Gap (blank): As used by reader-response critics influenced by German critic Wolfgang Iser, an indeterminate element or section of a literary text. A gap may be said to exist wherever a reader perceives something to be missing or uncertain and may be found at various levels of the text, whether pragmatic (relating to the intention of the text), semantic, or syntactic. Readers respond to gaps actively and creatively, reconciling apparent inconsistencies in point of view, accounting for jumps in chronology, speculatively supplying information missing from plots, and resolving ambiguities.
Naturally, gaps are to some extent a product of readers’ perceptions. One reader may find a given text to be riddled with gaps while another may find it comparatively consistent and complete; different readers may find different gaps in the same text. Moreover, different readers may fill in the same gap differently. Indeed, for a reader-response critic, the very variety of responses helps explain why works are interpreted in different ways.
Notably, reader-response critics see gaps not as textual defects but as “the fundamental precondition for reader participation,” as Iser explained in his essay “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” (1971). According to Iser, gaps “give the reader a chance to build his own bridges, relating the different aspects of the object which have thus far been revealed to him.” The gap-filling process is also guided, however, as Iser argued in “Interaction Between Text and Reader” (1980), with gaps, or blanks, “initiating structured operations in the reader.” Blanks, Iser explained, “are the unseen joints of the text,” “empty spaces” that “trigger and simultaneously control the reader’s activity,” indicating that “the different segments and patterns of the text are to be connected even though the text itself does not say so.”
Practitioners of other approaches to literary criticism have also made use of the concept of the gap. Deconstructors, for instance, have used the term to explain that every text contains contradictory discourses that cannot be reconciled. Psychoanalytic critics have applied it in several contexts, for instance: (1) to describe the manifestation or nature of the unconscious as a gap, or absence; and (2) to reference the idea that the ego, which is ensnared in the Symbolic order of law, language, and society and which desires the (false) sense of wholeness and unity experienced in the Imaginary order, senses an incompleteness that it cannot remedy. Marxist critics have applied the term to the divide that opens up between economic base and cultural superstructure as well as to textual conflicts. One kind of conflict or contradiction, they would argue, results from the fact that all texts reflect an ideology that precludes the representation or even recognition of certain subjects and attitudes. As a result, readers at the edge or outside of that ideology perceive something missing. Another kind of conflict or contradiction results from the fact that works do more than reflect ideology; they are also fictions that, consciously or unconsciously, distance themselves from that ideology.