Reader Response Criticism is the focus and analysis of the readers experience in reading a text. Proponents of this school of thought believe “what a text is cannot be separated from what it does” (Tyson 170). This is in opposition to what New Critics believed about a text, because they viewed the work as “an isolated aesthetic object with a single meaning” (149). Reader Response critics share two main beliefs: “(1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and (2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature” (170). This gives the reader more influence in the meaning of the text compared to other critical literary theories and it turns the text into an event rather than an object. And because of the differences in people’s experiences, knowledge, beliefs, moods, and purpose for reading a text they will interpret different meanings from their reading, as evidenced by the “The House Passage” experiment (170).
Tyson goes on to illuminate five different Reader Response theories out of the gamut of opinions that “range from the belief that the literary text is as active as the reader in creating meaning to the belief that the text doesn’t exist at all except as it is created by readers” (172).
Transactional reader-response theory championed by Louise Rosenblatt argues the text and the reader “are equally important” (173). It’s her goal to analyze the transaction between the reader and text to determine the range of available meanings. She distinguishes between the efferent, or informational aspect of the text, and the aesthetic experience.
Affective stylistics argue “the text [is not] an objective, autonomous entity- it does not have a fixed meaning independent of readers- because the text consists of the results it produces, and those results occur within the reader” (175). Proponents of this theory analyze “the mental processes produced by specific elements in the text” (175) through a very slow and deliberate reading of what the text does.
The Subjective reader response school championed by David Bleich distinguishes between real and symbolic objects. Bleich claims that in reading we create a conceptual world in our minds using symbolization, and “when we interpret the meaning of the text, we are actually interpreting the meaning of our own symbolization” (178). It’s not that we like or dislike a text, rather “we like or dislike our symbolization of it” because “the only text is the text in the mind of the reader” (178).
The Psychological reader response championed by Norman Holland argues reader’s interpretations say more about themselves than they do about the text. Everyone creates an identity theme in which we “perceive the world through the lens of our psychological experience” (183). It’s through that identity theme that we view life, and we use the same lens to understand a text, therefore “[o]ur interpretations, then, are products of the fears, defenses, needs, and desires we project onto the text” (183).
The Social reader response championed by Stanley Fish argues “there is no purely individual subjective response [to a text]” (185). Fish claims there’s an interpretive community that influences and shares the same interpretive strategies as the reader, therefore any response to a text is communal. The Social reader critic claims “that no interpretation, and therefore no form of literary criticism, can claim to reveal what’s in a text” (186).
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 13, 2012.