Reader-Response Criticism Essay - Critical Essays

Reader-Response Criticism


Reader-Response Criticism

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.

Representative Works

Robert Alter
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

David Bleich
Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism (essays) 1975
Subjective Criticism (essays) 1978
The Double Perspective: Language, Literacy, and Social Relations (essays) 1988

Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness (novella) 1899

Jonathan Culler
Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (essays) 1975
On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (essays) 1982

Jacques Derrida
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

Stanley Fish
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

Norman Holland
The Dynamics of Literary Response (criticism) 1968
Five Readers Reading (essays) 1975
The Critical I (criticism) 1992

Wolfgang Iser
Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett [The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett] (criticism) 1972
Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung [The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response] (essays) 1976
Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (essays) 1989
Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre: Perspektiven literarischer Anthropologie [The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology] (essays) 1991

Henry James
Turn of the Screw (short story) 1898

Hans Robert Jauss
Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (essays) 1982

Steven Mailloux
Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (essays) 1982

Gerald Prince
A Grammar of Stories: An Introduction (essays) 1973
Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative (essays) 1982

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (essays) 1987

Paul Ricoeur
Du texte a l'action [From Text to Action] (essays) 1986

Louise Rosenblatt
Literature as Exploration (essays) 1938
The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (essays) 1978

Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman
The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation [editors] (essays) 1980

Jane P. Tompkins
Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism [editor] (essays) 1980

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Stanley Fish (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 7156 words.)

P. D. Juhl (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 5052 words.)

Randall Craig (essay date spring 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 6710 words.)

Steven Mailloux (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 6113 words.)

Michael Vander Weele (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 7511 words.)

Harriet Kramer Linkin (essay date fall 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 7822 words.)

Criticism: Critical Approaches To Reader Response

Mary Louise Pratt (essay date fall-winter, 1982-83)

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...

(The entire section is 14267 words.)

Catherine Addison (essay date October 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 10703 words.)

Terence R. Wright (essay date winter 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 9944 words.)

William J. Spurlin (essay date 1995)

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.]


(The entire section is 5795 words.)

Gabriele Schwab (essay date winter 2000)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 6809 words.)

Criticism: Some Reader-Response Interpretations

William H. Shurr (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 2551 words.)

Ross C. Murfin (essay date 1995)

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.]


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 entire section is 4119 words.)

Peter J. Rabinowitz (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 6682 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 289 words.)