Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-response criticism can be traced as far back as Aristotle and Plato, both of whom based their critical arguments at least partly on literature’s effect on the reader. It has more immediate sources in the writings of the French structuralists (who stress the role of the perceiver as a maker of reality), the semioticians, and such American critics as Kenneth Burke (esp. his “Psychology and Form,” which defined “form” in terms of the audience’s appetite), Louise Rosenblatt, Walker Gibson (who developed the notion of a “mock reader”), and Wayne Booth. But reader criticism became recognized as a distinct critical movement only in the 1970s, when it found a particularly congenial political climate in the growing anti-authoritarianism within the academy.

Calling it a movement, however, is misleading, for reader-response criticism is less a unified critical school than a vague collection of disparate critics with a common point of departure. That is, reader-response critics share neither a body of critical principles (as Marxist critics, for instance, do), nor a subject matter (as Renaissance critics do). Indeed, they barely share a name. “Reader theory” and “audience theory” are perhaps the most neutral general terms, since the more popular term “reader-response theory” most accurately refers to more subjective kinds of reader criticism, and “Reception Theory” most accurately refers to the German school of Receptionkritik represented by Hans Robert Jauss. But these and other terms are often used indiscriminately, and the boundaries separating them are cloudy at best.

What affinity there is among reader-critics comes from their rejection of the New Critical principle (most clearly enunciated in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley‘s pivotal essay, “The Affective Fallacy“) that severs the work itself from its effect and strongly privileges the former, treated in formal terms. Refusing to accept this banning of the reader, reader-critics take the existence of the reader as a decisive component of any meaningful literary analysis, assuming, as Michael Riffaterre puts it, that “readers make the literary event” (116). But once past that first step, there is little unanimity. Indeed, even the meaning of that first step has generated considerable debate, for different critics mean different things when they talk about “the reader.”

Stanley Fish (Christine Buckley/UConn Photo)

For some critics, readers are abstract or hypothetical entities, and even these are of various sorts. The category of hypothetical readers is often thought, for instance, to take in what Gerald Prince calls the “narratee,” the person to whom the narrator is addressing his or her narration (e.g., the “you” to whom Huckleberry Finn directs his opening sentence). For as Prince himself insists, the narratee, like the narrator, is really a character (even if sometimes only implicitly present in the text) and should therefore not be conflated with readers who are outside the text. Also included among hypothetical readers are readers who are implied by the text, that is, readers whose moves are charted out by (and hence more or less controlled by) the work in question. This is the kind of reader referred to, for instance, when one says, “The reader is surprised by the end of an Agatha Christie novel.” Wolfgang Iser describes the implied reader’s progress in phenomenological terms: although he pays particular attention to the indeterminacies in the texts—the gaps that the reader has to fill in on his or her own—his reader remains very much controlled by the author, since those gaps are part of the strategy of the text. On a more general level, some reader-critics examine the hypothetical reader who is implied, not by any specific text, but rather by the broader culture. In Structuralist Poetics, for instance, Jonathan Culler, influenced by French Structuralism and especially by Semiotics, develops the notion of “literary competence,” highlighting the ways in which the reader’s knowledge of conventions allows him or her to make sense of literary texts.

Narratees and implied readers need to be distinguished, however, from at least two other types of hypothetical reader. Since they are in principle the product of textual features, narratees and implied readers both differ from the intended reader (what Rabinowitz calls the “authorial audience”). The intended reader is presumed by rather than marked in the text and therefore can be discovered only by looking at the text in terms of the context in which it arose. In addition, there are postulated readers. Such readers’ characteristics do not emerge from a study of the text or its context; rather, the text’s meaning emerges from perceiving it through the eyes of a reader whose characteristics are assumed by the critic to begin with. Thus, in his early and influential “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” Stanley Fish follows the experiences of a “reader” word by word, insisting, in a self-conscious reversal of the Wimsatt-Beardsley position, that what “happens to, and with the participation of, the reader” is in fact “the meaning” of a text (Is There 25). But that is not the implied reader; it is, rather, an abstraction Fish calls the “informed reader.” He argues that real readers can become informed readers by developing linguistic, semantic, and literary competence, by making their minds “the repository of the (potential) responses a given text might call out” and by “suppressing, in so far as that is possible,… what is personal and idiosyncratic” (49). As is often the case with postulated readers, Fish’s informed reader is presented as an ideal, the best reader of the text. The distinctions among narratees, implied readers, intended readers, and postulated readers are significant, but they are subtle and not always recognized. As a consequence, they are sometimes blurred as critics (including Fish and Iser) fuse them or move from one to another without notice.

In contrast to those who write about hypothetical readers are those critics who focus on the activities of real readers. In Readings and Feelings, for instance, David Bleich, starting from the assumption that “the role of personality in response is the most fundamental fact of criticism” (4), talks about the specific students in his classes and uses the actual interpretations they have presented in papers they have written, in order to learn where they originate and how the classroom, as a community, can negotiate among them. Janice Radway moves further from the academic center by studying the ways nonacademic women interpret popular romances.

Reader-critics not only differ with respect to what entity they mean by “reader”; they also differ with regard to the perspective from which they treat it. To put it in different terms, most reader-critics admit, to some extent, the necessity of “contextualizing” the act of reading. Stanley Fish, in essays written after “Affective Stylistics,” has made some of the strongest arguments along these lines, claiming that meaning is entirely context-dependent and that there is consequently no such thing as literal meaning. Even audience critics who do not take this extreme position recognize the close relationship between meaning and interpretation on the one hand and context on the other. But readers are not simply in a single context; they are always in several. And there is no more agreement about what constitutes the most appropriate context to study than there is about what the term “reader” means.

For example, one can look at what might loosely be called the cultural context of the reader. Culler, in his discussions of literary conventions, examines the process of reading in the context of the shared cultural practices of the academic community. Fish takes a related but more radical position, rejecting the notion of a generalized literary competence and arguing instead for the study of literature in terms of disparate “interpretive communities” united by shared “article(s) of faith” (e.g., commitment to authorial intention) and “repertoirefs] of [interpretive] strategies.” According to Fish, these strategies do not decode some preexisting meaning, for the meaning of a literary work is not in the text at all. Rather, the very “properties” of the text are in fact “constituted” by whatever strategies the reader happens to bring to bear on the text: “These strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” (Is There 171). More recently, Steven Mailloux has expanded on this notion by developing a “rhetorical hermeneutics” that examines, with particular attention to institutional politics, the ways in which interpretations become accepted by given groups.

Reader Response Criticism: An Essay

Alternatively, one can look at the psychological context of the reader. In Dynamics of Literary Response Norman Holland deals primarily with hypothetical readers; in Five Readers Reading he turns his attention to actual students. In both cases, he tries to make sense of interpretive activity by passing it through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis. Still other critics look at the historical context of the reader. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Receptionkritik, most familiar through the writings of Hans Robert Jauss, who argues that the reader makes sense of literature in part through a “horizon of expectations.” Since that horizon varies with history, the literary work offers different “views” at different times (Jauss 21-22). Jane Tompkins, following Fish, pushes the idea further, claiming in her study of American literature (Sensational Designs) that the reader’s historical situation does not simply affect our view of the work but actually produces whatever it is that we call the text in the first place: “The circumstances in which a text is read … are what make the text available .. . [and] define the work ‘as it really is’—under those circumstances” (7).

Betty Tompkins is a feminist as well as a historian, and her work reminds us that yet another perspective is offered when the act of reading is studied in the context of gender. Like other forms of reader criticism, feminist reader criticism has moved in several different directions. In The Resisting Reader, for example, Judith Fetterley talks about the effects that reading particular texts can have on women. Radway, more willing to credit the reader’s power to “make” the meaning of the text, asks instead how women (especially women of a particular socioeconomic class) read differently from men (especially male academic critics).

Betty Tompkins, Apologia/

There is disagreement among reader-critics not only about the subject of inquiry but also about the whole purpose of critical activity. It is here that debates can become especially acrimonious. In particular, there is disagreement about the proper relation between the critic and interpretation, and consequently about the descriptive/prescriptive nature of the critical enterprise. Granted, most audience critics agree that to some extent, readers produce literary meaning; but since there are such widespread disagreements about who that “reader” is and what that production consists of, this apparent agreement yields no unity whatever on the issue of the reader’s ultimate freedom to interpret as he or she wishes.

At one extreme, there are critics who start with the text and use the concept of the reader as an analytic tool to perfect traditional interpretive practices. As Mary Louise Pratt has argued, the study of many types of hypothetical readers is consistent with formalism. In traditional formalist interpretive practice, certain textual details are foregrounded, and an interpretation explaining those details is posited as “the” interpretation of the text. To the extent that the implied reader is simply a mirror of those textual features, an implied-reader analysis is often a formalist analysis in different language. Thus, for instance, Wolfgang Iser‘s interpretations, despite their heavy reliance on descriptions of “the reader’s” activities, could in many cases be translated into formalist terms.

Problems become more acute when we come to analyses based on postulated readers whose activities serve as models for correct behavior. In practice, such readers often turn out to be the critic himself or herself, and the readerly terminology serves primarily as a rhetorical device to persuade us of the general validity of individual interpretations. Riffaterre’s semiotic analyses in Semiotics of Poetry rely heavily on notions of what activities the text requires the reader to perform; readers are forced or compelled by the text, and individuals who, for one reason or another, wander in the wrong direction simply cannot find “the true reading” (142). For all the brilliance of his analyses, Riffaterre (as Culler has argued in Pursuit of Signs) tells us less about what readers do or have done than about the way he himself reads; in fact, he often explicitly notes that no previous readers have followed what he sees as the dictates of the text. In the end, his use of reader terminology gives his prescriptions of how we ought to read the appearance of objective descriptions of what readers actually do.

Other critics, in contrast, use the concept of the reader not to engage in the act of interpretation but rather to explain how interpretations come about. Culler, for instance, like Riffaterre, describes much of his work as semiotic. But his actual practice is quite different. Arguing that “the interpretation of individual works is only tangentially related to the understanding of literature,” Culler strives to construct a criticism “which seeks to identify the conventions and operations by which any signifying practice (such as literature) produces its observable effects of meaning” (Pursuits, 48). In contrast to Riffaterre, he builds his arguments not on the text but on interpretations already produced; and he aims not to persuade his own readers of the rightness or wrongness of those interpretations but rather to describe the practices that allowed them to come into being.

Culler’s work in this line is not, strictly speaking, concerned with evaluating interpretations. Indeed, he explicitly claims that the semiotic “project is disrupted whenever one slips back into the position of judge” (Pursuit 67). Nonetheless, there is a sense in which his work tends to justify those interpretations he discusses. This is especially true because, as Pratt suggests, his arguments are frequently based on his notion of literary competence, and that notion is not really interrogated in terms of who determines competence or under what cultural and political circumstances. Since he tends to start with interpretations produced by professionally trained critics (rather than, as Bleich does, with students’ readings), academic practices are implicitly valorized.

Other reader-critics, therefore, use the notion of reader in yet a different way, neither to persuade nor to explain but to question interpretations. In The Resisting Reader, for instance, Fetterley, without giving up the notion that there are more or less correct intended interpretations of the classical American texts she reads, argues that those interpretations are harmful because they “immasculate” women (i.e., train them to identify with male needs and desires). She therefore calls upon readers to recognize them and resist them. Radway questions interpretations in an even more fundamental way. She criticizes those who use traditional academic interpretive practices to determine the cultural meaning of mass-market romances. Starting with a position fairly close to Fish’s, she insists that the cultural importance of those romances depends on the meaning they have for the actual women who consume them. She goes on to demonstrate, through ethnographic study, that since those women use different interpretive strategies than academic critics do, the texts for them have substantially different meanings.

Given the wide variety of interests and concerns exhibited by various reader-critics, it should not be surprising that audience criticism, as a whole, has not taken any definitive stands, except a negative attitude toward New Criticism, an attitude shared by virtually all other critical schools that have developed since the 1960s. Nonetheless, the very raising of certain questions (even unanswered questions) has had profound consequences for the commonplaces of the literary-critical profession and has, in conjunction with such movements as Deconstruction and Feminism, encouraged general shifts in the direction of literary studies. In the first place, talk of the reader opens up talk of psychology, sociology, and history, and reader criticism has helped break down the boundaries separating literary study from other disciplines. In addition, by highlighting the reader’s interpretive practice, even such prescriptive critics as Riffaterre have clarified the degree to which meaning is dependent upon the reader’s performance. Even if one does not agree with such critics as Robert Crosman (who claims that “‘validity’ is a matter of individual conscience” [381]) or Bleich (who argues that “reading is a wholly subjective process” [Readings 3]), reader criticism has made it increasingly difficult to support the notion of definitive meaning in its most straightforward form. One can hardly claim that no critics, not even audience critics, continue to support the notion of “right” and “wrong” readings, but it is safe to say that the position is being increasingly discarded, and even critics who do argue for it have become ever more wary of how precarious interpretation is as a procedure and how little we can depend on the texts themselves to provide proper interpretive guidance.

What is most important, perhaps, as definitive meaning is undermined, so is the notion of definitive evaluation, since value is even more contextually determined than meaning. Statements of value are increasingly being put under pressure by the question, Value for whom? and value is increasingly being viewed not as a quality inherent in texts but rather as a function of particular social, historical, and cultural circumstances. By helping to throw into question the belief that texts have determinable, unvarying literary quality, reader-critics have helped fuel the attacks on the canon that have been launched from a number of other quarters, most notably, in the 1970s and 1980s, from feminist critics.

Further Reading
David Bleich, Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism (1975), Subjective Criticism (1978); Robert Crosman, “Some Doubts about ‘The Reader of Paradise Lost/ ” College English 37 (1975); Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (1981), Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975); Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979); Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978); Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989), Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980); Elizabeth Freund, The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism (1987); Norman N. Holland, Five Readers Reading (1975); Wolfgang Iser, Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung (1976, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, trans. Iser, 1978), Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett (1972, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, trans. Iser, 1974); Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (trans. Timothy Bahti, 1982); Steven Mailloux, Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (1982), Rhetorical Power (1989); James Phelan, Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative (1989); Mary Louise Pratt, “Interpretive Strategies I Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader Response Criticism,” Boundary 2 11 (1981-82); Gerald Prince, “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee” (Tompkins, Reader-Response Criticism); Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (1987); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984); Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry (1978); Louise Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978); Michael Steig, Stories of Reading: Subjectivity and Literary Understanding (1989); Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, eds., The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation (1980); Jane P. Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (1985); Jane P. Tompkins, ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (1980).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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