Fit and Few

Donald Davie

  • The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry by David Trotter
    Macmillan, 272 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 333 30632 5

‘Fit audience, though few,’ said Milton; and thereupon declared the terms in which the issue of reader-response would be considered by poets from his day to ours. The widely-read author asks: ‘How many of these many readers are fit readers?’ And the non-selling author asks: ‘Are the fit readers so few?’ The first predicament is the worse. For the non-selling author can always blame his publisher, or his distributors; whereas the best-selling author, weeping all the way to the bank, has no one to blame but himself. If he is in earnest – and if he isn’t we’ll not bother with him, any more than David Trotter does – he thought that he was testing his society by moving out to the periphery of that society, speaking for and with the disaffected, the vagabonds, the ill-adjusted. How disconcerting, then, to find that the disaffection he thought he was speaking for had struck a loudly answering chord from the settled centre! That is the predicament of Larkin, of Hughes, of Heaney: each of them initially supposing himself a marginal person speaking up for marginal people, yet forced to recognise – as the royalty statements convey their gratifying yet unnerving message – that the stance he had thought of as special was on the contrary representative. The Making of the Reader doesn’t explicitly make this point, but it’s one necessary inference from David Trotter’s exceptionally strenuous argument.

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