Study Guide

Reader-Response Theory Critics

  • Louise Rosenblatt

    Through the medium of words, the text brings into the reader's consciousness certain concepts, certain sensuous experiences, certain images of things, people, actions, scenes. The special meanings and, more particularly, the submerged associations that these words have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text.

    Let's say you're reading a book. The author's describing a nice house on a lake somewhere: windows, water, trees, the works. Okay, so as you're reading this description, you suddenly remember this vacation you took with your parents to Florida when you were a kid. You remember the house you were staying in by the beach, and you remember how much fun you had there.

    Tl;dr: reading some description of a fictional house can totally make you think about things you've experienced yourself.

    Okay, great. But when someone else reads that description, that person might have a completely different reaction. Maybe they'll remember their ex's living room, or something like that. Chances are pretty good that they're not going to have the same sense of pleasure reading this as the reader who remembers childhood vacations to Florida.

    What Rosenblatt's getting at here is that each reading experience is unique to each reader. Not only that, but the same person can read the same passage twice and have a completely different experience reading it the second time. If you're happy one day, that passage about the beautiful house on the lake might make you feel even happier. If you're sad the next day and reread the same passage, you might feel worse, because you might be thinking: Man, my life is a toilet compared to this pretty book.

    Rosenblatt was one of the first theorists to think really hard about how each reader responds differently to the text he or she reads. We're all unique, right? Well, that means that we'll all have different perspectives on the texts we read.

  • Stanley Fish

    It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities. […] Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.

    Let's say you're sitting at home one day reading Shakespeare's Hamlet. But you're not just doing that. You also happen to be sitting in front of your laptop glancing up every two minutes to check your Facebook newsfeed. At the same time, your phone's buzzing, and you're texting with a friend, and you're trying to make dinner plans.

    Yeah, if you're doing all that stuff while trying to read Hamlet, you're probably not going to get much out of it. Can you really understand the use of language, the themes and motifs that are popping up, or the structure of the play if you're worrying about all this stuff at once? Probably not.

    But if you lock yourself in a quiet room, shut down your laptop, clear your desk, put your phone on silent, and just sit there and read Hamlet really closely, you'll probably get a whole lot out of it. You'll find things in the play—images, symbols, themes—that you wouldn't find if you weren't paying close attention.

    Basically, Hamlet is only as great as the attention you pay to it. Those words on the page are just ink unless you, the reader, decide to make them more than that.

    [The] method [is] rather simple in concept, but complex (or at least complicated) in execution. The concept is simply the rigorous and disinterested asking of the question, what does this word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, novel, play, poem, do?; and the execution involves an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time.

    Words on a page don't just sit there: when we read them, they do something to us. They might make us laugh. They might make us angry. They might make us cry. They might confuse the heck out of us.

    Okay, well, that's all great, but in order for words to evoke all of these crazy different reactions, there needs to be a reader reading them. In order to understand what the words are doing, we need to understand what we, as readers, are feeling and thinking when we read those words. A critic's job is to analyze how a reader responds to words as they unfold in sentences.

    Stanley Fish is asking a whole lot of us here. Does he seriously want us to sit there and analyze how we respond to each word that we read?

    Yup.

    Well, Fish thinks it's totally worth the effort. We'll take his word for it. Word by word by word by word.

    [T]he value of such a procedure is predicated on the idea of meaning as an event, something that is happening between the words and in the reader's mind, something not visible to the naked eyes, but which can be made visible (or at least palpable) by the regular introduction of a "searching" question (what does this do?). It is more usual to assume that meaning is a function of the utterance, and to equate it with the information given (the message) or the attitude expressed. That is, the components of an utterance are considered either in relation to each other or to a state of affairs in the outside world, or to the state of mind of the speaker-author. In any and all of these variations, meaning is located (presumed to be embedded) in the utterance, and the apprehension of meaning is an act of extraction. In short, there is little sense of process and even less of the reader's actualizing participation in that process.

    Traditionally, we tend to think of meaning as something embedded in the words on a page. In this view we readers have to find or extract that meaning. But according to Fish, meaning isn't just sitting there on a page. Meaning happens, and it only happens when a reader interacts with a text and participates in making meaning.

    Basically, Fish thinks that meaning is something that exists between the words on the page and the reader's mind. It's not totally in the text, and it's not something the reader totally makes up, but it's a sort of creative engagement between the two.

  • Wolfgang Iser

    [Texts] not only draw the reader into the action, but also lead him to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader's imagination animates these "outlines," they in turn will influence the effect of the written part of the text. Thus begins a whole dynamic process: the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implication in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader's imagination, set the given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own. In this way, trivial scenes suddenly take on the shape of an "enduring form of life." What constitutes this form is never named, let alone explained, in the text, although in fact it is the end product of the interaction between text and reader.

    Reader-Response theorists love that word "interaction."

    This is how it works: a work of literature provides you with a certain outline of a character, or a scene. It's like the text is a coloring book: you get all these cool outlines you're supposed to color in. And as you know if you've ever given a bunch a kids the same picture to color in, they're all going to do it a little bit differently.

    Well, that's basically how a reader interacts with a work of literature: the reader colors in the outlines that the text gives with his or her own impressions, thoughts, and emotions. The words on the page act on the reader's mind, and the reader's mind acts on the words on the page.

    [T]he possible reader must be visualized as playing a particular role with particular characteristics, which may vary according to circumstances. And so just as the author [Thackeray] divides himself up into the narrator of the story and the commentator of the events in the story, the reader is also stylized to a certain degree, being given attributes which he may either accept or reject. Whatever happens he will be forced to react to those ready-made qualities ascribed to him.

    So, we're talking about the implied reader here. What's that, you ask? Well, each text constructs its readers, at least to a certain extent. If a novel is using really fancy-pants vocabulary ("one would not expect such concupiscence in a woman of such puritanical habits," anyone?), then the implied reader is someone who is also kind of fancy-pants: he or she is someone with a big vocabulary, someone learned and intellectually elite.

    If a narrator of another novel keeps saying, "I know you won't believe me, but I swear this happened," then the implied reader is someone who is untrusting, or someone who isn't taken in easily—that's why the narrator has to keep proving that what's being said is actually true.

    So a text puts us, as readers, in a certain position: it assumes we're super clever, or we're super stupid, or we're super skeptical. Then we as readers either live up to those expectations, or we don't. But if you ask Iser, there is always an implied reader.

    Iser is explaining to us one of his big concepts. Texts always imply a reader. And that's significant because it points up just how important readers are. A text can't really exist without readers. Texts are written to be read by someone, after all, even if that someone is just our imaginary friend Bubbles.

    By impeding textual coherence, the blanks transform themselves into stimuli for acts of ideation. In this sense, they function as a self-regulating structure in communication; what they suspend turns into a propellant for the reader's imagination, making him supply what has been withheld.

    You know how when you read a book, sometimes there are these great big gaps? You know: let's say you finish a chapter, and then the next chapter is suddenly set ten years later. You're like, wait a minute, what the heck's happened in those ten years? What's with all this jumping around in time?

    Or let's say you've been following this one character around for 60 pages, and you're really into him or her. Then suddenly that character disappears, and a new character pops up out of nowhere. You get confused. Where did the first character go? What happened?

    According to Iser, these "gaps" or "blanks" are way important in literature. They may confuse the bejesus out of you, but they stimulate your imagination. If there's a blank of ten years in the middle of a novel, you're forced to think about what could have happened in those ten years—and to come up with all kinds of theories. If the character you like suddenly disappears from the book, you start trying to explain that character's disappearance: Were they kidnapped? Murdered? Did they run away?

    Iser's ideas about the "blanks" in texts are important because he's showing how literary texts force us to become active readers who have as much a part to play in the telling of the story as the author does. We create the stories that we read by filling in the "blanks" that texts give us.

  • Norman N. Holland

    The unity we find in literary texts is impregnated with the identity that finds that unity. This is simply to say that my reading of a certain literary work will differ from yours or his or hers. As readers, each of us will bring different kinds of external information to bear. Each will seek out the particular themes that concern him. Each will have different ways of making the text into an experience with a coherence and significance that satisfies.

    When each of us reads a book, we make sense of it in our own unique way. And that's because each of us has a different identity, a different past, and different experiences.

    Someone who grew up in Mississippi is going to read The Sound and the Fury differently from someone who grew up in New York, for example. Those readers will concentrate on different themes and imagery, and they'll come to different conclusions about what the novel is saying.

    If you're a Southerner from Mississippi like Faulkner, you might see The Sound and the Fury as an allegory for how the South fell apart. If you have lots of family issues, you might read the novel as a story about how dysfunctional family life is. If you're African American, you might read the novel and see just how messed up race relations were back in the day in the South. Depending on who you are, your individual readings will emphasize different themes and issues.

    Holland's point is that your personal perspective always influences the way that you approach a literary text. We all have different identities, experiences, and backgrounds. Your unique identity or point of view is going to shape the way you read literature. You can't help it. You don't check your identity at the door when you start reading a book: it's always there, and it informs the way you read everything.

    [I]dentity re-creates itself, or, to put it another way, style—in the sense of personal style—creates itself. That is, all of us, as we read, use the literary work to symbolize and finally to replicate ourselves. We work out through the text our own characteristic patterns of desire and adaptation. We interact with the work, making it part of our own psychic economy and making ourselves part of the literary work—as we interpret it.

    We project ourselves onto the texts we read. The text becomes like a cinema screen onto which we can project all of our issues: our relationship to Mommy and Daddy, our fear of commitment, our desire to be the next Bill Gates or Miley Cyrus.

    Basically, a work of literature becomes an extension of us: it's all about our own psychology and our own ego. Reading is kind of like going to the therapist, since we use the text to work out our own psychological issues.

    Basically: we all have baggage, and the texts we read reflect that baggage right back to us.

  • David Bleich

    The assumption of the subjective paradigm is that collective similarity of response can be determined only by each individual's announcement of his response and subsequent communally motivated negotiative comparison. This assumption is validated by the ordinary fact that when each person says what he sees, each statement will be substantially different. The response must therefore be the starting point for the study of aesthetic experience.

    Just because everyone responds differently to a literary text, that doesn't mean we can't come to some kind of agreement about what a literary text is about. Yeah, we all have different interpretations and responses—we're different people, after all. But we can still arrive at a general idea about what a text is doing to us, and about how it affects us, by comparing notes. What's your impression of this novel or play and how is it different from or similar to mine?

    David Bleich is responding to a common criticism tossed at Reader-Response theorists: if every reader responds differently to a work of literature, then how the heck can we ever talk about literature with other people? If everyone has a different opinion, then we can never agree on what a text's saying, right?

    Bleich's point is that even if we can't come to any one objective interpretation of a text, we can still come to a general understanding of it—but we can only do that by first taking into account a number of subjective responses to that work. So it looks like there's a kind of middle ground between totally objective and totally subjective readings of literature: that's the sweet spot for textual interpretation.