Fish, Stanley

views updated


FISH, STANLEY (1938– ), U.S. literary theorist. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Fish earned his doctoral degree in English literature from Yale University in 1962. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Johns Hopkins University, before becoming professor of English and of law at Duke University (1985–98). He also served as the executive director of the Duke University Press from 1993 to 1998. Fish was then dean of arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1999 to 2004.

Considered a leading scholar on John Milton, Fish is a well-known and sometimes controversial literary theorist. His first published work, John Skelton's Poetry, appeared in 1965, but he rose to prominence with the publication of his second book, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" (1967). Here Fish first presented his theory of "reader-response criticism," in which he argues that reading is a temporal phenomenon and that the meaning of a literary work is located within the reader's experience of the text. His Self-consuming Artifacts (1972) elaborated and developed the notion of reader response into a theory of interpretive communities, in which a reader's interpretation of a text depends on the reader's membership in one or more communities that share a set of assumptions. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980), a collection of Fish's essays, established his position as one of the most influential literary theorists of his day.

In his later works, Fish extended literary theory into the arenas of politics and law, writing on the politics of the university, the nature of free speech, and connections between literary theory and legal theory. These works include Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989), There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too (1994), Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (1995), and The Trouble with Principle (1999). There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, seen by some as a critique of liberalism, generated much debate. In The Trouble with Principle, Fish suggests that the application of principles impedes democracy, and he examines affirmative action as a case in point, again sparking wide-ranging critique. In 2005 Fish was named the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, with a principal appointment in the College of Law and a role as lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences.

[Dorothy Bauhoff (2nd ed.)]