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Reader Response Criticism

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English Literature

How readers respond to texts clearly matters, maybe more than the text itself; without us, books sit on shelves and collect dust.

It's likely that you've been in an English lesson that began with the teacher asking the class just for their thoughts and feelings on a particular text or chapter. For those first five minutes, all your first impressions are valid. You're allowed to hate it or explain why it resonated so strongly with you.

Reader Response Criticism seeks to redefine the reader's relationship to the text, arguing that readers are not just passive consumers of a text's meaning, rather, they create its meaning. This article should act as a toolkit to help you understand and apply this critical approach.

Content warning: The following article makes reference to sensitive topics.

Definition of Reader Response Criticism

Reader response criticism is all about changing how we see and treat the text, the reader and the creation of meaning.

Reader Response Criticism

An approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.

The key idea of Reader Response Criticism is that readers create meaning rather than find it in a text. Works of literature are always incomplete without a reader to put in their half of the work to create meaning.

This is the starting point for all Reader Response critics. However, from this point, they often disagree on whether there are valid and invalid interpretations and the extent to which a text shapes the reader's responses to the text.

Context and History of Reader Response Criticism

Reader Response Criticism emerged in Germany and the United States in the late 1960s. Reader Response Criticism does not refer to a specific theory or to a unified critical school, but to literary criticism that takes a reader-based approach to textual analysis.

This critical movement emerged as a challenge to New Criticism, a movement that dominated American literary criticism during the 1940s-1970s period.

New Criticism

New Criticism is a school of thought that proposed all meaning was contained within a text's form, structure and content. External factors, such as context and the author's identity and authority played no role in a text's meaning. In this sense, texts have objective meanings.

Reader Response Criticism stood in opposition to the notion that a text's meaning was self-contained. It proposed that a text's meaning was instead created by readers' responses to the text.

Reader Response Criticism was mostly eclipsed by the Poststructuralist critical movement that emerged in the 1960s.

Poststructuralism

A school of thought that stressed the indeterminacy of the meaning of texts. Poststructuralists believe it is impossible for texts to have objective meanings because there are many ways to interpret the same text.

The Poststructuralist movement also placed a similar emphasis on the reader's active role in the creation of meaning, a principle that remains influential today.

Key Ideas of Reader Response Criticism with Examples

Reader response criticism is all about changing our perceptions of the text, the reader and the creation of meaning. Meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text.

The Reader

Reader Response Criticism focuses on the reader's psychological experience of reading a text, and how the reader creates meaning from what the text has given them as they read.

While this approach sees readers as creating their own, unique meanings, that is not to say that they can come up with any random interpretation; interpretations always need to have textual support. The reader must create meaning out of what the text has given them; for example, through language, structure, etc.

The text cannot be ignored. If there is a scene or device in a text that contradicts your interpretation of it, you must still consider how this scene or element fits into your interpretation, even if this means need to reconsider the text's personal meaning to you.

Implied Reader

The term 'implied reader' was coined by the critic Wolfgang Iser.

Implied reader

The implied reader is who the author has in mind when they are writing the text, who they expect to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.

The implied reader is contrasted with the actual reader, the person who sits down to read a book, who may belong to a different social or historical context, and whose identity and opinions may mean that they read the text differently from how they are "supposed to" - the responses that the text invites.

Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) is about a young woman who is rewarded for keeping her "virtue" by eventually marrying the man who robbed her of her innocence by assaulting and kidnapping her. This text's implied reader is someone who believes that innocence and "virtue" are good values and who wants to take a moral message from this text.

The resisting reader

The literary critic Judith Fetterley found the concept of the implied reader problematic and came up with the concept of a 'resisting reader', who refuses to fulfill the role of the implied reader - who refuses to read the text how it was "supposed to be read".

Due to the disenfranchisement of women and other marginalised groups throughout history, many classics are written from the perspective of privileged authors, whose biases about race, class, gender, etc. are sometimes felt in their texts. These texts often anticipate an educated, white, male audience.

Fetterley argues that it's important to resist a text's biases and use the text to come up with meanings that resist these biased interpretations that the text invites.

If we take the example of Pamela above, Samuel Richardson's identity as a man and the fact that he was writing in a socio-historical context where women were unequal to men means that his ideologies and biases are built into the novel. A reader may read Pamela through a feminist lens and resist the idea that it is virtuous to marry an abusive rake.

Interpretive Communities

Stanley E. Fish came up with the idea of interpretive communities to differentiate between different groups of 'actual' readers. Fish argues that individual reader responses must be seen as part of the bigger picture - in the context of the wider interpretive community that they belong to.

Interpretive Community

A way of grouping readers that share historical and cultural contexts, which shapes the way they read and interpret texts.

Fish's theory is that all meaning is dependent on the different interpretive strategies that different interpretive communities use. There is no objectively correct interpretation of a text because all interpretations are the product of different cultures.

English students in 1950s England had different interpretive strategies to English students today.

In the 50s, under the influence of New Criticism, students approached texts with the belief that texts have objective meanings and it is their duty to discover them.

We can see this focus on objective meanings as a limited interpretive strategy. Today, due to the influence of Reader Response Criticism and Poststructuralism, we are encouraged to be creative in our readings (so long as we have evidence to support our claims, of course!).

The Text

Ordinarily, when we use the term 'text', we are referring to a physical or digital copy of a work of literature.

Reader Response Criticism argues that the text is a performance; an event; an interactive process. Reader Response critics also focus on the importance of the reading experience.

Performing art, event, interaction

We often think of literature and the performing arts as very different subjects. Performance is lively and dynamic, and reading is a quiet, serious activity. Some Reader Response Critics think that the literary text can actually be viewed as a performing art, with different readers creating different performances of texts.

Reader Response Criticism also invites us to look at the text as an event, rather than a lifeless object. The text is not sheets of words bound together, the text needs you to read it for it to be a text.

Therefore, the text is an interactive event. The text is alive in the interaction between the reader and the words on the page.

Experience

If the text is an interaction or event, how do readers experience the text?

Stanley E. Fish thinks that the readers' experience of movement through a text is an important factor in the creation of meaning. As we move onwards through a text, we fill in the blanks and form expectations.

We may expect a character to meet a certain fate, anticipate a certain resolution, interpret a character as hiding a secret if they act suspiciously, etc.

Wolfgang Iser focused on how readers react differently to texts based on where they are in their reading journey. Different interpretations are produced on the first reading of a text in comparison to the interpretations that the reader makes once they have finished a text, and have a fuller picture of it. New meanings may also be produced when a text is reread.


Reader Response critics focus on different aspects of the reader experience. Such as:

  1. how the text tries to structure a specific experience,
  2. the extent to which readers' experiences match the intended experience,
  3. and the ways in which readers' experiences differ from the intended experience.

Have you ever read a book where you felt that the author wanted the reading experience to be an important part of its meaning?

'Paradise Lost' (1663)

Stanley E. Fish wrote a whole book on the experience of reading John Milton's Paradise Lost, which tells the story of Adam and Eve. He argues that the reading experience is part of the poem's meaning. To Fish, the reading experience mirrors the fall of Adam and Eve into sin.

Jacob's Room (1922)

Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room is about an unnamed narrator trying to chase Jacob and understand him. The reader also feels desperate to understand Jacob, and, like the narrator, the reader feels distanced from him and unable to know him. The chase-like reading experience mirrors the narrator's chase.

Key Theorists of Reader Response Criticism

Let's go over the main Reader Response theorists and their theories.

Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997)

The work of Hans Robert Jauss takes a reader response approach that considers how society and time period influence readers' interpretations of texts. Based on the culture and time period the reader belongs to, they will have a certain kind of 'horizon of expectations'.

Readers' horizons of expectations are always changing, as the years pass and times change. It is the critic's job to consider the effects of context on how readers read, and how authors write.

Note: Jauss served the Nazi Party in the SS during World War II. As such, his contribution to academic fields is constantly debated.

Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007)

Wolfgang Iser worked alongside Hans Robert Jauss. Iser came up with the concept of the 'implied reader' and placed importance on the reading experience of reading a written work for the first time, and then as a 'whole'.

Iser argued that a text has what he calls 'response-inviting structures' that guide reader interpretation.

Louise Rosenblatt (1904-2005)

Louise Rosenblatt is a highly influential critic who saw reading as a transaction between reader and text, where both are equally important.

Rosenblatt is one of the Reader Response critics that thinks there are acceptable and less-acceptable interpretations of texts - not all are valid.

To Rosenblatt, the text acts as a stimulus to the reader that invites them to find personal interpretations; and as a blueprint that disciplines the reader's interpretation so that it doesn't stray too far from the contents of the text.

Stanley E. Fish (1938)

The context in which readers read texts is important to Stanley E. Fish. Fish is interested in the impact that the interpretive community to which a reader belongs influences the meanings they garner from a text. A second key focus of Fish is how readers experience texts as they progress through them, from beginning to end.

Norman Holland (1927-2017)

Norman Holland focuses on how readers' 'identity themes' impact their readings of texts. He believes that readers' life experiences and psychologies (the impact of childhood, unresolved issues, etc.) affect how they read.

If a reader has a good or bad relationship with their parents, this is likely to influence how they read parental figures in a text.

This is what is known as a psychoanalytic approach to Reader Response Criticism.

Like other Reader Response critics, Holland disagrees with the idea of objective meanings, arguing that readers may have similar interpretations insofar as they share similar identity themes.

David Bleich (1940- Present)

David Bleich puts forward a radical reader response theory, known as Subjective Reader Response Criticism. Bleich argued that reader responses are the text. There is no text beyond the meanings that the readers come up with. This in turn means that when critics analyse texts, what they are analysing are the readers' responses (which constitute the text).


How to apply Reader Response Criticism

Here are some questions to help you get started with a Reader Response approach to literary interpretation and analysis:

Questions about types of readers:

  • Who is the implied reader? Who is the target audience of this text and how does the text anticipate certain types of people (educated, privileged, disenfranchised, etc.) reading it?
  • How might different groups of readers - interpretive communities - respond to a text? Think of students in different countries, in different decades, for example.
  • How might readers' personal experiences influence how they read a certain text? For example, childhood experiences, experiences of racism or sexism, etc.
  • How might critics' own 'identity themes' and personal experiences influence or bias their interpretations? For example, white male scholars may have a different, perhaps more limited, view of gender and race issues in a text.

Questions about reader experience:

  • What is the overall impact of the differences between the reader's experience of reading the text when compared to the characters' experiences in the text? Is the reading experience parallel to the experiences of the text's characters or narrator? Or is it quite different? Does the reader know more than the characters?
  • Is the reading experience deliberately difficult? How does the quality of the reading experience contribute to the text's overall meaning?
  • How does the text want readers to react to a key event or plot twist?

Applying a reader response approach to literary analysis will help you come up with new and exciting meanings.

The Importance of Reader Response Criticism

Many important works of recent literary criticism have taken a reader response approach. For example, Roland Barthes' famous essay, The Death of the Author (1967), which disregards the author as the authority of a text's meaning; the author's interpretation of their own work is just as important as any readers'.

The influence of a reader-based critical approach can be felt in Literature classrooms around the world, as discussions are spurred by questions like 'How did this scene make you feel?'.

Reader Response Criticism - Key Takeaways

  • Reader Response Criticism is an approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.
  • The implied reader is the reader that the text expects to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.
  • Readers belong to interpretive communities based on shared contexts and traits, and this influences how they create meanings in texts.
  • According to Reader Response Criticism, the text is an event, an interaction, a performance.
  • It is important to consider the way a text cultivates a specific reading experience for its reader. Oftentimes, the reader experience is built into how we should interpret the text.
  • The key theorists of Reader Response Criticism are: Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Louise Rosenblatt, David Bleich, Norman Holland, and Stanley E. Fish.

Reader Response Criticism

The basic idea of Reader Response Criticism is that the reader creates meaning in a text, rather than just finding it. This means that texts have no objective meanings, and that any reader can create their own interpretation with a good amount of textual support.

Reader response criticism seeks to put the reader at the forefront of the textual analysis. Previous approaches to literary criticism assumed that texts had objective meanings and that it was the reader's job to discover the right meaning. The Reader Response approach argues that the meaning of a text is only activated when a reader reads it and responds to it.

An example of reader response criticism is Stanley E. Fish's analysis of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1667). Fish argues that, as the reader finds themselves preferring the devil over God in the poem, the reader falls into sin, like Adam and Eve fall into sin in the Bible and in Milton's poem.

To write good Reader Response Criticism, avoid dismissing a text on account of it having bored you or you thinking it stupid. Focus instead on exploring how your identity, the groups you belong to, and the historical moment you belong to (the present) influence how you and others read a given text. You can also focus on the reading experience, your reactions and feelings as you progressed through a text and how reader experience may be important to the text's overall meaning.

Reader Response criticism can be divided into the different priorities of different theorists:

  1. Historical context is the focus of Hans Robert Jauss's work.
  2. Transactional reader response theory is the approach taken by Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser.
  3. Affective stylistics is Stanley E. Fish's Reader Response theory.
  4. Psychological Reader Response Criticism is employed by Norman Holland.
  5. Subjective Reader Response Criticism (David Bleich).

Final Reader Response Criticism Quiz

Question

What is Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

An approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.

Show question

Question

What is the context and history of Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • This approach to criticism emerged in Germany and the US in the late 1960s.
  • Reader Response Criticism is not a unified critical school, but the umbrella term given to literary criticism that takes a reader-based approach.
  • It emerged as a challenge to New Criticism, a movement that believed all meaning was contained within the text alone.

Show question

Question

What are the key focuses of Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

The reader, the text and the creation of meaning.

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Question

How does Reader Response criticism view the role of the reader?

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Answer

The reader creates a text's meaning.

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Question

What is the implied reader?

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Answer

The implied reader is who the author has in mind when they are writing the text, who they expect to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.

Show question

Question

Why might the idea of the implied reader be viewed as problematic?

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Answer

  • Many texts written by privileged authors anticipate an educated, white, male audience.
  • The literary critic Judith Fetterley came up with the concept of the 'resisting reader' to resist limited ways of reading a text.

Show question

Question

What is an interpretive community?

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Answer

  • A term coined by Stanley E. Fish to group readers that share historical and cultural contexts, which shapes the way they read and interpret texts.
  • There is no objectively correct interpretation of a text because all interpretations are the product of different cultures.

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Question

According to Reader Response Criticism, what is a text?

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Answer

  • A performing art,
  • An event,
  • An interaction, or an interactive process.

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Why is the reading experience important to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • Readers don't just passively consume texts, they experience them.
  • The reader's progressive movement through a text is an important factor in the creation of meaning because the text deliberately takes the reader on a journey, creating expectations, etc.

Show question

Question

What are the key contributions of Hans Robert Jauss to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • Focused on the impact of social and temporal context on reader interpretation.
  • Readers have different 'horizons of expectations' based on the society and time they belong to.

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Question

What are the key contributions of Wolfgang Iser to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • The concept of the implied reader
  • The interpretations that readers come up with at different reading stages are important. Different meanings are created on first, and second readings.

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Question

What are the key contributions of Louise Rosenblatt to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • Rosenblatt argued that reading is a transaction between reader and text.
  • Rosenblatt thinks some interpretations are more acceptable than others.
  • Believes that the text should act as a stimulus to the readers' interpretation, and as a blueprint to guide their interpretation.

Show question

Question

What are the key contributions of Stanley E. Fish to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • The idea of interpretive communities,
  • his focus on the reading experience as important to the creation of meaning.

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Question

What are the key contributions of Norman Holland to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • A psychoanalytic approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea of identity themes; how readers' identities impact their readings.

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Question

What are the key contributions of David Bleich to Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

  • A subjective approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea that reader responses are the text.

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Question

How can you apply Reader Response Criticism?

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Answer

By looking at how different types of readers create meanings, and how reading experiences influence the creation of meaning, as well.

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