What does literature mean to you?
Good question. When we talk about “literature” we are usually talking about written works that have a lasting value, although technically speaking it can be just about anything written. For me, the question becomes a matter of which written works have had a lasting effect on me.
I’ve found that a lot of the things that I was forced to read in school but didn’t particularly want to read at the time have stuck with me through the years (The Odyssey, Shakespeare, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.). That’s because these works are about timeless themes that resonate for everybody, everywhere, all the time. The characters in works like these are very much like real people, they have strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points, dreams and disappointments. Reading about what they go through, and how they deal with it helps us understand our own lives in a way—just like having conversations with people helps us. But in the case of literature, writers can be brutally honest—they don’t have to worry about hurting your feelings or being politically correct.
Reader-response criticism is a technical term referring to the relationship between a text and its reader, not merely a nostalgic look back at our first exposure to classics. The question here has little or no value to a student experiencing literature for the first time. Students should be going through the earlier critical approaches first, such as character analysis, structural analysis, genre studies, influences of one writer upon a later one, etc. Critics may have moved past these types, but a student shouldn't skip those steps.