Roland Barthes’ Concept of Readerly and Writerly Texts


One of the seminal contributions of Roland Barthes, a versatile literary and cultural critic and semiologist, was the poststructuralist distinction between two main types of texts roughly corresponding to nineteenth century realism and twentieth century experimental modernism. In his 1970 work S/Z in which he did a structural analysis of Balzac’s Sarrasine, Barthes formulated that the realist text, which is considered to be “transparent”, having a seemingly unitary meaning, invested by the author and easily accessible to the reader, is a “readerly” text, in which the reader is only a passive and inert consumer of the author’s product. On the contrary, the experimental text, which he calls the “writerly” text, requires the active participation of the reader in establishing the meaning of the text. Such a text is a site of resistance to stable signification and is characterised by differance and “aporia” or “deadlocks in understanding”, where meaning is constantly under erasure. That the text is a multidimensional space which can explode into multiplicity of meanings was anticipated in Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero (1953), where he endorses Sartre’s contention that writing is never innocent, that whether consciously or unconsciously, writing is an ideological act.
Barthes extends his defence of experimental literature in his The_Pleasure_of_the_Text_(French_first_edition).jpg (1973), where he distinguishes two types of reading — the horizontal and vertical. The horizontal reading, fostered by the readerly text, is concerned only with the story line of the text, which in the process, totally ignores the play of anguage and treats the text as transparent. On the other hand, the writerly text demands vertical reading, that which is not captivated by the plot alone, but by the play of language and the layering of significance. While horizontal reading gives the reader intermittent pleasure or “plaisir”, the vertical reading imparts “jouissance”, a state of bliss or ecstasy. The creative response invoked by the writerly text is what transforms the reader from being a passive consumer into a blissful scribe or scriptor. These are corollary to the the demise of the author and the simultaneous birth of the scriptor — which Barthes announces in The Death of the Author, drawing on Henry James’ and Sartre’s critique of the omniscient author/narrator.

The shift of perspective from the author to the text that Barthes takes from the Russian Formalists is also central to Gerard Gennete’s narratology, Julia Kristeva’s poststructuralist theory of intertextuality, and Derrida’s postulation of the abandonment of the “transcendental signified”.

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  1. Roland Barthes as a Cultural Theorist – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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