Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader (or "audience") and his or her experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work.
Although literary theory has long paid some attention to the reader's role in creating the meaning and experience of a literary work, modern reader-response criticism began in the 1960s and '70s, particularly in America and Germany, in work by Norman Holland, Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, and others. Important predecessors were I. A. Richards, who in 1929 analyzed a group of Cambridge undergraduates' misreadings; Louise Rosenblatt, who, in Literature as Exploration (1938), argued that it is important for the teacher to avoid imposing any "preconceived notions about the proper way to react to any work"; and C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism (1961).
Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates his or her own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's role in re-creating literary works is ignored. New Criticism had emphasized that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of a text. No appeal to the authority or intention of the author, nor to the psychology of the reader, was allowed in the discussions of orthodox New Critics. The New Critics' position assumed an objective, fixed text that could be studied apart from any human being, and this assumption persisted even into postmodern criticism.
One can sort reader-response theorists into three groups: those who focus upon the individual reader's experience ("individualists"); those who conduct psychological experiments on a defined set of readers ("experimenters"); and those who assume a fairly uniform response by all readers ("uniformists"). One can therefore draw a distinction between reader-response theorists who see the individual reader driving the whole experience and others who think of literary experience as largely text-driven and uniform (with individual variations that can be ignored). The former theorists, who think the reader controls, derive what is common in a literary experience from shared techniques for reading and interpreting which are, however, individually applied by different readers. The latter, who put the text in control, derive commonalities of response, obviously, from the literary work itself. The most fundamental difference among reader-response critics is probably, then, between those who regard individual differences among readers' responses as important and those who try to get around them.
Michael Steig and Walter Slatoff have, like Bleich, shown that students' highly personal responses can provide the basis for critical analyses in the classroom. Jeffrey Berman has encouraged students responding to texts to write anonymously and share with their classmates writings in response to literary works about sensitive subjects like drugs, suicidal thoughts, death in the family, parental abuse and the like. A kind of catharsis bordering on therapy results. In general, American reader-response critics have focused on individual readers' responses. American journals like Reader, Reading Research Quarterly, and others publish articles applying reader-response theory to the teaching of literature.
In 1965, C. S. Lewis published An Experiment in Criticism, in which he analyzed readers' role in selecting literature. He analyzed their selections in light of their goals in reading.
In 1967, Stanley Fish published Surprised by Sin, the first study of a large literary work (Paradise Lost) that focused on its readers' experience. In an appendix, "Literature in the Reader", Fish used "the" reader to examine responses to complex sentences sequentially, word-by-word. Since 1976, however, he has turned to real differences among real readers. He explores the reading tactics endorsed by different critical schools, by the literary professoriate, and by the legal profession, introducing the idea of "interpretive communities" that share particular modes of reading.
In 1968, Norman Holland drew on psychoanalytic psychology in The Dynamics of Literary Response to model the literary work. Each reader introjects a fantasy "in" the text, then modifies it by defense mechanisms into an interpretation. In 1973, however, having recorded responses from real readers, Holland found variations too great to fit this model in which responses are mostly alike but show minor individual variations.
Holland then developed a second model based on his case studies 5 Readers Reading An individual has (in the brain) a core identity theme (behaviors then becoming understandable as a theme and variations as in music). This core gives that individual a certain style of being--and reading. Each reader uses the physical literary work plus invariable codes (such as the shapes of letters) plus variable canons (different "interpretive communities", for example) plus an individual style of reading to build a response both like and unlike other readers' responses. Holland worked with others at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Murray Schwartz, David Willbern, and Robert Rogers, to develop a particular teaching format, the "Delphi seminar," designed to get students to "know themselves".
In Canada, David Miall, usually working with Donald Kuiken, has produced a large body of work exploring emotional or "affective" responses to literature, drawing on such concepts from ordinary criticism as "defamiliarization" or "foregrounding". They have used both experiments and new developments in neuropsychology, and have developed a questionnaire for measuring different aspects of a reader's response.
There are many other experimental psychologists around the world exploring readers' responses, conducting many detailed experiments. One can research their work through their professional organizations, the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, and International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, and through such psychological indices as PSYCINFO.
Two notable researchers are Dolf Zillmann and Peter Vorderer, both working in the field of communications and media psychology. Both have theorized and tested ideas about what produces emotions such as suspense, curiosity, surprise in readers, the necessary factors involved, and the role the reader plays. Jenefer Robinson, a researcher in emotion, has recently blended her studies on emotion with its role in literature, music, and art.
Wolfgang Iser exemplifies the German tendency to theorize the reader and so posit a uniform response. For him, a literary work is not an object in itself but an effect to be explained. But he asserts this response is controlled by the text. For the "real" reader, he substitutes an implied reader, who is the reader a given literary work requires. Within various polarities created by the text, this "implied" reader makes expectations, meanings, and the unstated details of characters and settings through a "wandering viewpoint". In his model, the text controls. The reader's activities are confined within limits set by the literary work.
Another important German reader-response critic was Hans-Robert Jauss, who defined literature as a dialectic process of production and reception (Rezeption--the term common in Germany for "response"). For Jauss, readers have a certain mental set, a "horizon" of expectations (Erwartungshorizont), from which perspective each reader, at any given time in history, reads. Reader-response criticism establishes these horizons of expectation by reading literary works of the period in question.
Both Iser and Jauss, and the Constance School they exemplify, return reader-response criticism to a study of the text by defining readers in terms of the text. In the same way, Gerald Prince posits a "narratee", Michael Riffaterre posits a "superreader", and Stanley Fish an "informed reader." And many text-oriented critics simply speak of "the" reader who typifies all readers.
To reader-response critics, however, reading is always both subjective and objective, and their question is not "which" but "how". Some reader-response critics (uniformists) assume a bi-active model of reading: the literary work controls part of the response and the reader controls part. Others, who see that position as internally contradictory, claim that the reader controls the whole transaction (individualists). In such a reader-active model, readers and audiences use amateur or professional procedures for reading (shared by many others) as well as their personal issues and values.
Another objection to reader-response criticism is that it fails to account for the text being able to expand the reader's understanding. While readers can and do put their own ideas and experiences into a work, they are at the same time gaining new understanding through the text. This is something that is generally overlooked in reader-response criticism.
Reader-response criticism relates to psychology, both experimental psychology for those attempting to find principles of response, and psychoanalytic psychology for those studying individual responses. Post-behaviorist psychologists of reading and of perception support the idea that it is the reader who makes meaning. Increasingly, cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and neuropsychoanalysis have given reader-response critics powerful and detailed models for the aesthetic process.
Because it rests on psychological principles, a reader-response approach readily generalizes to other arts: cinema (David Bordwell) or visual art (E. H. Gombrich), and even to history (Hayden White). In stressing the activity of the scholar, reader-response theory justifies such upsettings of traditional interpretations as, for example, deconstruction or cultural criticism.
Since reader-response critics focus on the strategies readers are taught to use, they address the teaching of reading and literature. Also, because reader-response criticism stresses the activity of the reader, reader-response critics readily share the concerns of feminist critics and critics writing on behalf of gays, ethnic minorities, or post-colonial peoples.
Some argue that 'artworks' are now purposely being fabricated which lack meaning but rather the 'artworks' are fabricated only to generate a reader response. The reader response then is corralled via interpretative communities. Reader response rather than handing a freedom to the reader empowers the leaders of an interpretative community against the reader. The reader has no ground to evaluate the 'artwork' as the artwork is senseless. Only a reader response, basically an emotive response, is legitimate. The Web provides an an ideal way to form such interpretative communities. The power of reader response strategy is that people are fundamentally 'hungry' for culture and will attempt to impart meaning even to artworks that are senseless. Of course, people can always opt out of these interpretative communities centered around senseless artworks with little to no loss vis-a-vis culture and almost certainly a cultural gain.
Paradoxically reader response criticism as done by critics today attempts to tell the reader what the reader is allegedly thinking about an artwork. Basically when employing reader response theory to criticism it has to be this way as otherwise the critic fails to connect to the audience in any way as otherwise the idiosyncratic views of the reviewer, perhaps based on neuropsychoanalyis, for example, are put forward with a loss of a popular audience. Too, being a leader of an intrepretative community has attractions over detailed analysis of summer blockbusters. Reader response criticism is clearly a cultural dominant amongst those who do popular criticism.