Picture this cinematic moment. It's Germany. 1945. The Allies' war against the Third Reich has just ended. There are ruins all around. A young man stands among the rubble of bombed out buildings, contemplating the meaning of it all—especially wondering what happened to culture and literature during the brutal years of Nazi Germany.
Young Wolfgang Iser stands there questioning the very humanity of the humanities. Isn't literature and art supposed to ennoble us? Make us better people? Make us appreciate humans and humanity? Sometimes good writers fall under the spell of evil dictators. It's not like Nazi Germany didn't have its writers; sometimes good writers just go bad…
Right then and there, Wolf concluded that literature in itself is not "good." He realized that an unquestioning faith that art and literature is always good can lead to some truly sticky situations. Wolfgang said: don't lose faith in human creativity—but don't accept it as a moral absolute.
Enter the Reader... and, eventually, Reader Response Theory (as well as Reception Theory and the theory of aesthetic response—we'll get there). Iser's epiphany was that art and literature can be critiqued from many different angles. No one reading, theory, or interpretation is correct. Most shocking—at least for the world of literary criticism—was that Iser decided that the reader mattered.
So move over, fancy literary critics: what the reader thinks and perceives matters now. Literature, according to Iser, isn't a thing; it's a process, always in motion and on the go, changing according to who is doing the reading.