Reader-Response Theory in Literature

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford

Reader-response theory is a form of literary criticism which emerged in the late 1960s and became influential between the 1970s and early 1980s. It sought to reassert the importance of the reader in creating meaning in a literary text, in opposition to the New Criticism, with its emphasis on features within the text such as language, structure, and form as the sole source of meaning. The New Critics, such as F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards, stressed the importance of the formal features of a text in their interpretation of literary texts, rather than biographical or historical contexts. Proponents of the New Criticism such as Cleanth Brooks conceived of the text as an internally coherent, self-contained object and used the term “affective fallacy” to refer to the ‘error’ of involving the reader’s response in discussions of literary texts. The critic Terry Eagleton famously described the New Critics’ interpretative strategy as involving thinking of meaning as a wisdom tooth, ‘waiting patiently to be extracted’ (1996, 77).

Reader-response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish, instead, contended that literary meaning could not be severed from the role which the reader themselves performed in the creation of meaning in a text. Iser questioned the notion that a text could ever be a self-contained unit of meaning, arguing that a text produces ‘blanks’ or ‘gaps’, (Iser 1974, 280-81) and it was the responsibility of the reader to fill these in: In this respect the reader serves a function in the process of making textual meaning.

The implication of reader-response theory was that the reading experience is never politically neutral or uncomplicated. Reader-response theorists understood the reading process in terms of Michel Foucault’s contention that ‘power is everywhere’, (Foucault 1990, 93) and that the reading process was always implicated in the ideological, social and historical perspectives of the individual reader. For instance, critics such as Jonathan Culler have questioned what it would mean to read ‘as a woman’ (Culler 1983, 43-64) and how this may differ from a male reading.

According to reader-response theory, meaning in a text is not closed off and pre-determined by the author, and it was not possible to ‘wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and’ that you ‘could call him up on the phone whenever you like it’ and ask them what they meant, like Holden Caulfield dreams about doing in The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Reader-response theorists such as W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley used the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to this emphasis which theorists had placed on the author as the centre of meaning in the text.

Roland Barthes proclaimed ‘The Death of the Author’ and the ‘birth of the reader’ in his essay of the same title, undermining what he viewed to be the god-like attributes which critics had heretofore assigned to the author of a text. Empson and Bakhtin also demonstrated how the literary text was fraught with ambiguities which made it impossible to reduce it to a final interpretation. They, instead, emphasised the dynamic nature of the reading process, which involved the dialogic interaction between the reader, the text, and the extra-literary ideological and historical contexts which informed the production of the text and the reader’s response to it. Terry Eagleton pointed out that language itself ‘is a field of social forces which shapes us to our roots’, (Eagleton 2008, 76) and that the reader’s response to a text was always deeply implicated in their social and political circumstances.

Ultimately, reader-response theory gestures at ways in which our ways of thinking about texts are shaped by the shared ideological and cultural practices and expectations which influence us as readers.

Further reading:

  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Discourse in the Novel” in William Cain, Laurie Finke, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Jeffrey Williams, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 3rd edn, (London: Norton & Company, 2018).

  2. Barthes, Roland, “Death of the Author”, in William Cain, Laurie Finke, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Jeffrey Williams, The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, 3rd edn, (London: Norton & Company, 2018).

  3. Brooks, Cleanth, The Well-Wrought Urn (Danis Dobson: London, 1968).

  4. Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2008).