Study Guide

Reader-Response Theory Buzzwords

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Okay, so you want us to explain to you what a reader is? All right, all right—this is Reader-Response theory, after all. The reader's that person who sits in the library (or just on the couch) for hours and hours reading literary works. More importantly, the reader is someone who interprets a literary work. According to Reader-Response theorists, the reader is responsible for making—not just finding—meaning in literary works.


We're all individuals, right? There are over seven billion people on the planet, and each person has his or her own unique memories, relationships, interests, identity. A person's response to a literary text is shaped by his or her own unique perspective and experience. According to Reader-Response theory, that means that every person's response—yup, even your teacher's—is going to be, at least some extent, subjective.

Implied Reader

According to theorist Wolfgang Iser, each literary work has an implied reader. The implied reader of a young adult book, for example, is—you guessed it—a young adult. But there's more. If the narrator of a novel keeps telling us, "Are you following me? Does this make sense?" then the implied reader is a confused reader. If another narrator uses really fancy vocabulary when she or he speaks, then the implied reader is probably someone who's well educated.


Literary texts are full of blanks, or "gaps" that leave us readers scratching our heads. You know—it's like when the text suddenly skips twenty years, or when a character suddenly disappears. We go: huh? What just happened? According to Wolfgang Iser, these blanks are actually really important. Why? Because they stimulate our imagination. By being forced to fill in the "blanks," we readers are also forced to play a part in constructing the story.

Affective Stylistics

Stanley Fish came up with this term to describe the way in which literary critics must rely on their own subjective or "affective" reaction to a literary text in order to understand it. How do these words make us feel? (Yes, even critics have feelings—or so we've been told.) How and what do they make us think? Only by asking these questions can any reader begin to understand a literary work.

Interpretive Community

When we read, it's true that we each have a subjective reaction to a literary work. But it's also true that we're not reading in a vacuum. If you ask Stanley Fish, we're actually part of an interpretive community, a group of readers who not only share the same language but who also share the same reading conventions. In college English class, for example, we're all lectured about the importance of doing "close reading." That's one reading convention that many of us share, and that makes close readers part of the same interpretive community.


Reader-Response theorists believe that meaning isn't something stable located inside a text. For them, a book isn't like a puzzle with one clear answer; meaning is found in the interaction between the reader and the text. The text has some suggestions, sure, but each reader will bring something a bit different to the text and will interpret it in different ways.


We each have a unique psychological identity, right? Well, Reader-Response theorists think that when we read, we project our own identities onto the text we're reading. Whatever psychological hang-ups we have (issues with mom and dad, fear of cats, obsession with The Bachelor) will affect the way that we understand a literary text.

Meaning as Event

Reader-Response theorists have this idea that the meaning we find in a literary text isn't just static. It's not some concrete thing just sitting there, waiting to be discovered. For these theorists, meaning is an event, something that happens as a result of the interaction between the reader and the text.

Subjective Criticism

Many Reader-Response critics think that objectivity doesn't exist. They say that, try as we might, we just plain can't arrive at an objective interpretation of a literary work. So, they say, let's stop trying to. Instead, let's focus on understanding literary texts through our own unique perspectives as individual human beings—in other words, let's focus on subjective criticism.

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