Reader-response criticism: Generally said to have emerged in the United States in the 1970s, a type of literary criticism, sometimes also called reader-oriented criticism, that focuses on reading as an active process and on the diversity of readers’ responses to literary works. Reader-response critics raise theoretical questions about whether our responses to a work are the same as its meaning(s), whether a work can have as many meanings as we have responses to it, and whether some responses are more valid than others. They also provide us with models that aid our understanding of texts and the reading process.
Reader-response critics share not only questions but also goals and strategies. Basic goals include showing that a work gives readers something to do and describing what the reader does by way of response. Strategies, or “moves,” as Steven Mailloux called them in his essay “Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism” (1979), include: (1) citing direct references to reading in the text being analyzed in order to justify the focus on reading and show that the world of the text is continuous with the reader’s world; (2) showing how other nonreading situations in the text nonetheless mirror the reader’s situation; and (3) demonstrating that the reader’s response is analogous to the story’s action or conflict.
Noted critics whose thinking anticipated reader-response criticism include I. A. Richards and Louise M. Rosenblatt. Richards, an English literary critic usually associated with formalism, an ostensibly objective, text-centered approach to literature concerned with form rather than content, nevertheless argued in Practical Criticism (1929) that readers’ feelings and experiences provide a kind of reality check, a way of testing the authenticity of emotions and events represented in literary works. A decade later, Rosenblatt, an American literary critic, began developing a theory of reading that blurred the boundary between reader and text, subject and object, in her seminal book Literature as Exploration (1938). She subsequently summarized her position in an essay entitled “Toward a Transactional Theory of Reading” (1969): “a poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text.” Recognizing that many critics — particularly formalists, who spoke of “the poem itself” and “the concrete work of art” — would reject this definition, she wrote: “The idea that a poem presupposes a reader actively involved with a text is particularly shocking to those seeking to emphasize the objectivity of their interpretations.” Indeed, formalist New Critics William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley used the term affective fallacy to define as erroneous the very idea that a reader’s response is relevant to the meaning of a literary work.
Stanley Fish, an American literary theorist whose early work is seen by some as marking the true beginning of contemporary reader-response criticism, also took issue with the tenets of formalism. In “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics” (1970), he argued that any school of criticism that sees a literary work as an object, claiming to describe what it is and never what it does, misconstrues the very essence of literature and reading. He suggested that literature exists and signifies when it is read; that its force is an affective force; and that reading is a temporal process, not a spatial one, contrary to the formalists’ practice of surveying the literary work as if it were an object spread out before them. “The reader is active,” Rosenblatt insisted in her “Transactional Theory” essay; reading, Fish said in “Literature in the Reader,” is “something you do.” Formalists might find elegant patterns in the texts they examined, but they failed to consider that the work appears very different to a reader in the act of reading, turning the pages and being moved, or affected, by each word.
In treating reading as a process, reader-response critics explored the reader’s struggle to make sense of challenging works. For example, in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (1972), Fish used the phrase dialectical presentation to refer to works that prod and provoke, challenging readers to fill in the blanks and reconcile contradictions in the text. Soon thereafter, in The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (1974) and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976), German critic Wolfgang Iser argued that texts contain gaps (or blanks) that powerfully affect the reader, who must imaginatively fill them in or explain them.
With the repositioning of the literary text in the mind of the reader, with its new role as a catalyst of mental events, came a concurrent redefinition of the reader. No longer was the reader the passive recipient of the ideas that an author plants in a text but, rather, an active maker of meaning. Yet reader-response critics elaborating on the definition of the reader often described some ideal, rather than real, reader. For example, in Self-Consuming Artifacts, Fish identified the “informed reader” (or “intended reader”) as someone “sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses, including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech, etc.) to whole genres.” Similarly, in The Implied Reader (1974), Wayne Booth distinguished between the real reader and the implied reader, which he defined as a “construct” of the text; in Structuralist Poetics (1975), Jonathan Culler described the educated or “competent” reader, one who employs the codes and conventions needed to understand the types of literary works studied in academia.
Subsequently, other reader-response critics pointed out that definitions of literary competence inevitably reflect the prevailing ideology, the beliefs of socially dominant groups and institutions. Mailloux, for instance, noted in “The Turns of Reader-Response Criticism” (1990) that the competence Culler described “was embedded within larger formations and traversed by political ideologies extending beyond the academy.” As the title of Mailloux’s essay indicates, reader-response criticism (once referred to as the “School of Fish”) has morphed and diversified. With the rise of other critical approaches whose practitioners proved less interested in close reading than the way in which literature represents, reproduces, and resists prevailing ideologies concerning class, race, gender, and sexuality, reader-response criticism took on a variety of new forms.
Meanwhile, Fish, confronted with the question of why different readers tend to read the same works in the same way, had developed the concept of interpretive communities. In “Interpreting the Variorum” (1976), he asserted that multiple and diverse reading groups exist within any large population and that members of particular interpretive communities tend to share the same reading strategies, which “exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read.” In developing this model, Fish shifted his focus away from the individual reader (and thus away from affective stylistics) and became something of a social, structuralist reader-response critic.
Over time, the term reader-oriented criticism came into vogue as an alternative or even a substitute for reader-response criticism. Reader-oriented critics have tended to follow Fish in studying reading communities, rather than focusing on the transactions between individual readers and texts. Janice Radway, for instance, investigated female readers of romance paperbacks in her study Reading the Romance (1984). Reader-oriented critics have also studied the changing reception of literary works across time, as Mailloux did in his pragmatic readings of American literature in Interpretive Conventions (1982) and Rhetorical Power (1989). Some critics, including Mailloux and Jane Tompkins, have even come to identify themselves as practitioners of reader-reception criticism.
An important catalyst of this gradual change and of the development of reception criticism was the reception theory of German critic Hans Robert Jauss. Rather than focusing on the implied, informed, or intended reader, Jauss examined actual past readers. In “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (1967), he explored the responses of readers over time to a given literary work; in Toward an Aesthetics of Reception (1982), he argued that the reception of a work or author depends upon the reading public’s “horizons of expectations.”
Some reader-oriented feminist critics, such as Judith Fetterley, Patrocinio Schweickart, and Monique Wittig, have challenged the reader to become what Fetterley called “the resisting reader” in her eponymously titled 1978 book. Arguing that literature written by men tends to “immasculate” women, they adopted strategies of reading that involve substituting masculine for feminine pronouns and male for female characters in order to expose the sexism inscribed in patriarchal texts. By contrast, other feminists, such as Nancy K. Miller in Subject to Change (1988), suggested that there may be essential differences between the way women and men read and write.
That suggestion, however, prompted considerable controversy. A number of gender critics whose work is oriented toward readers and reading acknowledge that there is such a thing as reading or writing “like a woman” (or man) but also agree with Peggy Kamuf’s argument in “Writing Like a Woman” (1980) that such forms of reading and writing, like gender itself, are cultural rather than natural constructs. Some gay and lesbian critics, such as Wayne Koestenbaum, have taken a similar approach, arguing that sexuality has also been socially constructed and that there is a homosexual way of reading.
Many students of contemporary critical practice would say that feminist, gender, and gay and lesbian theory engulfed reader-oriented theory. Others, like Elizabeth Freund, have suggested that deconstruction has taken over the reader-oriented approach. Several critics, however, including Mailloux and Peter Rabinowitz, continued to define their approach as primarily reader-oriented, although their work was also heavily influenced by the new historicism and cultural criticism. For instance, in Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (1987), Rabinowitz set forth four conventions or rules of reading, including rules identifying which parts of a narrative are important and which have a reliable secondary or special meaning. Analyzing various critical misreadings and misjudgments, he argued that politics governs the way in which those rules are applied and broken. In subsequent critical essays, Rabinowitz focused on societal assumptions about gender, race, and class, arguing that they, too, determine the way in which artistic works are perceived and evaluated. Similarly, Mailloux described the historical and political contexts of (mis)interpretation, pointing out in “Misreading as a Historical Act” (1993) that protofeminist Margaret Fuller’s mid-nineteenth-century review of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) — a review that seems to be a misreading until it is situated “within the cultural conversation of the ’Bible politics’ of 1845.” Mailloux thereby reminds us that all reading is culturally situated and likely to seem like misreading someday.