Study Guide

Wolfgang Iser Buzzwords

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My idea of aesthetics is a little different, so listen up. As you know, my reader-oriented approach means that books are constantly evolving. They aren't objects whose meaning is just sitting there waiting to be stumbled upon or filtered out.

I see books as good conversationalists. They talk, but then they allow the reader to have his or her say. How do they enact this conversation? They provide what I call "gaps" or "blanks" that allow you—dear reader—to fill in meaning.

Aesthetics, then, describes the direct and personal relationship between a book and any one particular reader. Because I see books as "living," each reader will have a different aesthetic response.

Indeterminate Meaning (Indeterminacy)

Dig, if you will, this picture: you—outside—on a starry night. Now, imagine each star as a fixed idea in the text—perhaps something the author wanted all readers to understand. Now draw lines between the stars and see how many different images you can construct: a boat, a shoe, your ex-boyfriend… That's your interpretation.

Another stargazer will draw other patterns and see other things (one hopes not your ex-boyfriend, at least). That's because each "reader" brings new meanings and understandings to the sky (which I hope you get by now is a metaphor for a book). In short: a book does not determine all meaning, though it will give you hints; therefore not all readers will find the same meaning, though they may find similar meanings.

Implied Reader vs. Actual Reader

Most books have a lot of readers—or at least the author hopes so. But, as I suggest above, not all readers are going to come away from, say, Madame Bovary and think, "That woman was a real nutjob." In fact, some readers may say, "Wow, she really took what she read to heart!"

As the term suggests, the implied reader is a hypothetical figure who is likely to get most of what the author intended. When authors write, they often do so with certain readers in mind, believing that this implied reader will understand—or at least appreciate—the metaphors, allusions, ironies, and so forth.

Well, things don't always happen just like that. Sometimes we get the actual reader, who may just manage to get through a book, not really grasping the nuances of the text. The actual reader will see things differently from the implied reader. But which reader is right? It takes all kinds of readers, after all…


It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: have you ever noticed that an author doesn't spell it all out for you? (Try reading a little something by Faulkner to get that eerie feeling of alienation.) Well, that's because the author leaves interpretive "gaps" that you are supposed to fill in with your own meaning. Come on—meet the text halfway. It's kind of like Mad-Libs, but way more intellectual and way less literal.


This isn't a pretty word, but like a lot of words that aren't pretty, it's important. My Reader Response Theory owes a significant debt to hermeneutics, because both concepts are about interpretation—both require the reader to find meaning on his or her own.

Individual readers have a responsibility to make their way through a text and come to their own understandings. Now, you may argue this to your teacher when you say that your understanding of Great Expectations is that it is an extended metaphorical meditation on what happens when you don't get into your college of choice. But hermeneutics doesn't give you carte blanche to offer any crazy interpretation you want. Common sense here, people.

The point is that you need to engage with the text and (critically and intelligently) determine your own meanings.

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