The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Michael Scheffel

Generally related to a text-based literary culture, the term reader is connected in academic usage to various concepts of literary criticism and theory. In a narrowly defined sense it is used to refer to (1) the empirical reader, the individual historical recipient of a written or printed text. Thus, taken as a group, empirical readers constitute the author's “public” who, as the final link in the chain of literary communication, also influence the production of literature. Accordingly, the historical figure and reading habits of the empirical reader have been the subject of studies ranging from behavioral and cognitive psychology to the sociology and history of reading. Clearly distinct from the empirical reader is (2) the fictional reader, who belongs to the explicitly imagined world of many literary texts and whose profile and reading habits is a major theme of world literature. Literary criticism and theory use the term reader, however, not only to refer to the real or imaginary recipient of a text, but in a broader sense to pinpoint various aspects of writing connected with the addressee. Here the reader is generally a more abstract construct embodying various roles or functions in the process of literary communication; but precise definitions of the concept differ so widely that a consistent typology, let alone a single theory or model covering all usages, is hardly possible. Nevertheless, two concepts can be broadly distinguished: first (3) the fictive reader, understood as the counterpart to the figure of the narrator within the fictional framework, and second (4) the implied reader, a figure of varying profile and indefinable ontological status that functions as the (ideal) conceptual addressee of the text.

The Empirical Reader

The earliest culture of individual reading known to us developed in the Hellenistic period (fourth and third centuries BCE), not as a substitute but parallel to the communal reception of texts read aloud to a group of listeners, whose popularity had spread during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. From Antiquity to the Middle Ages reading alta voce (aloud) was, in fact, the norm for aesthetic, cultic, or religious (as opposed to purely pragmatic) reading activities. (This changed only with the development of literary prose: novels, for example, were from the very beginning read silently, whilst poetry and drama were still as a rule read aloud right into the eighteenth century.) After the fifth or sixth century CE in Europe the activity of reading lapsed entirely for some six centuries, and written culture became the prerogative of the monastic schools. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw a renewal of writing, and from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century the nascent urban culture of Europe brought with it a growth in literacy. Not until the sixteenth century, however, did this show signs of developing into a bourgeois reading culture in the modern sense, and only in the context of the eighteenth century. Enlightenment was a culture of individual reading generally established—with considerable national differences. Its basis was the shift from the received tradition of cyclical or repetitive reading of the Bible and other religious and devotional writings to the “one-off” reading of secular texts, pride of place among them being taken by the bourgeois novel. In the course of the eighteenth century an expanding book market, reading societies, and lending libraries began to supply an increasing volume of reading material to a public progressively differentiated on gender lines, with men predominantly reading newspapers, periodicals, and factual texts and women fiction and belles-lettres. Numerically speaking, the empirical reading public in Europe remained small: at the time of German Classicism (ca. 1800), regular (i.e., at least one book per year) readers of belles-lettres in Germany amounted to hardly one percent of the adult population. Technical innovations in paper manufacture and book production during the second half of the nineteenth century, along with new methods of distribution (e.g., peddling) of newspapers, periodicals, and tracts, brought considerable price reductions and led to a corresponding surge in the number of empirical readers. This stabilized into the typical pattern of twentieth-century industrialized countries, with a good third of the population reading books regularly (i.e., several times a week), a third reading occasionally or rarely, and almost a third not reading at all. The continuous growth of the new media since the end of the twentieth century has introduced further changes. Reading and the use of the new media are now functionally interdependent, and the polarization between regular readers who are at the same time literate users of other media and occasional or nonreaders is currently becoming more acute.

The Fictional Reader

In various guises the figure of the reader and his/her reading matter has played a role in literature ever since classical Antiquity. Far from functioning in a naively realist sense, however, this figure (i.e., the fictional reader) serves as a mirror opening up critical discussion of the many forms of literature and its reception—a meta-level reflecting and stimulating reflection on the poetological issues of the day. Thus the motif of reading has often been used to hold certain types of literature and reading attitudes at arm's length. Lucian's True History (ca. 180 CE), for example, opens with the I-narrator presented as a reader of Homer's Odyssey (eighth century BCE) and other works of “the ancient poets, historians and philosophers,” whose impact has induced him to write his own “tale of lies.” In Canto V of Dante's Inferno (1307—21, Divina Commedia; The Divine Comedy) we find the first tale of a couple veritably seduced by a literary text: Francesca and her husband's brother Paolo, who fell tragically in love after reading the romance of Lancelot together. The dangers of emotional identification with literature are subsequently treated in many texts of world literature, and the fictional reader finds famous expression in figures ranging from Don Quixote, driven to deeds of adventure by reading knightly tales, to Madame Bovary, who attempted in vain to find in extramarital love the happiness peddled in the cheap novels of her day. Both Sir Launcelot Canning's Mad Trist, read by the I-narrator to his friend Roderick Usher in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), and the “yellow book” (i.e., J.-K. Huysmans's 1884 À Rebours; Against Nature) held in such esteem by Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), exemplify the way in which authors have linked the fictional reader with the motif of the book within the book. Finally, the figure of the fictional reader offers an opportunity in many novels for reflection on the complex interweave of relations between writing, reading, and life. The technique of implanted narrative used in some epistolary novels or journals like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther) or Irmgard Keun's Das kunstseidene Mädchen (1932, The High Life) is particularly effective in this respect. Mention must also be made of works such as André Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs (1925, The Counterfeiters) and Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (1928)—tales of an author-reader at work on his own manuscript that embody the fluid interface of life and literature in the form of a novel about writing and reading a novel.

The Fictive Reader

The fictive reader differs from the fictional reader in being a more or less abstract construct extrapolated from the text rather than a specific figure within it. As a critical concept, the fictive reader functions as the extradiegetic addressee of a fictional text, the fictive counterpart of its (equally fictive) narrator; as such it is part of the imaginary world created in and by the sentences of the text. Like the narrator, the fictive reader can be presented explicitly or implicitly. Explicit presentation involves the use of second-person (singular or plural) pronouns and grammatical forms, or such third-person conventions as “the gentle reader.” Constructed in this way and endowed with widely varying levels of concrete detail and characterization, the image of the addressee can shadow that of the narrator throughout a text. In Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759—67), for example, or in many of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's narratives, the fictive reader is constantly present as listener-recipient conceived in the tradition of oral storytelling. On the other hand, works that present a fictive reality as if it were historical and “objective” will rarely contain explicit indications of a recipient: examples from the nineteenth-century realist tradition are the novels of Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, or Theodor Fontane. An interesting case from the point of view of narrative theory is Italo Calvino's Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), which plays on (and with) the border between fictional and fictive reader, telling the story of a man and a woman engaged in the activity of reading and responding to the very novel that creates them.

Explicit presentations of the fictive reader are generally concerned with a single person, but in older texts, from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1532, Mad Orlando) to eighteenth-century novels like Christoph Martin Wieland's Don Sylvio (1764), the figure is often conceived as a member of a group, allowing the narrator to address various individuals from that group in turn. Conceived as a single person, the fictive reader is most often presented as the friend or privileged partner of the narrator; a further variant is the type of the insulted or ironized fictive reader.

Reconstructed via a critical reading of the text, the implicit fictive reader is the product of the need for a counterpart to the narrator, an addressee without whom no communication could occur. All texts, in fact, contain implicit information about the intellectual and emotional norms of their putative addressee, whether linguistic, epistemic, ethical, or social—even if only in the narrator's apparent anticipation of a certain pattern of behavior and response. Flaubert's novels, for instance, project a rather passive and silent fictive reader, whereas Dostoyevsky's suggest one that actively asks questions, utters objections, and expresses doubts.

The Implied Reader

Whilst the fictive reader, as the narrator's addressee, clearly belongs to the imaginary world created in and by the sentences of a fictional text, the implied reader, as the author's addressee, is a construct external to that fiction. Prescinding from the widely differing approaches of literary theory to the task of definition, the implied reader can be meaningfully conceived as a function or instance determined by textual features, and as such strictly distinct from any concept the historical author may have had of a real or ideal reader (in the sense of an “intended reader”).

Although already latent in Wayne C. Booth's concept of the “implied author,” the concept of the implied reader was introduced into literary research as a term in its own right by Wolfgang Iser in the 1970s. Together with H. R. Jauss and other German scholars, Iser founded the school of Rezeptionsästhetik (reader-response criticism) that raised awareness of the role of the reader in any explication of the process of literary communication. It is important for an understanding of Iser's approach to realize that the concept of the implied reader is part of a comprehensive theory of aesthetic response. A basic assumption of this theory is that from the pragmatic point of view the sentences of a literary fiction represent utterances divorced from any real situational context, and that from a formal point of view they contain many gaps. Iser uses the construct of the implied reader to grasp the presuppositions within the text for the many and varied acts of meaning-making actually performed by its possible readers. His implied reader is in this sense “a structure inscribed in the text” that determines the “conditions of reception” of the literary work and thus serves as a foundation for the reader's “initial orientation” and subsequent “realization” of the text. Compatible with Iser's approach is Walker Gibson's idea, already mooted in the 1950s, of a “mock reader”: a construct, determined by the text, embodying the role taken by the real reader in the process of reading. Iser's idea was further refined by Umberto Eco's anthropomorphic text-based concept of a lettore modello (“model reader”) that—like Stanley Fish's “informed reader” and Jonathan Culler's “competent reader”—possesses knowledge of all the codes required for an understanding of the text, as well as the cognitive competence and readiness to complete the steps constituting the process of understanding. In practice, the reader who sets out to pinpoint such a presuppositional construct via a process of textual analysis must first have understood the text. Thus, sooner or later, the concept of the implied reader inevitably encounters the hermeneutic problem of understanding.


1. Bray, J. (2009), Female Reader in the English Novel.

2. Culler, J. (1975), Structuralist Poetics.

3. Eco, U. (1979), Role of the Reader.

4. Fish, S. (1980), Is There a Text in This Class?

5. Goetsch, P. (2004), “ Reader Figures in Narrative,” Style 38: 188—202.

6. Iser, W. (1974), Implied Reader.

7. Iser, W. (1978), Act of Reading.

8. Nelles, W. (1993), “ Historical and Implied Authors and Readers,” Comparative Literature 45: 22—46.

9. Prince, G. (1971), “ On Readers and Listeners in Narrative,” Neophilologos 55: 117—22.

10. Rabinowitz, P.J. (1977), “ Truth in Fiction,” Critical Inquiry 4: 121—41.

11. Tompkins, J.T., ed. (1980), Reader-Response Criticism.

12. Travis, M.A. (1998), Reading Cultures.

13. Wilson, D.W. (1981), “ Readers in Texts,” PMLA 96: 848—63.