“As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text,” I wrote a decade ago, summarizing the conventional wisdom, “it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood.” I went on to contest the conventional wisdom, arguing that literary texts place ethical demands upon their readers which are logically prior to interpretation.
The demands are also epistemological. While it is a commonplace to assert that literary texts exist only in the experience of some reader, there are, as J. V. Cunningham says, difficulties with this assertion. The most obvious one is that the experiences of different readers are different, and different too for the same reader at different readings. But what is more, the reader could not possibly mean his immediate experience of reading the text, because then he could never think or speak of the text as a whole:
Much the same could be said of personal experience. I recollect the various parts of my life, and arrange them in some kind of order. In this way I construct my personality.
The difference is that the parts of my life are not the parts of your life, while the parts of a literary text are the same for both of us. Or, rather, they have to be the same if the text is to serve as a method for discriminating the relevant from irrelevant in critical response. My reading experience differs from my personal experience in this way: as Cunningham says, it is “subject to verification and correction, and hence it has an element of externality in it.” I am not trapped in my own skull.
The errors in a text, the secondhand editorial revisions of it, are not irrelevant to it. If I am responding to Hamlet I want to respond to Hamlet, and not to an actor’s flubbing of a line or the director’s cuts. The more often I read Hamlet (or attend performances of it) the more likely I am to spot flubs and cuts. The “cumulative reexperience,” Cunningham says, brings me “nearer and nearer to the norm of that experience which is ideally implicit in the work.”
But the norm consists of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is these which permit a critic to protest that a production runs roughshod over an artist’s original vision. If we are to know the principles by which a text is constructed, though, we need to know whether these include revisions by a second hand—like Gordon Lish’s mucking with some of Raymond Carver’s stories. Not to distinguish which hand is the editor’s and which is the author’s is to remain ignorant of at least some of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is to remain ignorant of the text.
 J. V. Cunningham, “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 143.