Reader Response Criticism – History and Purpose

The domain of literature has a vast horizon representing a cluster of literary theories. Each of these theories has come from a different school of thoughts, forming a strict sense of the systematic study of literature. The purpose is to analyze the subtleties of literature that includes social prophecy, interdisciplinary themes, intellectual history, and moral philosophy. Hence, it considers anything that has relevance to interpret meanings to humans.

Reader response criticism, in modern academics, is another literary theory, focusing on the audiences or readers’ experience of any literary work. The theory gained popularity because of its contrastive ideology. The traditional theories primarily focused on the form or content of the literary work.

History and Role of Reader’s Response Theory

There is no denying that there are several literary theories, which paid some attention to a specific role of a reader in interpreting the meaning of a piece of literary work. However, reader-response criticism, as modern literary philosophy emerged between the 1960s and 80s, particularly in German and the US. The clearly dominated the work of Roland Barthes, Norman Holland, Wolfgang Iser,  Stanley Fish, and many others.

Typically, Reader-response criticism revolves around the phenomena ‘Respond to Reading’. The theory identifies the reader as a significant and active agent who is responsible to impart the real meaning of the text by interpreting it. The modern school of thought argues on the existing perception of the literature. According to it, literature is like a performing art that enables reader creates his own text-related unique performance.

It stood against the other theories of New Criticism and formalism, which totally ignored the reader’s role in re-creating the meaning. New criticism considered that only structure, form, and content, or whatever is within the text, create the meaning. There was no appeal to the author’s intention or his authority, nor did it consider the reader’s psychology. None of this single element was focused on the new critics orthodox.

What is the Reader Response Theory?

The reading theory scaffolding the whole argument of this modern school of thought gained prominence after the 1960s. Focusing on the readers as the main audience of a particular text, it was the first theory, which gave importance to the readers more than a text. Many critics connect the philosophy of this theory to poststructuralism as it has the same emphasizes on the reader’s role in actively constructing the meaning of the text. Like post-structuralism, reader response theory opposes the reader’s role as a passive consumer of the literary text. It does not ground itself on just creating objective meanings.

Reader Response theory, on the other hand, argues that a text does not have any meaning in isolation unless the reader experiences it or reads it. The modern criticism has changed the critic’s job to analyze the text’s structure. The reader-response critic examines the reader’s reaction and its scope to evaluate distinct ways in which readers or interpretive communities, deduce the meanings. The reader’s interpretation can be a personal reaction. It can be a culturally inherited way of interpreting things.

The Reader-Response theory is not impressionistic, subjective personal comments on someone’s literary work. Instead, the school of thought sets it to aim in finding the meaning in the reader’s reaction and interpretations. It further examines the individual reader or communities’ way of experiencing texts.

The theory of Reader Response questions the existence, indulgence, and participation of the reader in joining the writer and helping him creating the text meaning. Their work is to determine the specific reader’s community that literary work caters and helps to create meanings. Not only this, the modern critics examine the importance of various interpretations that reader undergoes during a reading process.

Although reader response analysts focus on the ‘Text’ and what it does when it comes constituting meanings, it does not consider the text as a self-contained entity. For reader-response critics, the word criticized meaning is different to what New critics would believe. Unlike formalists, their criticism plunges into affective fallacies, which means, ‘What does text do in the reader’s mind?   In fact, the text remains activated in the reader’s mind as it keeps on reinforcing it and interpreting it. The formalist, unlike reader-response critics, perceived literary text as spatial and not temporal phenomena.

Purpose of Modern Reading-Response Theory

Reader- Response theory exhibits an essential role of the reader when it comes to creating the meaning of the text. The theory works with an ideology of ‘Reader existence’. According to it, it is only the reading experience in which literary work comes alive.

For instance, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is no monster until a reader reads it, imagines and reanimates the horrible creature to life. The whole process makes a reader a co-creator of the novel. This surfaces the purpose of this modern theory that examines, explains and defends the personal reaction of a reader.

As a reader, while critically reading something you need to explore,

  • The theme and purpose of the text
  • Explain why or why not you like the text
  • Flaws in the plot
  • Explain if you agree with the writer’s perspective or if you disagree with it

The interesting fact about this approach is that it does not require you to support the right or wrong stance. There is no fixed absolute reading response. However, it is all about demonstrating an understanding of what you read by explaining and supporting your reactions. Using a standard approach by simply writing that ‘I didn’t like the text because it does not relate to my life’ or ‘I liked it because it has a cool ending that made me excited’ does not always work.

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In response writing, you can assume the reader has read the literary text so you do not need to summarize it. Instead, adopt an analytical and systematic approach to evaluate the text.

How to Write a Reader Response Journal

Writing a reader response journal is like culminating your reflection and reactions to the text. It is one of the best ways you can analyze the ideas of the text and evaluate how the text has convinced its readers or whether it is effective or not.

Working with an analytical approach is essential when writing a response journal. Try to address the text as an educated adult, who knows how to analyze important aspects of writing. As a beginner, if your opinion opposes many writers, it will create your negative impact or highlights you as an uneducated or immature writer.

Evidence-based Criticism

Anything that is presented without evidence is less likely to make a long-lasting effect on the readers. If you want to write about something you do not agree with, providing evidence ‘why it is not right’ is a key to prove your point.

To put it simply, it is not necessary to agree with the writer’s approach; however, what is important here is to criticize it by providing valid examples. Following questions may help you analyze the text,

For theme,

  • Is this text racist?
  • Is there anything in the text that degrades things like Democrats, religion, adolescents, conservatives and any specific group?
  • Are there any factual errors in the text? Is it despairing, falsely positive and dark?

For language convention,

  • Does text have high linguistic complexity?
  • Does it use poor language?
  • Are there any grammatical errors?
  • Is it full of figures?
  • Does it have too many emotional and childish details?
  • Does the text lack cohesion? Moreover, does it make any point?

These questions will not support your reading response if you criticize them without examples. Avoid criticizing any literary text as ‘ridiculous or perplexing’. Hence, this may raise questions on your ability of understanding.

 Structure of a Response Journal

Choosing the right text is the very first step of compiling your reading-response journal. To analyze it, you need to connect and converse with the text.

At the beginning of your response journal mention,

  • Title of your work (the one you have chosen to respond)
  • Main thesis and theme of the text
  • Author’s name

Then, respond to these questions to structure your reading response journal

  • Does the text have anything to do with your personal life? Try to establish a connection.
  • Does it hold the same opinion or perspective of the world as you have? What is there you consider wrong and why? (Use examples, quotes to raise an argument or to discuss your opinion).
  • What is your learning? Or does the text challenge your opinion? If yes, how?
  • What is there you like the most in the text? Reflect critically
  • How could it have been better? (Fault-finding does not mean that you have to criticize the text. Instead, use positive language and discuss the shortcomings).
  • Conclude your reading – response by writing your overall reaction and recommendation.

Bottom Line

Overall, Reader Response theory stresses on the reader’s role in constructing and interpreting the meanings. Moreover, the theory does not separate the reader’s response, belief, and understanding from the text.