Reader-Response Criticism, Lecture Notes from Bressler


All of us are aware that there are different approaches to the interpretation of literature. One thing that can create such differences is role of the READER in the process of interpretation. Consider the following (cf. 63):


1. Theoretical Interpretation  ------  Objective


2. Personal Interpretation (bringing one's personal experiences to the interpretation of a literary work) --- Subjective


The central premise of all the schools within Reader-Criticism is this: The text does not and cannot interpret itself. To determine a text's meaning, one must become an active reader and a participant in the reading process. Reader-Response criticism uses various theoretical assumptions and methodologies to discover a text's meaning as it is created through interaction with the reader.


Historical Development


RRC emerges as a form of literary analysis in the 1970s, and remains a powerful force in the academy. However, critics have long been interested in the relationship between readers and literary texts.


1.     Plato and Aristotle-- The reader as Passive Agent. Looks at the effect of the literary work on the reader or audience.


Rhetorical Criticism-- One of the earliest forms of language study and literary criticism. The study of how language (written and spoken) shapes or affects readers/audience. Looks at techniques for moving or persuading an audience or reader.


2.     Romanticism (Wordsworth)-- Emphasis on the Author. The author is the locus of meaning and interpretation. The text is an extension or expression of the author's thoughts and feelings.


3.     Textual Emphasis (New Criticism)-- The text reveals its own meaning. The emphasis on the objective nature of the text creates a passive reader who is not allowed to bring personal experiences or private emotions to bear on textual analysis. To do so is to create the affective fallacy.


4.     Louise Rosenblatt (Literature as Exploration, 1937). One of the first theoretical works outlining a reader-oriented approach to the study and analysis of literature.


q       Both the reader and the text work together to produce meaning. They are partners in the interpretive process.


q       Both the reader and the text share a transactional experience. The text acts as a stimulus for eliciting various past experiences, thoughts and ideas from the reader. At the same time, the text SHAPES the reader's experiences, selecting, limiting, and ordering the ideas that best conform to the text.


q       Through the transactional process the reader and the text produce a new creation or poem. The text is now defined as an EVENT (or Literary Experience) that takes place and is created during the process of reading and interpretation. A new poem or literary work is created each time a reader interacts with a text.


q       Readers can read in two different ways:


q       Efferent Reading-- Reading that is only interested in gaining factual information.


q       Aesthetic Reading-- Reading that engages and experiences the text or reading that pays attention to its use of language, sounds, form and meaning.


Notice that from this perspective, the author and the text are no longer the sole determinators of meaning. Instead the reader is an essential participant in the reading process and in the creation of meaning.


There are lots of different forms of Reader-Response Criticism and they vary in how they interpret literary works. However, they do share some common presuppositions and concerns:


1.     Interaction between reader and text: All focus directly on the reading process and ask (often in different ways), "What happens when a text and reader interact?" They want to discover whether the reader, the text, or some combination finally determines the text's interpretation. They want to analyze the effect that a text and a reader have on each other.


2.     Defining a reader and a text: All ask the question, "What is a text?" Is it simply words on a page? Does the real text actually exist in the mind of the reader? Or does it exist through the interaction of text and reader? They also ask, "What is a reader?" Are there different kinds of readers? What makes readers different? Do different texts demand particular kinds of readers?


3.     Defining the Reader's Response to a Text: Is our response to a text the same as the text's meaning? What shapes our knowledge (epistemology) of reading? Do people read in different ways? Are these differences cultural or cognitive? Do people from different eras or cultures read in different ways? What is the purpose of reading? Is reading an individual event or do other readers or communities of readers play in the interpretive process?  Is it a solitary affair or are we shaped by different interpretive communities? Can one reader's response be more correct than another's, or are all responses equally valid?


4.     Defining the Role of the Author: Does the author have any role to play in a text's interpretation? Can the author's attitudes toward the reader actually influence a work's meaning? Does the author's intentions have any relationship to the text's meaning or interpretation?


Methods or Approaches to R-R Criticism: Three major areas; these exist along a continuum and tend to differ in the emphasis they place on the text and/or the reader in the interpretive process.


I.                   Emphasis on the Text--


Includes such critical fields as structuralism, formalism, narratology, and rhetorical criticism.


While they believe that the reader must be an active participant in the creation of meaning, they assert that the text has primary control over the interpretive process.


Distinguish between a text's meaning and its significance.


Look for specific codes or signs embedded in a text that allow for meaning to occur. Often these codes are part of an overall system of meaning that a society has developed to give meaning or structure to existence.


Narratology-- The process of analyzing a story, examining all of the elements involved in its creation, such as narrator, genre, and audience.

Narratology often focuses on the narrator, attempting to identify who the narrator is and the narrator's relationship to the author, readers of the text, and the text's overall meaning. How does the narrator shape our reading and interpretation of the story?


Often such analysis focuses on the narratee, the person to whom the narrator is speaking. Such narratees might include the real reader, the virtual reader, or the ideal reader


II.                Emphasis on the interaction between reader and text--


Phenomenology-- the modern philosophical study that emphasizes the role of the perceiver in determining questions of knowledge, existence, and meaning. Objects can have meaning only if an active consciousness (a perceiver) absorbs or notes their existence.


From this perspective a literary work only exists in the mind or consciousness of the reader, not on the printed page. When the text and the reader interact, the real work and its meaning are created. The process is therefore aesthetic, an experience of art.


Hans Robert Jauss-- Reception Theory and Horizons of Expectation (71ff)


Wolfgang Iser-- The Implied Reader vs. The Actual Reader (72).


III.             Emphasis on the Reader (Subjective Criticism)


For critics like Norman Holland, all interpretations of a text are subjective, the work of the reader's imagination and experiences. While the text is indeed important, the reader transforms the text into a private world, a place where s/he works out private experiences, fantasies and desires. It is essentially a psychological experience.


Other subjective critics like David Bleich and Stanley Fish will emphasize the communal or collective meaning of a literary work. Meaning does not reside in the text but is developed when the reader works in cooperation with other readers to achieve meaning. The key to developing a text's meaning is working out our responses so that they can be challenged, amended, and accepted by one's social group. Fish calls these groups our interpretive communities.