Reception and Reader-Response Theory

Posted: September 19, 2007 in Literary theory, Reader Response

Reader-response theory may be traced initially to theorists such as I. A. Richards (The Principles of Literary Criticism, Practical Criticism and How to Read a Page) or Louise Rosenblatt (Literature as Exploration or The Reader, the Text, the Poem). For Rosenblatt and Richards the idea of a “correct” reading–though difficult to attain–was always the goal of the “educated” reader (armed, of course, with appropriate aesthetic apparatus). For Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in this Class?, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost” and Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of the Seventeenth-Century Reader), the reader’s ability to understand a text is also subject a reader’s particular “interpretive community.” To simplify, a reader brings certain assumptions to a text based on the interpretive strategies he/she has learned in a particular interpretive community. For Fish, the interpretive community serves somewhat to “police” readings and thus prohibit outlandish interpretations. In contrast Wolfgang Iser argued that the reading process is always subjective. In The Implied Reader, Iser sees reading as a dialectical process between the reader and text. For Hans-Robert Jauss, however (Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, and Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics), a reader’s aesthetic experience is always bound by time and historical determinants.

Key Terms:

Horizons of expectations – a term developed by Hans Robert Jauss to explain how a reader’s “expectations” or frame of reference is based on the reader’s past experience of literature and what preconceived notions about literature the reader possesses (i.e., a reader’s aesthetic experience is bound by time and historical determinants). Jauss also contended that for a work to be considered a classic it needed to exceed a reader’s horizons of expectations.

Implied reader – a term developed by Wolfgang Iser; the implied reader [somewhat akin to an “ideal reader”] is “a hypothetical reader of a text. The implied reader [according to Iser] “embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect — predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader” (Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown – Glossary of Literary Theory).

Interpretive communities – a concept, articulated by Stanley Fish, that readers within an “interpretive community” share reading strategies, values and interpretive assumptions (Barbara McManus).

Transactional analysis – a concept developed by Louise Rosenblatt asserting that meaning is produced in a transaction of a reader with a text. As an approach, then, the critic would consider “how the reader interprets the text as well as how the text produces a response in her” (Dobie 132 – see General Resources below).

Further References:

  • Austin, J. L.How to Do Things with Words. 1962
  • Bleich, David. Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism. 1978
  • Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. 1975.
  • Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.
  • Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. 1981.
  • Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. 1979.
  • Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.
  • Holland, Norman. 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1974.
  • —. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.
  • —. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. U of Minneapolis P, 1982.
  • Mailloux, Steven. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction. 1982
  • Holland, Norman. The Dynamics of Literary Response. 1968, 5 Readers Reading. 1975
  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen, 1982.
  • Richards, I.A. How to Read a Page. 1942.
  • —. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. 1929. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935.
  • Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. 1978.
  • Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978.
  • Suleiman, Susan R., and Inge Crosman, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Princeton UP, 1980.
  • Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Suggested Websites:


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