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When you think about literature, you probably think of authors and texts. Authors write literary works. So they're the ones who decide what a text means, right? And us readers? Well, we're secondary to authors, because hey, we're just readers.
Yeah, not so fast.
If you hadn't already guessed by the name of the movement, Reader-Response theory says that readers are just as important as the authors who write literary works. Hey, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Same goes for The Iliad and War and Peace: if no reader is around to get through those hundreds of pages, then it's almost like that text doesn't exist.
Don't let this blow your mind, but Reader-Response theorists actually think that readers are active participants who create a work of literature in the process of reading it. The meaning of a text, according to Reader-Response theorists, exists somewhere between the words on the page and the reader's mind.
Think of it this way. If we say, "The Shmoop labradoodle totally ate that cupcake," each individual person reading that sentence will have a different image of the Shmoop labradoodle, of the Shmoop headquarters, and of the cupcake. Some readers will probably imagine a cute dog, others will imagine a naughty dog, and everyone will try to fill in the blanks to figure out what happened and why. It'll all depend on each individual reader's experience with dogs, cupcakes, and Shmoop.
The interpretation each reader has will probably be similar, but each will be slightly different.
The big contribution of Reader-Response theorists was to call attention to the importance of the reader in the making of literary meaning. Reader-Response theorists like to ask questions like: How do we feel when we read a certain poem, or a passage from a novel? Why do we feel that way? How does our psychology affect the way we read literary texts? How does each of us read differently? Only when we ask those questions, these theorists argue, can we truly begin to understand literature.
Ever read a book and think, "I'm just not getting this. Am I stupid or something?" Ever get bored to death by the text, or so excited you want to jump up and run and tell everyone you know how great this book is? That's part of being a reader, right?
Texts move you or they don't move you. They confuse you or they clarify things for you. Characters in a novel may remind you of real people in your life; a description in a poem may make you remember some childhood incident; heck, a book can even change your life. Reading is a totally personal experience, after all.
Well, that's the whole point of Reader-Response theory. This theory allows you to take your own personal feelings and your own perspective into account when you analyze a literary text. According to Reader-Response theorists, it is significant that a certain character reminds you of Dad, or that a certain passage recalls something from your childhood. Reader-Response theory isn't just about understanding a text better; it's also about understanding yourself better.
Up until the 1960s, New Criticism reigned supreme in American universities. New Criticism was all about focusing on the text itself: you weren't supposed to think about the context, or about the author—and certainly not about the reader.
Reader-Response theorists helped dethrone New Criticism from its privileged position by, well, drawing attention to the reader. They also helped pave the way for a lot of other literary schools that followed in the 1970s and 1980s, like Poststructuralism and New Historicism. The ideas of both these schools were closely affiliated with the focus on reading and subjectivity that the Reader-Response theorists first called attention to.