Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Reviewed by Guillaume Coatalen
The book is made of six chapters. The first is a theoretical one, the others are case studies based on readings of works by Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Herrick and Milton. The vagueness of the title is misleading. It does imply that authorship depends on readers—an obvious truth—but not Dobranski's main hunting ground: that of omissions or blank spaces. The inconsistent title may explain why the book’s real topic begins page 54 and why an important Woudhuysen quote appears page 148 when it would have been more natural in the introduction. Furthermore, the author fails to distinguish between various types of omission, and does not mention ellipsis. Is a blank a graphic representation of an ellipsis or something else? He is strangely diffident when it comes to define omissions . Instead, he distinguishes between the woolly categories of “real” or “feigned,” “particular” or “open-ended” omissions . He vaguely alludes to “various types of omissions” , but an ellipsis is quite distinct from a typographical blank. For one, the latter is a dash, a visual characteristic whereas the ellipsis is a figure of speech.
Dobranski falls prey to a hermeneutic circle. He posits a paradoxical relationship between the rise of the vernacular author and the increasing participation of the reader and sets to find proofs for his claim. The overall argument is forced, impossible to prove, and even if it were true, not a very exciting discovery. The author himself does not seem to believe in his general design, which is often heavily repeated. Such phrases as “as we saw in the previous chapter” [63; 97; 191] occur in at least three chapters. These clumsy links would be underlined in red in a first-year undergraduate essay. Here, they simply suggest that the book lacks coherence. By acknowledging some omissions in his own book, he gives us a stick to beat him with . He would have produced a far more convincing study if he had found responses by individual readers to the passages he examines. Manuscripts is where these responses are likely to be found, especially for Donne. When discussing Donne’s verse the author does not refer to the Variorum edition already published. Yet, he mentions “Group I,” a collection of manuscripts known to Donne initiates only. Given the technical nature of the analysis it is strange it should become so vague when it comes to manuscripts—“as we learn from surviving manuscript copies” . Which ones? Are they significant manuscripts? Ironically enough, the author is more convincing when he abandons omissions and considers the production of books. The bookseller’s and printer’s—usually the same man—decisive role in the meeting of the creator and his readers has little to do with blanks. Similarly, he is right to note that the fact that the printed word was almost as unstable as the written one  had an immediate impact on the relationship between reader and writer.
Dobranski’s vision of history is somewhat simplistic. Reading in Antiquity and the Middle Ages was not passive [23, 26]. There certainly was a lot of tampering with texts on the reader's part when the reader was as sophisticated a writer as Plotinus, Aquinas or Isidore of Seville. Keeping a commonplace book and reading for action were done in Antiquity, the Latin language being such a proverbial one and rhetoric being so central to public life. The Medieval canon contains highly active readings, which turn out to be far removed from their original sources. In a sense, no writing is more original than what presents itself as a modest gloss. It is impossible to know what Medieval readers did with vernacular texts. They either thought they were not worth rewriting or, which is more likely, the testimony has not survived. Aristotle is Dobranski’s only authority when he examines the reader’s role in Antiquity but Theophrastus certainly thought about the effect his plays had on the audience and their participation when he writes:
Taken separately, chapters 2 to 6 make interesting reading. Dobranski is an astute textual scholar and political commentator. Unsurprisingly, Dobranski’s finest chapter is on Milton, his area of expertise. Chapter 2 looks into “A Remedie for Love,” a burlesque verse ascribed to Sidney and printed at the end of the Arcadia’s tenth edition (1655). The chapter offers a fresh political reading of Milton’s comments on Sidney’s Arcadia in his Eikonoklastes (1649-1650)  and goes on by exploring the “latent royalism”  of “A Remedie for Love.” Chapter 3 analyses the omission at the end of Jonson’s “Epistle to Elizabeth Countesse of Rutland” in his 1616 Workes as a means “to establish himself as Sidney’s poetic heir” . Chapter 4 examines omissions in Donne’s Satyre II in his Poems (1633) as part of a “bawdy guessing game”  played with censorship. Dobranski first shows that Donne’s presence in the 1633 edition of his poems is paradoxical, he “remains alive because he has died”  and that his very imperfections are proof of his genius . Chapter 5 looks into the general configuration of Herrick’s Hesperides (1648), which “emphasizes the reader’s role” . Chapter 6 centres on the “Omissa” from John Milton’s Paradise Regain’d...Samson Agonistes (1671) in his relation to the reader’s “strenous liberty” .
There are a number of questionable statements and interpretations in the book:
Dobranski could not resist a few academic clichés. The word “negotiations”  belongs to the sort of critical jargon that is best avoided. The sub-title “The Death of the Author”  is a useless veiled allusion to Barthes and Foucault. There is the obligatory reference to Lacan and Derrida , the fetishes of post-modern criticism. The absence of a bibliography is very annoying in a largely bibliographical work which repeatedly describes title pages [51,123,151] of particular editions and copies. Hunting them down in the footnotes proves frustrating. On the other hand, the illustrations are helpful.
To conclude, Dobranski’s work is certainly worth reading but the strained argument, the a-historical approach, the lack of facts or responses by real contemporary readers, which could have been gleaned in early printed copies or in manuscript, fail to convince that such a monograph had to be written.