature and reading practices

  • Sinding, Michael. “From Fact to Fiction: The Question of Genre in Autobiography and Early First Person Novels.” SubStance 39:2. (2010): 107-130. Project Muse. Web. 17 March 2013.

This article will be used to analyze the effect of autobiography and genre on the eighteenth century reader’s perspective of a novel/text as well as delineate the underlying purposes of texts that readers are provided with, within a text.

  • Wetmore, Alex. “Sympathy Machines: Men of Feeling and the Automaton.” Eighteenth Century Studies 43:1. (2009): 37-54. Project Muse. Web. 19 March 2013.

This article will be used to facilitate a discussion of the changing role of the reader from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century as a function of gender roles and stereotypes, as well as how the changing roles of readers as gendered beings shape interpretation.

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One Response to Reading the Reader of “Tristram Shandy”: Formal Prospectus

  1. ullyot says:

    This is very promising, Sam. The argument about mass research materials as a modern problem is good, though Sterne seems to be writing with a large reference library (real and invented) at his elbow.

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