Critical approaches to literature that stress the validity of reader response to a text, theorizing that each interpretation is valid in the context from which a reader approaches a text.
Reader-response criticism arose as a critical theory in response to formalist interpretations of literature. Unlike the latter, which stressed the primacy of the text and an objective interpretation of it based on established criteria, advocates of reader-response criticism focused on the importance of the reader and their individual, subjective response to the text. One of the earliest proponents of this theory was Louise Rosenblatt, who stated in her Literature as Exploration (1938) that “a poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text.” The significance Rosenblatt and other reader-response critics placed on the reader was in direct opposition to the position taken by formalist critics in the past—for them, the text was the primary focus, and its impact on the reader or the idea that the reader's response was in any way relevant in the interpretation of the work was inconceivable.
In addition to Rosenblatt, other influential reader-response critics include Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser, both of whom argued against regarding literary works as objects. In his essay on reader-response criticism, Steven Mailloux explains that Fish, Iser, and other reader-response critics actually had very different approaches to the critical study of literary texts. However, all of them were unanimous in their rejection of the “affective fallacy” theory proposed by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in an influential essay in 1949. In this essay, Wimsatt and Beardsley stated their misgivings about what they termed as “obstacles to objective criticism” and the dangers of “intentional fallacy” (defined as confusion between the text and its origins) and “affective fallacy” (explained as the distinction that should be made between what a text is and what it does). According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, as well as many other formalist critics, the effect of the text on the reader should be irrelevant to the study of the text because this type of approach leads to the destruction of the text as an object of “specifically critical judgment.” In contrast, reader-response critics advocated the primacy of a reader's response to the text, stressing that there was no such thing as an “objectively correct interpretation,” says Mailloux.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, reader-response criticism, influenced in part by trends in other disciplines, especially psychology and psychoanalytical theories, expanded to include a study of the reader as subject, a combination of various social practices, defined and positioned socially by his or her environment. This shift from the relationship between reader and text, and their mutual impact, to a focus on self-knowledge and observation has been summarized in anthologies, including Jane Tompkins's Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Poststructuralism (1980). Recent works by critics including David Bleich, Normal Holland, and even Stanley Fish, have also expanded the focus of reader-response theory to include the validity and significance of interpretations guided by the environments or communities inhabited by the readers. This is a departure from their earlier-held position, which emphasized the primacy of the relationship between reader and text, regardless of environment. Fish, in particular, laid out his theories regarding interpretive strategies, which, he stated, are shared by “interpretive communities” in several essays during the 1980s and later. In his study of the history of reader-response criticism, Terence R. Wright explains that while the field has expanded its boundaries to include numerous approaches, the concern reader-response critics have with the act of reading remains constant. What has changed is the awareness these theorists now have of the ways in which environment, history, politics, and even sexual orientation, can affect a reader's response to a text. This expansion of criteria has led many contemporary critics to refer to this type of critical theory as reader-oriented criticism rather than reader-response criticism.
Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (essays) 1975
Mikhail M. Bakhtin
The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev and Voloshinov (essays) 1994
Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism (essays) 1975
Subjective Criticism (essays) 1978
The Double Perspective: Language, Literacy, and Social Relations (essays) 1988
Heart of Darkness (novella) 1899
Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (essays) 1975
On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (essays) 1982
Spectres de Marx: L'Etat de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale [Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International] (criticism) 1993
Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (essays) 1972
Is There A Text In This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (essays) 1980
Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (essays) 1989
The Dynamics of Literary Response (criticism) 1968
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Fish, Stanley. “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” In Is There A Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities, pp. 338-55. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, Fish expounds on the view that each interpretation of a literary text is colored by the reader's response to the text and that the only possible solution in trying to understand or counter-act an argument regarding a text is to present opposing points of view on it.]
Last time I ended by suggesting that the fact of agreement, rather than being a proof of the stability of objects, is a testimony to the power of an interpretive community to constitute the objects upon which its members (also and simultaneously constituted) can then agree. This account of agreement has the additional advantage of providing what the objectivist argument cannot supply, a coherent account of disagreement. To someone who believes in determinate meaning, disagreement can only be a theological error. The truth lies plainly in view, available to anyone who has the eyes to see; but some readers choose not to see it and perversely substitute their own meanings for the meanings that texts obviously bear. Nowhere is there an explanation of this waywardness (original sin would seem to be the only relevant model), or of the origin of these idiosyncratic meanings (I have been arguing that there could...
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SOURCE: Juhl, P. D. “Stanley Fish's Interpretive Communities and the Status of Critical Interpretations.” In Comparative Criticism, edited by E. S. Shaffer, pp. 47-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Juhl counters Fish's theory of interpretation, which proposes that each textual reading is affected by the interpretive community to which that reader belongs, and instead notes that literary interpretations can, indeed, be objectively evaluated.]
Over the last decade Stanley Fish has developed a theory of interpretation which is in effect a new version of the hermeneutic circle. In the following, I shall offer a few considerations in support of the view that this new version of the hermeneutic circle is no more convincing than the old. If I am right, then these considerations provide evidence that literary interpretations can, at least in principle, be objectively confirmed or disconfirmed.
On Fish's view, what a ‘text’ means depends on your ‘critical perspective’, ‘interpretive strategy’ or the ‘interpretive community’ you belong to. In fact, there is no text at all in the sense of some stable ‘entity’ identical for all interpreters. According to Fish, the text you interpret is constituted by your interpretive assumptions (i.e. those of the ‘interpretive community’ you belong to). So...
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SOURCE: Craig, Randall. “Reader-Response Criticism and Literary Realism.” Essays in Literature 11, no. 1 (spring 1984): 113-26.
[In the following essay, Craig discusses the effectiveness of using reader-response theory in the study of nineteenth-century realistic fiction.]
Wolfgang Iser's study of the reader in the English novel and Robert Alter's survey of self-conscious fiction follow curiously similar paths, intersecting at Fielding, Sterne, and Thackeray, by-passing the major literary realists of the nineteenth century, and arriving safely in the compatible country of Joyce and Beckett.1 The similar itineraries suggest an affinity between the critical perspective of reader-response theory and literary modes typified by self-reflexive or metafictional techniques. Beyond that, however, the avoidance of the realistic novel raises the question of how successfully the methods of reader-response criticism can be applied to nineteenth-century realistic fiction, or more generally, to fictional modes in which self-reflexive textual strategies and the concomitant self-conscious reading activity are deemphasized.
There is, of course, no unanimity of approach among response-oriented critics, who, for example, may be concerned with empirical readers, analyzed psychoanalytically by Norman Holland and sociologically by H. R. Jauss, or with hypothetical readers, defined...
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SOURCE: Mailloux, Steven. “The Turns of Reader-Response Criticism.” In Conversations: Contemporary Critical Theory and the Teaching of Literature, edited by Charles Moran and Elizabeth F. Penfield, pp. 38-54. Urbana. Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990.
[In the following essay, Mailloux presents a brief overview of reader-response theories prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s.]
The goal of reader-response criticism is to talk more about readers than about authors and texts. During the last twenty years such talk has involved a diversity of tropes and arguments within the institutional activities of literary criticism, history, theory, and pedagogy. In this brief essay I analyze early forms of this diversity in the 1970s and suggest some new turns reader-response criticism has taken in the 1980s.
Rhetoric as trope (figurative language) and as argument (persuasion) provides the framework for my discussion of reader-oriented criticism. Rhetoric presents a useful conceptual bridge from the linguistic and philosophical topics of post-structuralism to the material and political concerns of cultural criticism. That is, the rhetorical tradition has returned again and again to the very questions that now preoccupy such discourses as deconstruction and ideology critique, having often focused on the former's questions about the grounds of knowledge claims and the role of tropes in...
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SOURCE: Weele, Michael Vander. “Reader-Response Theories.” In Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, edited by Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, pp. 125-48. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
[In the following essay, Weele presents an analysis of reader-response theories, tracing the beginnings of this critical approach to the earliest interpretations of scripture.]
Literary criticism has always involved three inescapable elements: the author, the work, and the reader. Reader-response criticism regards the third of these elements as the most crucial for criticism, for criticism always begins in the first instance with reading. The current interest in reader-response theory derives not only from this fact, however; it also comes from contemporary skepticism about our knowledge of authors' intentions, from philosophical problems with the formalist view of the autonomy of artworks, and from the diversity of interpretations that cluster around individual works. If the meaning of a work cannot be grounded in reliable knowledge of intentions or texts, then the role of the reader becomes a more crucial issue in literary criticism. Although reader-response theories differ among themselves, they all emphasize the centrality of the reader in the literary experience.
To distinguish the concerns of reader-response theories from those of other...
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SOURCE: Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “Toward a Theory of Gendered Reading.” Reader, no. 30 (fall 1993): 1-25.
[In the following essay, Linkin explores the connections between various reading theories and gender research and interpretation.]
The intersection of reading theory and gender research continues to produce a variety of intriguing studies seeking to explore, describe, and account for projected differences between the ways men and women read, or better, between male and female modes of reading. Most scholarship still falls into the two areas Elizabeth Flynn noted in her “Gender and Reading”: either research into the reading behaviors of precollege students or interpretive analyses of literary texts by feminist critics whose resisting readings militate against the once prevalent form of “immasculation” Judith Fetterley named into common consciousness (the process by which female readers learned to identify as males, given a canon that so long privileged masculinist stories of separation over feminist stories of connection). However, a few studies over the years have tried to posit preliminary theories on gendered reading patterns for adults based on some form of empirical study, such as Norman Holland's “Transactive Teaching: Cordelia's Death,” and more recently, Flynn's “Gender and Reading,” David Bleich's “Gender Interests in Reading and...
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Criticism: Critical Approaches To Reader Response
SOURCE: Pratt, Mary Louise. “Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader-Response Criticism.” boundary 2 11, no. 1-2 (fall-winter 1982-83): 201-31.
[In the following essay, Pratt examines the rise of reader-response theory as a reaction to formalist criticism, analyzing the works of Stanley Fish, Susan Suleiman, and placing their theories in the context of new critical thinking.]
When the call for self-justification goes out, reader-response criticism often presents itself as a corrective to formalist or intrinsic criticism. This explanation, though undoubtedly true, does not seem altogether adequate. On the one hand, formalist and new criticism are already so discredited in theoretical circles that there seems little need for another round of abuse. On the other hand, much reader-response criticism turns out to be a notational variant of that very formalism so roundly rejected. An antiformalist theoretical stance invoked to uphold a neo- or covertly formalist practice—a contradiction not altogether unfamiliar these days, and one which suggests that in addition to the dead horses being flogged, there must be some live ones running around escaping notice. Gazes must turn outwards, beyond the corral.
It's true that interest in reader response was sparked by a problem in formalist theory, namely the fact that readers commonly disagree as to the...
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SOURCE: Addison, Catherine. “Once Upon a Time: A Reader-Response Approach to Prosody.” College English 56, no. 6 (October 1994): 655-78.
[In the following essay, Addison discusses the impact of reader-response theory on prosody, noting that prosodic critical interpretations would benefit from an expansion of criteria beyond studying just the text to include the point of view of readers and their environment.]
One would expect the study of literary prosody, of all disciplines, to focus on the phenomenon of reading. Its ostensible subject is the rhythms and patterns of sound in poetry, and these cannot be conceived without the prior notion of a reader perceiving or reproducing them. It may be possible to imagine an idea existing in free space, independent of any thinker, since ideas are often envisaged as static entities, able to be “packed away” in spaces of memory or in books; but rhythm depends essentially on movement and must be reenacted in real time in order to exist.
And yet the massive turn toward the reader in literary theory and criticism during recent times has had little effect on the study of prosody. Most prosodists remain profoundly skeptical about the relevance of reading to their discipline. Not much has changed, in fact, since 1956, when John Hollander, in a passage which he subsequently included in a book published as late as 1975, distinguished between what he...
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SOURCE: Wright, Terence R. “Reader Response Under Review: Art, Game, or Science?” Style 29, no. 4 (winter 1995): 529-48.
[In the following essay, Wright compares and contrasts a number of texts that address issues of reader response and interpretation, noting that work by such authors as Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur can also be classified in this genre of critical theory.]
One of the problems of the label “Reader-Response Criticism” is that it covers a multitude of different approaches. Jane Tompkins's anthology, Reader-Response Criticism, originally published in 1980 but reprinted many times since then and still used as a course textbook, includes essays that could equally well be labelled New Critical, Phenomenological, Structuralist, Psychoanalytic, or Deconstructive. Her introduction claims that Reader-Response Criticism “could be said to have started with I. A. Richards's discussions of emotional response in the 1920s or with the work of D. W. Harding and Louise Rosenblatt in the 1930s” (x). Rosenblatt's later book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, first published in 1978 and now reissued with a new preface and epilogue, is one of the books under review here. But also under review are a number of books that might not normally be considered Reader-Response at all, including work by Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur, as well as new books...
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SOURCE: Spurlin, William J. “New Critical and Reader-Oriented Theories of Reading: Shared Views on the Role of the Reader.” In The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory: Connections and Continuities, edited by William J. Spurlin and Michael Fischer, pp. 229-45. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.
[In the following essay, Spurlin presents a comparative analysis between reader-oriented theories of criticism and the New Critics, theorizing that although the New Critics did not address issues of gender, race, and other subjective positions as clearly as reader-response critics do, they were not indifferent to the context a reader brings to a text.]
Contemporary critics and theorists often repudiate the New Criticism as narrowly formalistic because of its primary focus on the text, which allegedly precludes discussion of any social, historical, political, or existential contextualization in the act of reading. Indeed, the reflective and compelling arguments of more recent reader-oriented, feminist, New Historical, psycho-analytic, African-American, and lesbian and gay male theorists have helped to show how a variety of interlocking contexts for reading, as well as gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, and other subject positions, contribute to the construction of meaning.
It is true that the New Critics did not address these issues with the detail and...
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SOURCE: Schwab, Gabriele. “‘If Only I Were Not Obliged to Manifest’: Iser's Aesthetics of Negativity.”1New Literary History 31, no. 1 (winter 2000): 73-89.
[In the following essay, Schwab explores connections between Iser's original theory of reader-response and his later focus on literary anthropology.]
I. FICTIONALITY AND NEGATIVITY: CONNECTIVE TISSUES IN ISER'S WORK
In relation to the empirical world, the imaginary as otherness is a sort of holy madness that does not turn away from the world but intervenes in it.2
[N]egativity provides the structure underlying the interaction between text and reader.3
The two epigraphs chosen for this essay contain in a nutshell the most pressing concerns in Iser's work. Literature as an instrument of “holy madness” figures as a kind of cultural broker whose main role consists in intervening in the empirical world. Defying ontology, fiction, Iser asserts, is most tangible in its impact on the reader: “The more fiction eludes an ontological definition, the more unmistakably it presents itself in terms of its use. If it is no longer confined to an explanatory function, its impact becomes its most prominent feature” (P 267). Yet how are we to determine this impact? “It has always been...
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Criticism: Some Reader-Response Interpretations
SOURCE: Shurr, William H. “Leaves of Grass as a Sexual Manifesto: A Reader-Response Approach.” In Approaches to Teaching Whitman's Leaves of Grass, edited by Donald D. Kummings, pp. 99-104. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
[In the following essay, Shurr demonstrates that Whitman uses his own presence in his texts to demand a specific response from his readers.]
Literary criticism is rightly concerned with the question of where the author places himself or herself in the text. How does the author choose to relate to the reader, with the text as surrogate? Theoretically it is impossible to read a text without coming to some implicit decision about this relationship. With Whitman, the college student will find no doubt.
Whitman clarifies his intended relationship to us at many points in his poetry, telling exactly how we should read him. His approach is consciously and blatantly seductive. He presents his book as his physical person and his purpose as a sexual relationship with the reader. As students notice this, they become personally involved with the poet. For many the relationship is disquieting, as Whitman predicted it would be.
One of the Calamus poems of 1860 is addressed to “Whoever you are holding me now in hand” (LG 115). The nonresisting reader experiences a moment of shock in realizing that he or she...
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SOURCE: Murfin, Ross C. “Reader-Response Criticism and The Turn of the Screw.” In Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ edited by Peter G. Beidler, pp. 152-59. Boston Mass.: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Murfin explains the basics of reader-response criticism, applying these theories to a reading of Henry James' Turn of the Screw.]
WHAT IS READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM?
Students are routinely asked in English courses for their reactions to texts they are reading. Sometimes there are so many different reactions that we may wonder whether everyone has read the same text. And some students respond so idiosyncratically to what they read that we say their responses are “totally off the wall.”
Reader-response critics are interested in the variety of our responses. Reader-response criticism raises theoretical questions about whether our responses to a work are the same as its meanings, whether a work can have as many meanings as we have responses to it, and whether some responses are more valid than, or superior to, others. It asks us to pose the following questions: What have we internalized that helps us determine what is and what isn't “off the wall”? In other words, what is the wall, and what standards help us to define it?
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SOURCE: Rabinowitz, Peter J. “Reader Response, Reader Responsibility: Heart of Darkness and the Politics of Displacement.” In Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ edited by Ross C. Murfin, pp. 131-47. Boston Mass.: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Rabinowitz presents a reader-response interpretation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.]
Even before Chinua Achebe proclaimed in 1975 that “Joseph Conrad was a bloody racist” (9),1 many critics had scrutinized the racial politics of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But Achebe's stature as one of Africa's foremost novelists gave new urgency to the concerns about Conrad's ideology; and since then, it has been increasingly difficult to talk about the novel without coming to terms, either explicitly or implicitly, with Achebe's condemnation. Some critics have defended Conrad's political credentials. Brian W. Shaffer, for example, argues that Conrad's African fictions are “‘rejoinders’” to philosopher Herbert Spencer's “typology of civilization” (46), which made a hierarchical distinction between militant societies (“simple, repressive,” and evolutionarily backward) and industrial societies (“complex, democratic,” and more advanced) (47). Thus, although Conrad organizes his novel around Spencer's categories, he doesn't defend the norms of...
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Arich, Friedrich. “Dogsical Reading: Gravity's Rainbow's Reversals and Reader-Response Criticism.” Pynchon Notes 42-3 (spring-fall, 1998): 292-302.
Reader response interpretation of Gravity's Rainbow.
Clifford, John. “The Unconscious Redux.” Reader, no. 43 (spring 2000): 38-41.
Studies the interconnectedness of culture and the subconscious while reading texts of literature, focusing on a poem titled My Papa's Waltz.
Dawson, Melanie. “Lily Bart's Fractured Alliances and Wharton's Appeal to the Middlebrow Reader.” Reader, no. 41 (spring 1999): 1-30.
Theorizes that Wharton's characters proved to be popular with her readers not because of their glamour and beauty, but because they were very similar to themselves.
Harris, Wendell W. “Contextualizing Coram's Foundling Hospital: Dickens's Use and Readers' Interests.” Reader, no. 43 (spring 2000): 1-19.
Discusses the importance of contextual information in increasing a reader's understanding of the text and its historical context using a character from Dickens' Little Dorrit as an example.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by K. M. Newton, pp. 226-31. New York:...
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