Reader-Response Criticism

Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

Reader-Response Criticism

Reader-Response criticism is not a subjective, impressionistic free-for-all, nor a legitimizingof all half-baked, arbitrary, personal comments on literary works. Instead, it is a school of criticism which emerged in the 1970s, focused on finding meaning in the act of reading itself and examining the ways individual readers or communities of readers experience texts. These critics raise theoretical questions regarding how the reader joins with the author “to help the text mean.” They determine what kind of reader or what community of readers the work implies and helps to create. They also may examine the significance of the series of interpretations the reader undergoes in the reading process.

Like New Critics, reader-response critics focus on what texts do; but instead of regarding texts as self-contained entities, reader-response criticism plunges into what the New Critics called the affective fallacy: what do texts do in the minds of the readers? In fact, a text can exist only as activated by the mind of the reader. Thus, where formalists saw texts as spacial, reader-response critics view them as temporal phenomena. And, as Stanley Fish states, “It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities. . . . Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them” (326-327).

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Fish, Stanley. Is There A Text in This Class?Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature