University of Virginia Library

Definitions and a Rationale

The words "text," "work" and "document" are often used interchangeably. "Text" in our essay means the sequences of letters, spaces, and punctuation that do or can represent a literary work in part or in full. The text of a document, when reproduced accurately, creates a new document with the same text; but a single document can have two or more texts, initial and revised, for example. A work is represented more or less well by each of its variant texts.

Depending on one's orientation to texts, one values all texts equally or some over others. The variant texts of a work, and the form, nature, and history of its documents, constitute a complex array of facts, offering opportunity for development of inferences about the history and condition of the work, and offering support for variant critical understandings of a work. The particular way a textual scholar organizes and values complex textual factors-the scholar's orientation-affects how the work is understood.

The elemental materials, facts, and forces involved in the original production of literary works and then in their revision, reproduction, and dissemination are material, causal (agents), temporal, genetic (inventive), and performance. Another element now seldom encountered in scholarly textual discussions is aesthetic / commercial—normally excluded because it is often confused with "flavor of the month" value. An orientation identifies a perspective that reveals the relative importance of these elements for a given purpose. None can be neglected but not all are of equal importance to each reader or editor; hence the varieties of approaches to scholarly textual tasks and disagreements about how to understand


Page 28
a work and how to edit it. We will discuss each orientation in section 2, below, to show how it affects what scholars understand to be the nature of texts.

In addition to shaping the way a work is identified and understood, orientations guide what we do with textual materials: differentiating ways to edit, and determining how the narrative of composition, revision, and publication is framed. An orientation to text, in addition, determines what constitutes relevant materials to consider when tracing the progression of textual changes from source texts through drafts and revisions of scenes or sentences to produce scholarly accounts other than editions, such as genetic studies or arguments to support critical interpretations.

A brief summary highlights the most significant differences among orientations. (1) The material orientation tends to focus on extant documentary material evidence asking how to represent it in an orderly fashion. It has two subsets: lexical and bibliographic. The purpose is primarily archival. (2) The causal orientation focuses on the agents responsible for the condition in which we find the evidence and on their authority to effect textual change. It divides into two subsets: authorial and social. (3) The temporal orientation focuses on when the text came into being, asking if there are aspects of the text that do not fit the period of its creation. It also divides into two subsets, whose purpose is either to establish synchronic snapshots of stages of textual completion or to trace the process of textual development diachronically. (4) The genetic orientation focuses on how textual invention happens as a creative process, including the effect of non-linguistic influences and byproducts of writing. (5) The performance orientation searches through and beyond documents to determine the staging of plays, the performance of musical works, and public or even private readings. (6) The aesthetic/commercial orientation tends to ask how the text can be improved to fulfill the wishes of an author, or a corporate aim at a historical moment, or to achieve current commercial or otherwise public purposes.

It may seem odd that we do not include a "linguistic orientation," but we think that language is constitutive for all orientations rather than an element that can be separated from other orientations. Even if one turns to A. E. Housman's "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism," or to the most discussed aspects of George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson's editing of Piers Plowman2 where knowledge of grammar and prosody substitute for knowledge about the author's personal habits or capacities, we find that linguistic elements turn out to be aspects of other orientations—constrained by material documents, and a sense of time and place, and/or of the personal agents of textual change.

Textual scholars reviewing this list of orientations will likely say, "We are interested in all of them." But we see a distinction between interests and orientations. What, for example, does the following hypothetical scenario tell us about the editor's concept of the work? Imagine an editor facing a work that survives


Page 29
in four authoritative forms: a manuscript, a set of corrected proofs for the first edition, the first edition, and a revised edition. Many works in the modern era are more complicated than that, but this suffices to reveal what may be a problem. Say that the editor chooses as copy-text a printed form, the first edition, justifying the choice on the grounds that a social contract called for the author to "submit" (i.e., surrender) his work to a production process, and explaining that though the work was later revised, the new edition is designed to represent an early moment in the historical development of the work. But then the editor finds that an error in the manuscript was repeated in both the proofs and the first edition, but was corrected in the revised edition; the editor emends it on the grounds that the work could not have been intended to have an error, even though this one persisted in the first three forms of the work; the editor thus "furthers" the acts of socializing the text by accepting the revised (post-copy-text) edition reading. The editor then finds that the manuscript has a reading (an okay reading), but the compositors changed it in the proofs to something better (in the editor's opinion); the author, however, stubbornly marked the proofs to restore the manuscript reading; the editor reasons that the socializing process takes precedent over the authorial view because the editor likes the compositor's reading better or because of a sense of duty to follow the copy-text. However, the editor then notes that in the process of normalizing the punctuation, the compositor has run roughshod over some delicate rhetorical pointing, changing both the cadences of the prose and the meaning of the sentences; the editor decides to restore the manuscript here and there on the grounds that the socializing process occasionally did the authorial text a disservice. Finally, the editor decides that a few arcane or archaic forms of words, spellings, or punctuation would confuse readers, and so these archaic forms are slightly updated and regularized.

This hypothetical editor had a variety of interests in the work; and by listing the emendations and providing a history of variant texts, the editor enables other persons to see the text differently. But, is it okay to shift the grounds for emendation as one or another of the editor's interests arises? Although the hypothetical editor in this imagined scene is an eclectic editor, the notion of "orientation drift" can also mar the clarity of thought that anyone brings to the texts that represent a work. Even when editors reject eclecticism, their reasons for doing so can shift from one orientation to another and thus cloud the reasoning that justifies their own choices. We think that the concept of orientations and their subsets provides an ordering of interests so that a consistent approach can be taken to textual investigations. An orientation does not eliminate interests, but it does provide a consistent perspective from which to organize and explore one's interests. Its usefulness lies not in isolating and approving one approach over another, but in clarifying the elements that go into decisions about the text.

In the following section, we treat the second, causal, orientation at greater length in part because of recent decades of dispute about the role of persons and intentions in editing and in part because we wish to argue for the close connection that we see between traditionally disparate "authorial" and "social" editorial agendas. We also treat the fourth, genetic, at greater length, because it is a new


Page 30
orientation. The relative proportions of the six discussions do not represent any preference or value judgment.


The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 31360911.


This essay results from cooperation between the STS (Society for Textual Scholarship) and the ESTS (European Society for Textual Scholarship) to explore the stimulating exchange of ideas between various editorial traditions.


Housman in Proceedings of the Classical Association 18 (1922): 67–84; rpt. in Selected Prose, ed. John Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961): 131–150; and William Langland, Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone, 1975).