Study Guide

Wolfgang Iser - Major Arguments

Major Arguments

I am a man for the reader. Sure, authors are great, and some books can even change your life—but readers make it happen. Books are like trees falling in the forest; if no one is there, no one will hear them. Thankfully, the reader is there—making reading an event, an interaction.

Also: Reader Response is a good theory, one to have in your arsenal if your teacher ever accuses you of misreading a book. Just mumble something about refusing to have any one reading imposed on you, and mention how books have blanks, gaps, and "vacant pages" so that you can insert your own meaning. It's very empowering stuff.

You can't know how staggering my empowerment of the reader has been unless you know that before me (and other like-minded folk), the book (or "text," as we critics like to call it) and the author got the lion's share of attention. When I came along, questions like What does Swann's Way mean? were replaced by How do I, as a reader, inform the meaning of Swann's Way?

As you may have gleaned, not everyone was on board with these ideas. First, we had New Critics to contend with. That crowd believes that all of the meaning is in the book already—and that meaning is objective. I protest, because New Critics then suggest that because the meaning is objective, all readers will have the same interpretation. What gives? My thing is reader-based—not text-based. Power to the reader.

Another quibble: New Historicists—they value everything except the text. Or so it seems. They'd sooner talk about the historical, political, or cultural moment in which Proust wrote Swann's Way than about what the actual book has to say as a piece of art. They don't even care about the madeleine.

My final gripe: this whole "death of the author" thing. What was Roland Barthes thinking? Look, I agree that the author has received way too much airtime. And his dismissal of the author is a point for the reader, right? 

Yeah, well, unfortunately, even when that metaphorical author died, the mantle wasn't passed on to the reader. New Critics felt validated— but not us Reader-Response critics slaving away in the stacks. People just started digging even deeper into the texts. These kooky post-structuralists started to get really obsessed with the words on the page, talking all sorts of claptrap about complex linguistic ideas, and about how words only mean what they mean for what they don't mean.

Yeah. Don't ask.

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