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READER RESPONSE CRITICISM. Assumptions. You can ’ t know for sure what an author intended, and the text itself is meaningless without a reader: the reader ’ s response is what counts.

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  • You can’t know for sure what an author intended, and the text itself is meaningless without a reader: the reader’s response is what counts.
  • Readers actively create (rather than discover) meaning in texts, guided by certain goals and rules that may be personal or shared with other members of a community.
  • Responding to a text is a process. Description of that process are valuable because your response may enrich another reader’s response.
  • Read the text slowly, describing the response of an ideal reader – what is anticipated, what is experienced.
  • Or, move through the text describing your own personal response.
  • Focus on details and ask how the reader’s response – your own response – would change if a detail were changed.


Reader Response Criticism encompasses various approaches to literature that explore and seek to explain the diversity (and often divergence) of readers\' responses to literary works.

Louise Rosenblatt: "A poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text."

"The idea that a poem presupposes a reader actively involved with a text is particularly shocking to those seeking to emphasize the objectivity of their interpretations."

Formalists spoke of "the poem itself," the "concrete work of art," the "real poem." They had no interest in what a work of literature makes a reader "live through."
  • William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (1954) used the term affective fallacy to define as erroneous the very idea that a reader’s response is relevant to the meaning of a literary work.
  • Stanley Fish, in "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics" (1970), argued that any school of criticism that sees a literary work as an object, claiming to describe what it is and never what it does, misconstrues the very essence of literature and reading. Literature exists and signifies when it is read, Fish suggests, and its force is an affective one.
Wolfgang Iser argues that texts contain gaps (or blanks) that powerfully affect the reader, who must explain them, connect what they separate, and create in his or her mind aspects of a work that aren’t in the text but are incited by the text.
With the redefinition of literature as something that only exists meaningfully in the mind of the reader, and with the redefinition of the literary work as a catalyst of mental events, comes a redefinition of the reader.
No longer is the reader the passive recipient of those ideas that an author has planted in a text.

"The reader is active": Rosenblatt.

Fish: "Reading is . . . something you do."

Iser: the reader as an active maker of meaning.

Other reader-response critics define the reader differently.

Wayne Booth uses the phrase the implied reader to mean the reader "created by the work."

Iser: the implied reader and the educated reader.

Since the mid-1970s, RRC has evolved into a variety of new forms.
  • Subjectivists like David Bleich, Norman Holland, and Robert Crosman have viewed the reader’s response not as one "guided" by the text but rather as one motivated by deep-seated, personal, psychological needs.

Holland: when we read, we find our own "identity theme" in the text by using "the literary work to symbolize and finally replicate ourselves. We work out through the text our own characteristic patterns of desire."

Even Fish has moved away from RRC as he had initially helped define it, focusing on "interpretive strategies" held in common by "interpretive communities"—such as the one comprised by American college students reading a novel as a class assignment.Fish’s shift in focus is in many ways typical of changes that have taken place within the field of RRC—a field that, because of those changes, is increasingly being referred to as reader-oriented criticism.
Many contemporary critics view themselves as reader-oriented critics and as practitioners of some other critical approach as well.
  • Certain feminist and gender critics with an interest in reader response have asked whether there is such a thing as "reading like a woman."
  • Reading-oriented new historicists have looked at the way in which racism affects and is affected by reading and, more generally, at the way in which politics can affect reading practices and outcomes.
  • Gay and lesbian critics, have argued that sexualities have been similarly constructed within and by social discourses and that there may even be a homosexual way of reading.
Nearly every reader supplies personal meanings and observations, making each reader’s experience with a work unique and distinctive from every other reader’s experience with the same work.
romeo and juliet
Romeo and Juliet
  • A 14 year old reader vs. her father
  • She is almost certain to identify closely with the Juliet and will “read” Lord Capulet as overbearing and rigid.
  • Her father, on the other hand, may be drawn to the poignant passage where Capulet talks with a prospective suitor, urging that he wait while Juliet has the time to enjoy her youth.
  • To Capulet, Juliet is “the hopeful lady of my earth”. The young woman may interpret this another sign of Capulet’ possessiveness, her father may see it as a sign of love and even generosity.
  • So, whose interpretation is correct?
The differing interpretations produced by different readers can be seen as simply the effect of the different personalities (and personal histories) involved in constructing meaning from the same series of clues.
  • Not only does the reader “create” the work of literature, in large part, but the literature itself may work on the reader as he/she reads, altering the reader’s experience, and thus the reader’s interpretation.
Reader response theorists believe in the importance of recursive reading (reading and rereading with the idea that no interpretation is carved in stone). A second or third interaction with the text may well produce a new interpretation.
psychoanalytic view
Psychoanalytic view

The reader responds to the core fantasies and the symbolic groundwork of the text in a highly personal way; while the text contributes material for inner realization which can be shared across consciousnesses (as we share fundamental paradigms, symbols, etc), the real meaning of the text is the meaning created by the individual\'s psyche in response to the work, at the unconscious level and at a subsequent conscious level, as the material provided by the text opens a path between the two, occasioning richer self-knowledge and realization.

hermeneutic view
Hermeneutic view
  • The text means differently because the reader decodes it according to her world-view, her horizons, yet with the understanding that the text may be operating within a different horizon, hence there is an interaction between the world of the text as it was constructed and the world of the reader. The reader can only approach the text with her own foreunderstanding, which is grounded in history. However as the text is similarly grounded in history, and as often there is much in the histories that is shared and well as what is not, there is both identity and strangeness.
phenomenological view
Phenomenological view
  • The text functions as a set of instructions for its own processing, but is as well indeterminate, needs to be completed, to be concretized. The \'reality\' of the text lies between the reader and the text: it is the result of the dialectic between work and reader.
structuralist view
Structuralist view
  • Decoding the text requires various levels of competence -- competence in how texts work, in the genre and tradition of the text, etc, as the work is constructed according to sets of conventions which have their basis in an objective, socially shared reality. The \'meaning\' then depends largely on the competence of the reader in responding to the structures and practices of the text and which operate implicitly (i.e. they affect us without our knowing it); the competent reader can make these explicit.
political or ideological view
Political or ideological view
  • Texts include statements, assumptions, attitudes, which are intrinsically ideological, i.e. express attitudes towards and beliefs about certain sets of social and political realities, relations, values and powers. As a text is produced in a certain social and material milieu it cannot not have embedded ideological assumptions. The reader herself will have ideological convictions and understandings as well, often unrecognized, as is the nature of ideology, which understandings will condition and direct the reading and the application of the reading.
post structuralist view s
Post-structuralist view(s)
  • Meaning is indeterminate, is not \'in\' the text but in the play of language and the nuances of conventions in which the reader is immersed: hence the reader constructs a text as she participates in this play, driven by the instabilities and meaning potentials of the semantic and rhetorical aspects of the text. Stanley Fish\'s view here is that the reader belongs to an interpretive community which will have taught the reader to see a certain set of forms, topics and so forth; his is one view which refers to the world of discourse of the reader as being the determining factor.
Tony Bennett, from a more marxist position, sees readers as belonging to \'reading formations\'. In various sorts of post-structuralist reading the reading process may involve the reader\'s countering and/or re-interpreting prevailing views, depending on various things, including: the force of the direction of the text to the reader; the potential reconceptualization, freeing-up of meaning the text can effect; the openness to the play of language and meaning of the reader.
The text may \'deconstruct itself\', i.e. the reader may experience or see that the language of the text implicitly undermines its own assumptions -- the real agent here as in all post-structuralist positions being the reader, open to polysemy (multiple meanings and the sliding and interplay of signs) -- in her \'own\' (socially shared) world of discourse, in a world discursively and socially constructed.