Reader-Response Theory - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Reader-Response Theory
The Rise of Literary Theory

Reader-Response theory encompasses an array of approaches to literary and cultural texts that focus on the role of the reader in the creation of meaning. The importance of the reader in literary theory has long been acknowledged, but the reader's role has typically been subordinated to the qualities of TEXTUALITY. In formalist theories, including the New criticism, the reader's experience is guided by formal cues inherent in the text; it is essentially a passive mode of reading that involves the discovery of the text's internal dynamics and structural unities. However, there were some figures in that movement who did significant work with reader response. For example, i. A. Richard's experiments in reading in his Practical Criticism (1929) took an “affective” approach that measured emotional responses and attitudes. As Stanley Fish has pointed out in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), this method tends to separate referential or scientific language from “poetic” language, analysis from emotion. We might also regard William Empson's work on ambiguity in poetry as implicitly a theory of reading, though attention to formal structures leaves him little room to explore the reader's role in interpreting ambiguity, other than his own role as a kind of “master reader.” ReaderResponse theory, by contrast, is interested in the formal aspects of literary texts only insofar as they illustrate the way readers frame interpretations. indeed, the ambit of Reader-Response theory is antiformalist and process oriented.

contemporary Reader-Response theory developed out of the philosophical hermeneutics and phenomenology of the 1950s. Then, the key question was establishing the “horizon” of the reader's consciousness in relation to a text perceived as a type of consciousness. Georges Poulet argued that the act of reading is a process of opening oneself up to an “alien” consciousness. in the act of reading, “i am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one i automatically assume in every human being i encounter, except in this case the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself” (“Phenomenology” 54). Reading breaks down the barrier between subject and object in part by transforming the text- as-object into another subject, one that occupies the reader's consciousness, existing simultaneously within it. “You are inside [the text]; it is

inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” (54). in Poulet's phenomenology of reading, it is not the author's consciousness that occupies the reader's mind as subject, though such things as biographical and bibliographical information are certainly important to the reader. What penetrates the reader's mind and exists within it as an “alien subject,” what effectively “loans” the reader's SUBJECTIVITY to the text is the consciousness of the text itself: “the subject which presides over the work can exist only in the work” (58). The “I” spoken in the reader's mind is the “i” of the work. There is a peculiar substantial existence accorded to the work in this process, for the text, in the act of reading, becomes a quite literal subject which takes on, as the reader does, its own objects. (on phenomenology, see p. 79.)

Poulet's phenomenological approach was influential among critics in the 1960s and '70s who were combating the Formalism of the New Criticism, though, as Wolfgang Iser has noted, Poulet's “substantialist conception of the consciousness that constitutes itself in the literary work” (293) was ultimately rejected in favor of more pragmatic conceptions of the relationship between reader and work. Despite this rejection, however, new developments in Reader-Response theory posited a similar breakdown in the subject-object relationship that characterized traditional rhetorical and formalist theories of the reading experience. Indeed, these theories rarely spoke of a reading experience as such but rather of certain protocols, of predictable reactions on the part of readers when presented with specific kinds of rhetorical or formal structures. Vladimir Propp’s theory of the folktale is exemplary in this regard, for it argues that the folktale is structured in such a way as to inspire certain reactions in the reader according to the disposition of the formal elements of the tale. In structural SEMIOTICS, this relationship is theorized in terms of the reader's or addressee's function with respect to specific codes. Reading is not arbitrary or subjective; meaning is not a function of the individual reader's emotional or intellectual disposition but rather of her competence with respect to the codes employed in a given text or discourse. More precisely, meaning is a function of the disposition of the codes themselves, of the relation and interrelation of formal elements within a text; the reader's role is to capture this meaning by mastering the codes. obviously, the reader is important in formalist and semiotic theories, for without the reader meaning would remain latent (and partial) in the text. But the tendency in such theories to constitute the reader as the “addressee” signals a desire to define an “implied” reader who is a function of the text, a formal necessity quite separate from the equally necessary existence of “real” readers. Gerald Prince, in discussing the role of the “narratee” in Narrative Theory, makes this point explicitly: “The reader of fiction, be it in prose or in verse, should not be mistaken for the narratee. The one is real, the other fictive. If it should occur that the reader bears an astonishing resemblance to the narratee, this is an exception and not the rule” (“Narratee” 9).

Umberto Eco's semiotic theory of reading similarly conscripts a “fictional” reader as part of the text's structure; however, because it is influenced by poststructuralist theories of language and textuality, his theory overcomes to some degree the limits of formalist models of the reading process. Eco remains committed to a semiotic structure of sender and addressee but defines them in terms of their “actantial roles” in the sentence, “not as sujet de l’enonciation, but as sujet de l’enonce” (10). His theory of the open text makes room for a more productive relation for the reader. According to Eco, the open text makes available possibilities within “a given field of relations” The result of such openness is not chaos but an “organizing rule which governs these relations.” The reader's freedom inheres in the task of completing the text: “[T]he author offers the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed.” And while the author cannot know how the work will be completed, it “will still be his own. It will not be a different work” (62). The open text is a “semantico-pragmatic process” in which the Model Reader makes decisions that are in fact a “component of [the text's] structural strategy” (9). Unlike a closed text, which may invite a variety of “aberrant” readings but only insofar as they are read independently of each other, the open text exhibits a plurality of possible interpretations and intertextual relations that coexist within the same act of reading. This plurality is governed only by rules of enunciation that originate in the confluence of codes and languages within socio-historical contexts. Roland Barthes’ provocative and influential essay, “The Death of the Author,” draws the inevitable conclusion from such textualist theories of reading: “[T]he reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination… . [T]he birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (148).

The most significant and influential advances in Reader-Response theory came in the work of Iser and Stanley Fish. For these theorists, reading is fundamentally a process in which the reader activates or completes a text. iser's phenomenological study of the novel builds on the work of Roman ingarden, especially his theory of “concretization” or “realization,” the dynamic process by which the reader participates in the creation of a text's potential meanings: “The convergence of the text and the reader brings the literary work into existence” (275). iser postulates the existence of expectations (what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called pre-intentions) whose unfulfillment constitutes the structure of the literary text. Unlike a didactic text (for example, a cookbook or a chemistry textbook), the literary text is filled with gaps and blockages, “unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations” (279). For this reason, it is constitutively indeterminate and inexhaustible. This explains why the same text can accommodate a variety of different interpretations. The literary text is far more than what is written in it; and this “far more” comes into existence precisely as part of a creative process whereby the reader's own faculties are brought into being. The reader's desire for consistency comes up against the text's own recalcitrance, its tendency to allow “alien associations” to interrupt the smooth, consistent flow of reading. However, while the illusion of consistency is continually being shattered, the need for it persists, in large measure, iser argues, because it is tied up with our desire to interpret the world: “The need to decipher gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity - i.e., we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious” (294). in this way, the “ ’reality’ of the reading experience illuminates basic patterns of real experience”; it confers upon the text what iser calls a “dynamic lifelikeness” that “enables us to absorb an unfamiliar experience into our personal world” (281, 288).

For iser, the reader is a concrete historical subject who discovers as much about herself as about the text she reads. Hans Robert Jauss's work on reception theory focuses on this aspect of the reading process. For Jauss and other thinkers associated with the University of Constance, reception is a complex interaction of reading protocols and a socio- historical “horizon of expectations” that together determine the “gestalt” that Iser identifies as the dynamic TOTALITY of the literary text. Even more than iser, Jauss emphasizes the resistances that readers present to the literary text, resistances that are in part the function of historical context and contestation.

Like Iser, Stanley Fish believed that the reader is instrumental in the construction of meaningful texts. The only way to maneuver within a “scene of reading” riddled by contradictions, ellipses, gaps, and other inconsistencies was to learn the interpretive protocols of a given community of readers. Fish’s first major book, Surprised by Sin (1967), argued that John Milton, in Paradise Lost, creates a form of empathy between the reader and Satan that leads the reader to experience the fall of Adam and Eve. The reader is thus in a position to grasp the powerful moral and religious lessons that their “fortunate fall” has to offer. In later essays, collected in Is There a Text in This Class?, Fish explores the dangers of succumbing to the “affective fallacy” and constituting meaning solely on the basis of subjective response. For Fish, “a stylistic fact is a fact of response” (65). Moreover, there can be no point in separating poetic from non-poetic styles. In his theory of “affective stylistics,” he underscores the anti-formalist orientation of Reader-Response theory and argues, against critics like I. A. Richards and Michael Riffaterre, that the distinction between poetic and non-poetic language, and the consequent privileging of the former, limits the interpretive potential of language and texts. (On Richards, see pp. 123-4.) Fish offers a powerful hedge against subjectivism with his argument that the “informed” reader’s response is not arbitrary or random, that there are “ ’regularizing’ constraints on response.” These constraints are produced by “the system of rules all speakers share” and by various forms of linguistic and semantic competence honed within “interpretative communities” (44-45).

Like Iser, Fish argues that the meaning derived from literary texts is the product of a “joint responsibility.” Meaning is thus “redefined as an event rather than an entity”: “[T]he reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning” (3). The “informed reader” learns the appropriate reading responses by being a member of an interpretive community “made up of those who share interpretive strategies” that “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” (171). Disagreements hinge not on a UNIVERSAL notion of the truth about texts or their meanings but rather on the conditioned and relative truth of each community. Thus, there can be both agreement among readers of the same community and principled disagreement between communi-

ties. Literary texts are always interpreted within the context of protocols and norms. There can be no such thing as a subjective reading (in the radical sense of a reading that emerges from a single person's own experience), nor can there be a reading that is based solely on the “given” structures of language or text. The meanings generated by these communities “are both subjective and objective: they are subjective because they inhere in a particular point of view and are therefore not universal; and they are objective because the point of view that delivers them is public and conventional rather than individual and unique” (335-36).

One of the most controversial developments within Reader-Response theory is the emergence of an “ethics of reading.” This trend suggests that reading emerges out of communities and, at the same time, forms the ethical principles of those communities. But it also suggests that reading is an ethical encounter with the other embodied in the text, an idea that emerges in large part in response to Emmanuel Levinas's work on ethics. J. Hillis Miller’s understanding of the ethics of reading, however, moves in a quite different direction. For him, ethics is not a question of action in the social or political spheres but rather a question of the fundamental nature of language. Ethics in his view is prior to action precisely because it is embedded in language. And because reading is made possible by language and because human beings are confronted constantly with the task of reading, it follows that our ethical sense is a function of language and reading. “[E]ach reading is, strictly speaking, ethical, in the sense that it has to take place, by an implacable necessity, as the response to a categorical demand, and in the sense that the reader must take responsibility for it and for its consequences in the personal, social, and political worlds” (59). The problem with this approach, as Vincent Leitch has observed, is that it ignores precisely the social, political, and cultural contexts that structure our ways of reading. Leitch points out that, for Miller, reading makes social acts possible, that “social and political moments” are “all secondary, belated, SUPPLEMENTARY: first there is language and its law; then there is misreading and its ethical consequences. Evidently, after these come social, psychological, and political matters. Surely, Miller does not believe all this” (50). Well, assuming that he does, it should come as no surprise, especially in view of Fish's theory of interpretive communities. Miller belongs to a specific reading community for which the ethics of reading takes on a certain dimension, while Leitch belongs to another, quite different community.

That they can have a principled disagreement over the way reading and ethics intersect is the desirable outcome of a pluralistic intellectual universe in which different points of view coexist in peaceful disagreement.


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. 1977. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Leitch, Vincent B. “Taboo and Critique: Literary Criticism and Ethics.” ADE Bulletin 90 (Fall 1988): 46-52.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Ethics of Reading: Kant, de Man, Eliot, Trollope, James and Benjamin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Poulet, Georges. “Phenomenology of Reading.” New Literary History 1.1 (1969): 53-68.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” In Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 7-25.