What is the problem in Reader Response Theory? 

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Louise Rosenblatt first offered her Reader-Response theory in 1938. Stanley Fish thirty years later followed up with Surprised by Sin (1967) and Rosenblatt followed with her famous essay "Towards a Transactional Theory of Reading" (1969), which is cited as adding greatly to the discussion in Literature Criticism questioning the manner in which one literary work is interpreted differently from one reader to another. This helped sparked the argument of whether the reader presupposes the literary work, or whether the literary work presupposes the reader.

Hence, this very argument is what lays at the bottom of the "problem" with Reader Response theory: Is text merely text and the reading process of analysis entirely up to the reader? The problem in Reader Response is that Rosenblatt and Fish both posit reader experience as the primary mover of critical literary meaning, while Rosenblatt also holds there may be in addition a mode for "efferent" information seeking only.

Formalists, such as the New Critics, are those who believe that the text is the idea of the author through intentional literary devices and that literary intent supersedes the experience of the reader as the determiner of the author's message.

Subjectivists argue that there are text to text, text to self, and text to world connections made by readers based on their particular schema and life experience; in other words, the emotional effects left on the reader by a powerful novel, such as Paradise Lost, for example, will not be the same from one reader to another. Those readers who have nothing that relates to it in their lives, will perhaps not feel as personally touched as those who have gone through tribulations.

It is not merely a matter of emotions. It is also an interpretive problem that drives this argument; it is the notion of form versus content, of form versus reader, and of content versus the reader. In the end, the question remains the same and all we can do is quote Rosenblatt, the first advocate of the theory, who counter-argues New Critics by stating:

The idea that a poem presupposes a reader actively involved with a text is particularly shocking to those seeking to emphasize the objectivity of their interpretations.

We can also cite Stanley Fish, who was an ardent proponent of Reader Response Theory constructs, because he argued strongly against supposing that a work of literature is an object; if a poem were to be analyzed as a written piece of work, we would be taking away considerably from the very idea of literature and art as interpretations of life. Hence, literature (in the eyes of subjectivists) cannot be treated like a product, but as an ongoing discourse between imagination, emotion, spirituality, and the Self.

Thus the "problem" in Reader Response Theory is the origination of meaning: does it originate with the author or does it originate with the reader-responder? This expands to the questions of what the act of reading really is and what the relationship of the reader to the succession of words really is.

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