Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-response criticism is a form of literary criticism which depends on the reader's response to the text. The theory even suggests that the text is impossible to exist without a reader. Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Literature is thus rendered a form of performing art in which each reader creates their own, unique, view of the text. This is entirely different to the theories of formalism and New Criticism, where there is little role for the reader.

Reader-response criticism also recognizes that the text's interpretation will often depend on the time or occasion when the work is read. At different points in the reader's life, they may take different meaning from the text, often depending on their own life experiences.

The reader-response school of criticism was founded in the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States and Germany, although it owes much influence to scholars from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the Oxford academic who wrote the series of Narnia books. Louise Rosenblatt's 1938 work, Literature as Exploration, argued that it is important for teacher sto avoid imposing preconceived notions about how to respond to a book or text. She said that "a poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text."

A decade earlier, I. A. Richards had conducted an important piece of work by studying the misreadings of a group of Cambridge University undergraduates. Another work which was to influence the reader-response school of criticism was An Experiment in Criticism, written by C. S. Lewis in 1961, in which he analyzed readers' role in selecting literature in light of their goals in reading.

Later in that decade, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Roland Barthes and Wolfgang Iser did further work on reader-response criticism. They were against literary works being regarded as objects. In the 1970s, the school's views were summarized in anthologies such as Jane Tompkins's Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Poststructuralism.

Reader-response critics see the reading as both a subjective and objective act. Reader-response theories can be divided into three different groups. The first group is concentrated on the individual reader's experience. The second group is engaged in psychological experiments on a defined set of readers. The third assumes a uniform response by all readers.

Critics forming the first group, also known as individualists, claim that the text and the reader always co-exist. Fish is considered as the most prominent individualist. In 1967, he wrote Surprised by Sin, the first study of a major literary work (John Milton's Paradise Lost) that focused on its readers' experience. In an appendix, "Literature in the Reader", Fish used "the" reader to examine responses to complex sentences sequentially, word-by-word. In later work, published a decade later, Fish studied real differences in interpretations of the same works by different, real, readers. According to Fish, the reader's response creates the text, and by looking at different groups of readers - for instance, he studied lawyers' reading of works - he developed the concept of "interpretive communities," where certain groups, because of their training, upbringing or career, share particular approaches to reading.

The second group if the reader-response school are known as experimenters, and include Reuven Tsur, Richard Gerrig, David Miall and Donald Kuiken. All researchers working in that field have conducted a series of experiments to explore the connection between the text and the reader. Gerrig, for example, worked on an experiment aimed at showing how readers put aside ordinary knowledge and values when they read, and so may even treat criminals as heroes. Gerrig has also been interested in examining how readers accept fantastic stories, and how they discard them once the story is read.

Uniformists are the third group, led by German literary scholar Iser. They state that the text informs and limits. In this theory, the reader's response is based on the text. Iser says that "the act of reading involves our realizing that we are not what we mistakenly think ourselves to be and that, as a consequence, we may become something we never imagined possible."

Reader-response criticism is related to psychology. Since reader-response criticism has something to do with psychological principles, it can also be applied to other arts such as cinema, music or painting.

Reader-Response Criticism: Selected full-text books and articles

The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work By Louise M. Rosenblatt Southern Illinois University Press, 1994
Reader Response in Secondary and College Classrooms By Nicholas J. Karolides Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000 (2nd edition)
Reading Cultures: The Construction of Readers in the Twentieth Century By Molly Abel Travis Southern Illinois University Press, 1998
The Reader and the Detective Story By George N. Dove Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997
Reader-Response under Review: Art, Game, or Science? By Wright, Terence R Style, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 1995
Engaging Readers, Engaging Texts: An Exploration of How Librarians Can Use Reader Response Theory to Better Serve Our Patrons By Mathson, Stephanie M Library Philosophy and Practice, August 2011
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Readers and Mythic Signs: The Oedipus Myth in Twentieth-Century Fiction By Debra A. Moddelmog Southern Illinois University Press, 1993
American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theories By Victor A. Kramer Whitston, 1984
Librarian's tip: "Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism" begins on p. 296
Reading with Feeling: The Aesthetics of Appreciation By Susan L. Feagin Cornell University Press, 1996
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