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What Is Reader Response Criticism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Whereas many discuss literary works objectively, absolutely and with respect to how the author developed the ideas on the page, reader response criticism focuses on the reader and how she or he receives the literary work. In a sense, this moves the text from existing on its own — on, for example, the physical pages of a book — and instead assumes that the text exists only when it is read. This theory makes literary works more like performance art where the reader's act of reading and interpreting the text is the performance. Critical theorists continue to develop this approach, considering the nature of the reader and what he or she brings to the text, along with the different "lenses" through which the text can be viewed.

Foundational Beliefs

In reader response criticism, the act of reading is like a dialogue between the reader and the text that has meaning only when the two are joined in conversation. It redefines the role of the text from an independent object into something that can only exist when it is read and interacts with the mind of the reader. In this way, the reader is not a passive recipient of what the text says, but rather takes an active role. The text then serves as a catalyst to spur memories and thoughts within the reader allowing him or her to link the text to personal experiences and thereby fill in the spaces left by the text. This allows theorists to explain why people can have different responses to and interpretations of the same text.

This form of criticism even goes so far as to examine the role that individual words and phrases in the text play when interacting with the reader. The sounds and shapes that words make or even how they are pronounced or spoken by the reader can essentially alter the meaning of the text, it is suggested. Some reader response critics go so far as to analyze a text phrase by phrase in order to determine how much of the experience of reading it is predetermined and then analyze how each reader's experience changes that initial meaning.

Approaches Within Reader Response Criticism

Reader response criticism starts with what formalist literary criticism called the "affective fallacy" — that the response of the reader is relevant to understanding a text — and uses it as the focus of approaching a work of literature. There are different approaches within this school of critical theory, however; some look at the work from the individual reader's point of view, while others focus on how groups or communities view the text. For these schools of criticism, it's what the text does to the reader that's important, and not necessarily the work itself, the author's intent, or the social, political, or cultural context in which it was written.

The label "reader-oriented criticism" has become popular since the reader's experiences and expectations often change as time passes. In addition, a reader may approach the text with different points of view, or lenses. That is, the reader may be able to see the value in his or her own personal response while also analyzing the text based on another critical approach.

Individual Readers

Louise Rosenblatt is generally credited with formally introducing the idea that the reader's experience and interaction with the text creates the true meaning. This idea developed into what came to be known as Transactional Reader Response Criticism. Rosenblatt argued that, while the reader is guided by the ideas and words that the author laid out, it is ultimately each individual reader's experience in reading the work that actually gives it meaning. Since each person brings unique knowledge and beliefs to the reading transaction, the text will mean different things to different people. It is that meaning — the reader's meaning — that should be assessed, as opposed to solely looking at the author's text in a vacuum.

Other critics focus on how the reader's mind relates to the text, in what is known as Psychological Reader Response Criticism. The reader is seen as a psychological subject who can be studied based on his or her unconscious drives brought to the surface by his or her reaction to a text. Reading the text can become almost a therapeutic experience for the reader, as the connections that he or she makes reveal truths about his or her personality.

Psychological Reader Response Criticism in many ways fueled another similar theory — Subjective Reader Response Criticism — which takes the personal, psychological component even further. In this theory, the reader’s interpretation of a text is thought to be deeply influenced by personal and psychological needs first, rather than being guided by the text. Each reading is thought to bring psychological symptoms to the surface, from which the reader can find his or her own unconscious motives.

The Uniform Reader

Other schools of reader response criticism look not at the reader as an individual, but as a theoretical reader. The "implied reader," for example, an idea introduced by Wolfgang Iser, is the reader who is required for the text — the reader who the author imagines when writing, and who he or she is writing for. This reader is guided by the text, which contains gaps meant for the reader to fill, explaining and making connections within the text. The reader ultimately creates meaning based not only on what is in the text, but what the text has provoked inside him or her. Theorist Stanley Fish introduced what he called the "informed reader," who brings prior, shared knowledge to the experience of reading.

Social Reader Response

Social Reader Response Criticism focuses on "interpretive communities" — groups that have shared beliefs and values — and how these groups use particular strategies that affect both the text and their reading behaviors. It is the group that then determines what an acceptable interpretation of the text is, with the meaning being whatever the group says that it is. A book club or a group of college students for example, based on their own cultural and group beliefs, will generally agree on the ultimate meaning on a text.

As an extension of the social theory, these like-minded groups can also approach and view the text from different lenses. If the group finds certain elements to be more significant than others, it might examine the text from this particular viewpoint, or lens. For example, feminist literary critics may find focus on the female elements of a writing, whereas new historicists might focus on the culture and era in which the text is read.

Arguments Against Reader Response Criticism Generally

It is often argued that reader response criticism allows for any interpretation of a text to be considered valid, and can devalue the content of the text as a result. Others argue that the text is being ignored completely or that it is impossible to properly interpret a text without taking into consideration the culture or era in which it is written. In addition, a larger complaint is that these theories do not allow for the reader’s knowledge and experience to be expanded by the text at all.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon349362 — On Sep 25, 2013

The argument that any interpretation can be valid is false, because one would need to support their claim with evidence from the text. It could seem nonsensical, but I think it is a solid literary analysis approach.

By anon115404 — On Oct 01, 2010

Fish argued that the struggle to find meaning in a text is the meaning of the text. For example, if you take a poem that could legitimately be interpreted in two different ways, the meaning would exist in the reader's struggle to choose, not in one of the two "real" meanings.

By stan08 — On Jul 29, 2010

Thanks for this article.

By anon82501 — On May 06, 2010

is it the reader who manipulates the text or the text?

By anon60816 — On Jan 16, 2010

Any interpretation is considered valid because it is based on the reader's interaction, background knowledge, schema, and overall experience with the text. The author's intentions are acknowledged but do not mandate one interpretation of a text.

By anon52619 — On Nov 15, 2009

i really liked this article, it gave me an overall explanation of what is reader respond theory. thanks whoever posted.

By anon51706 — On Nov 08, 2009

How could a reader create the meaning of a text? Wouldn't that be the author of a text? If I tell my children something, or write them a note, do I expect them to decide what it means?

By anon45093 — On Sep 13, 2009

i don't fully understand this because if the reader is suppose to interpret the text, how can anyone say that their opinion might not be valid?

By anon23694 — On Dec 31, 2008

Reader Response theory is far older than Stanley Fish's very narrow take on the theory of the 1980s. Louise Rosenblatt should be credited as the initiator of reader response theory.

Rosenblatt posits that reading is a transaction between the reader and the text resulting in the evocation of what she term 'the literary work of art'.

By anon22829 — On Dec 11, 2008

What is the effect of a text on the reader when the reader dislikes it?

By anon18657 — On Sep 27, 2008

If, as you say in the last paragraph, children grow up to join other critical communities such as feminist of deconstructionist, does that mean that those who only use reader response are immature?

By anon5644 — On Dec 02, 2007

Hey, just wanted to say that this article was very useful. Thank you!

By anon2507 — On Jul 14, 2007

Does reader response theory suggest that any interpretation is valid?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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