Reader Response Criticism: An Essay

Reader Response, primarily a German and American offshoot of literary theory, emerged (prominent since 1960s) in the West mainly as a reaction to the textual emphasis of New Criticism of the 1940s. New Criticism, the culmination of liberal humanist ideals, had stressed that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of the text; that the text is “autotelic” entity (complete within itself). Hence, it neglected authorial biography, social conditions during the composition of a work of art and the reader’s psychology. Reader Response Criticism wholly repudiated all these notions; instead, it focuses on the systematic examination of the aspects of the text that arouse, shape, and guide a reader’s response (for instance, Aristotelian Catharsis/ Brechtian alienation effect“. It designates multiple critical approaches to reading a text. According to Reader Response criticism, the reader is a producer rather than a consumer of meanings (parallel to Barthes’s Birth of the Reader). In this sense, a reader is a hypothetical construct of norms and expectations that can be derived or projected or extrapolated from the work. Because expectations may be violated or fulfilled, satisfied or frustrated, and because reading is a temporal process involving memory, perception, and anticipation, the charting of reader-response is extremely difficult and perpetually subject to construction and reconstruction, vision and revision.

The philosophical origins of Reader Response criticism can be traced back to the doctrine of Phenomenology, whose foundations were laid by the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), The term “phainomenon” means appearance, and Phenomenology shifts our attention of the external world to the ways in which these objects  appear to the human subject, and the subjective contribution to this process of appearing. He proposed that consciousness is a unified “intentional” act; by ‘Intentional” he does not mean that it is deliberately willed, but that it is always directed to an °object.”‘

maxresdefaultThe hermeneutic conceptions of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) have also been pivotal to the development of Reader Response theory, especially his explanation of Dasein as constituting a temporal structure of interpretative understanding, which is already engaged in the activity of interpretation. The Polish theorist Roman Ingarden (1893-1970), views that a literary work originates in the intentional acts of the consciousness of its author.

Reader Response criticism does not denote any specific theory. It can range from the phenomenological theories of Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden (both were faculty members at the University of Constance, Germany) to the relativistic analysis of Stanley Fish, who argues that the interpretive strategy of the reader creates the text, there being no text except that which a reader or an interpretive community of readers creates. Being both a reception aesthetic and a reception history, Reader Response criticism examines how readers realize the potentials of a text and how readings change over the course of history; it believes that although the the reader fills in the gaps, the author’s intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions

One can sort Reader Response theorists into three groups: those who focus upon the individual reader’s experience (“individualists”); those who conduct psychological experiments on a defined set of readers (“experimenters”); and those, who assume a fairly uniform response by all readers (“uniformists”). In a more general sense, one can break down Reader Response theorists into those who concern with the reader’s experience and psychology, those who concentrate on the linguistic/rhetorical dynamic of audience, and those who deal with readers as cultural and historical ciphers.









Hans Robert Jauss (1921-97), the German theorist, inspired by the phenomenological method of Husserl and Heideggeris Hermeneutics, gave a historical dimension to reader-oriented criticism by developing a version of Reader Response Criticism known as Reception Theory in his book, New Literary History. In this book, Jauss eschewed objectivist views of both literary texts and literary history and endeavoured to attain an agreement between Russian Formalism (which ignores historical and social contexts) and social theories as Marxism (which neglects the text). To him, a text is not simply and passively imbibed by the audience, but on the contrary, the reader makes out the meanings of the text based on his/her cultural background and experience. He exhorted that literature is a “dialogic” entity, a sort of dialogue between the text and the reader; a dialectic process of production and reception; he added that there is always “negotiation” and “opposition” on the part of the reader. “Horizons of expectations”, a term developed by Jauss to explain how a reader’s “expectations” or frame of reference, is based on the reader’s past experience of literature and what preconceived notions about literature the reader possesses (i.e., a reader’s aesthetic experience is bound by time and historical determinants). Reader Response Criticism tries to establish these “horizons” by analyzing the literary works of the age in question. Jauss also contended that for a work to be considered a classic it needed to exceed a reader’s horizons of expectations. The renowned cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, is one of the main proponents of reception theory; he developed it for media and communication studies from the literary- and history-oriented approaches.



Another leading exponent of German reception theory, Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007), drew heavily on the phenomenological aesthetics of Roman Ingarden and the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer. To him, the literary work is not an object in itself, but an effect to be expounded; the text is the result of the author’s intentional acts and it controls reader’s responses. In his work, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976, trans. 1978), Iser posits that all literary texts have “Leerstellen” (blanks/gaps/ lacunae), which have to be filled in or “concretized” by the creative reader to interpret the text. “Implied Reader” is a term used by Wolfgang Iser to describe a hypothetical reader of a text. Such a reader is a “model” or a “role”. The implied reader “embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect – predispositions laid down,. not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structures of the rext; he is a construct and in no way yo be identified with any real reader”.The Implied Reader is established by the text itself, who is expected to respondin specific ways to the “response-inviting structures” of the text. While the “Actual Reader” is the one whose responses are coloured by his/ her accumulated personal experiences; one, who receives mental images during the process of reading through the knowledge and experience of one’s own. However the implied and actual readers co-exist, and are truly one and the same person, responding to a text in two different ways and levels of consciousness.

lser also describes the process of first reading, the subsequent development of the text into a ‘whole’, and how the dialogue between the reader and text takes place. In his study of Shakespeare’s histories, in particular Richard II, Iser interprets Richard’s continually changing legal policy as the expression of his desire for self-assertion. Here, he follows Hans Blumenberg, and attempts to apply his theory of modernity to Shakespeare. He also maintained that there are two poles in a literary work – “the artistic pole” (the text created by the author), and the “aesthetic pole” (the realization accomplished by the reader).



the 1960s, David Bleich began collecting statements from students of their feelings and associations. He based his analysis on classroom teaching of literature, and hold that reading is not determined by the text; instead, reading is a subjective process designed by the distinctive personality of the individual reader. He also claimed that his classes “generated” knowledge, the knowledge of how particular persons recreate texts.


Norman Holland makes use of psychoanalytic analysis of the process of reading. He viewed the subject matter of a work as the projection of the fantasies that constitute the identity of its author. To him, reading is the encounter between the author’s and the reader’s fantasies; the reader transforms the fantasy content, that constitutes the process of tnterpretation. He also declared that there is no universally determinate meaning of a particular text

downloadHarold Bloom, the prominent Yale critic, has been noteworthy for his incorporation of Freudian conceptions of defense mechanisms into the realm of Reader Response Theory. He came up with the idea of “Anxiety of Influence” which defied the hitherto notion of influence that it is direct borrowing or assimilation of materials from earlier writers.Bloom calls a poet a ‘belated’ one or “ephebe”, who is motivated to compose a poem when his imagination is seized upon by a precursor’s poem. The “ephebe’ has an Oedipal relationship with his/her precursor, a relationship ambivalent, mixed with admiration, hate, envy and fear of the precursor’s encroachment into the belated’s imaginative space. While reading the precursor’s poem, the ephebe distorts it drastically, due to Anxiety of Influence. The struggle of Wordsworth with Milton, Shelley with Wordsworth, and Wallace Steevens with Whitman, are some of the instances given by Bloom. This concept could be related to T.S. Eliot’s idea of “Tradition.” Bloom Points out six revisionary ratios by which one read precursor’s poem (clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis and apophrades); he also holds that even the best belated poets can only create a “strong” poem that forms an illusion of originality; all readings are, hence, misreadings or misprisions. Antithetical criticism means criticism in terms of misreadings that are contrary to what the poet thought.

rosenblatt2Tansactional analysis, a significant concept in Reader Response Theory, developed by 
Louise Rosenblat
t, asserts that meaning is produced in transaction of a reader with a text. As an approach, then, the critic would consider “how the reader interprets the text as well as how the text produces a response in him/ her.”

Michael Riffaterre, Jonathan Culler and Terence Hawkes proposed the idea of “literary competence”, which maintains that mere linguistic competence is inadequate to understand literary meaning, and that “literary competence’ is necessary to go beyond the surface meaning of a text.

There are really two kinds of Reader-Response Criticism that could be found in the writings of the American literary theorist, Stanley Fish; one is a phenomenological approach and the other is an epistemological theory characteristic of Fish’s later works. The Phenomenological method has much to commend itself to us as it focuses on what happens in the reader’s mind as he or she reads.

672146Fish applies this method in his early work Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (1967). His thesis in this work is that Milton used a number of literary techniques intentionally to lead the reader into a false sense of security whereupon he would effect a turn from the reader’s expectations in order to surprise the reader with his own prideful self-sufficiency. The supposed intent of Milton was to force the reader to see his own sinfulness in a new light and be forced back to God’s grace, Fish’s thesis is a rather ingenious approach to Paradise Lost and to Milton’s (mis)leading of the reader. Fish’s concern at this point in his career was with what “is really happening in the act of reading,” and this is reflected in his compilations of essays entitled Is There a Text in This Class?, which explains that members share a particular “reading strategy.” Each communal strategy creates the “objective” features of a text; hence, no universal “right”/”valid” reading (based on the theory of Social construction of reality or knowledge). Fish defines his own phenomenological approach as “an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time.” He deals with what the text does as opposed to what it means. As JF Worthen suggests, much of his work can be seen as a reaction against the Formalism that characterized the age of New Critical theory which held that meaning was embedded in the textual artitfact or,as Wimsatt and Beardsley referred to it, “the object”. He suggests that, “the context for the discussion is the question of whether formal features exist prior to and independently of interpretive strategies.”

fishIn the later phase of Fish’s career, his theories evolve into a form of criticism that rejects the author’s intentionally and place meaning solely within the arena of those receiving the text. Thus his theory is sometimes called “reception aesthetics” or “affective stylistics” — the necessary reliance of the critic upon his/her affective responses to the stylistic components of the text; the work and its effect are the same; a text is what it does. Fish claims that it is the interpretive community that creates its own reality. It is the community that invests a text, or for that matter life itself, with meaning. Those who claim that meaning is to be found in some eternal superstructure or substructure of reality, he labels “foundationalists.” Naturally, because foundationalists comprise their own interpretive communities and interpret through such a grid, they will be opposed to theories such as his own. His theory is epistemological in that it deals not so much with literary criticism (although the implications for such are tremendous) as with how one comes to know.

Reader-response critics hold that, to understand the literary experience or the meaning of a text, one must look to the processes readers use to create that meaning and experience. Traditional, text-oriented critics often think of reader-response criticism as an anarchic subjectivism, allowing readers to interpret a text any way they want. They accuse reader-response critics of observing that the text doesn’t exist. Another objection to reader-response criticism is that it fails to account for the text being able to expand the reader’s understanding. While readers can, and do put their own ideas and experiences into a work, they are at the same time gaining new understanding through the text. This is something that is generally overlooked in Reader Response Criticism.

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