Officially, Reader-Response theory got going in the late 1960s, when a group of critics including Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, and Norman N. Holland started asking questions about how a reader's response to a literary text actually creates that literary text.
But the real roots of Reader-Response theory can be traced further back to 1938. That's the year that Literature as Exploration, a book by scholar Louise Rosenblatt, was published. In this book, Rosenblatt deals at length with how the reader's response to a text is fundamental to the understanding of a literary work. These ideas didn't catch on until the 1960s, but when they did, they became the theory we know and maybe love today.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: it all started with Louise Rosenblatt and her book Literature as Exploration. That's the first work of literary criticism that set out in detail a Reader-Response perspective.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, a whole crop of critics emerged who focused on analyzing readers' responses to texts. The most important of these critics was a dude called Stanley Fish. He applied a Reader-Response perspective to works like John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, and he argued that we just can't understand a literary work like Milton's epic without considering the reader's reaction to it.
A second important theorist is Wolfgang Iser, a German scholar who wrote a lot about how the meaning of a literary text isn't in the text itself but can be found in the interaction between the reader and the text. Iser also had a thing for "blanks," gaps in a text that force the reader to fill in with his or her own imagination.
Norman N. Holland and David Bleich were two guys who were into psychoanalytic theory. They were influenced by the ideas of the psychoanalyst and theorist Sigmund Freud, and they argued that understanding literary texts is all about understanding the psychology of the person who's actually reading the texts.
For instance, if you're a reader who has hang-ups about mommy and daddy—and who doesn't?—then you're probably going to project those issues onto the text you're reading. So when you analyze a text, you not only have to understand the words on the page, you have to understand the mind of the person reading those words.
Reader-Response theorists really don't like the New Critics, a bunch of mostly dudes who were all about the text. The New Critics They thought that the meaning of a literary work could be found in the work itself. According to them, you don't need to know anything about the social or cultural context of the work, or about the author's biography. And the reader? Who cares about the reader?
For the New Critics, the reader wasn't important, because in their New Critic-y minds, the reader had nothing to do with the actual meaning of the text.
According to Reader-Response critics, though, meaning isn't something that's just sitting there inside a literary text, waiting to be discovered. For them, meaning is something that's made as a result of the interaction between the reader's mind and the text. Reader-Response theorists argue that the reader is actually as important as the author.
One criticism Reader-Response theorists often get is this: if everyone reads differently, then how the heck can we come to any consensus about a literary work? If everyone has a different interpretation of the same text, that means that we can never agree about what the text's saying or doing, right?
Different Reader-Response critics would answer this criticism differently. There are those, like Norman N. Holland, who'd say: "Yes, we're all different, and yes, our readings are all going to be different. But that's okay. Why do we have to agree on what a text is telling us? There's no need for agreement."
And then there are other Reader-Response critics, like Wolfgang Iser, who'd argue that texts guide our responses to some extent. Yes, we each respond differently to texts, but our responses can't be that drastically different. To go back to the cake analogy: we can't make a carrot cake if we are given the ingredients for a cheesecake. Yes, we might each make the cheesecake differently, but at the end of the day it will be a cheesecake – our response as readers is determined, to some extent at least, by the ingredients that a text gives us to work with.
Okay, we'll be honest here: Reader-Response theory isn't exactly the most visible theory around today. Sure, the ideas of Reader-Response theorists have been incorporated by a whole lot of different schools, like Poststructuralism and New Historicism. But the Reader-Response school isn't as flashy and sexy as some of these other schools are.
We kind of take it for granted nowadays that different readers will have different responses to a literary work, and that there isn't just "one" objective meaning that can be found in a text. How you read a text depends on who you are and what your perspective is.
Just because Reader-Response theory is low-profile, though, doesn't mean that it hasn't got a lot to offer.
Literature provides us with texts, and we make meaning out of those texts by interacting with them as readers.
An author gives us a text that we readers then re-create through our own interpretations. An author gives us the outline, but it's the reader who colors in that outline.
A reader actively constructs a text through the process of reading. A reader is as important as the author in making a literary text because each reader remakes a text through his or her interpretation.