Criticism- Reader Response Theory

Reader-response criticism refers to a general label for a number of different literary approaches and theories common since  the 1960s which share a focus on the active relationship of the reader with a text. There is a rejection of the assumptions of New Criticism about the autonomy of the text and the objectivity of evaluation and meaning. Reader-response critics see the meaning of a text as created or produced by readers, and therefore as an unstable and changeable entity. There is no one ‘correct’ meaning for all readers. They differ in the emphases they place on aspects of the reading process.

Readers can be of two types – the ideal or the hypothetical reader, and the real or actual reader. The word ‘narratee’ is used to designate the ideal reader. The narratee is the one whom the narrator addresses. The German critic Wolfgang Iser uses the term ‘implied reader’ to refer to the reader who will respond in full measure to the demands made by the text. It is the reader whom the text addresses. Jonathan Culler develops the term ‘competent reader’ to refer to the reader who has learnt or mastered the skills required to understand or interpret the text. There is also the ‘intended reader’ whom the author has in mind when he writes the work. All these are mental constructs. The actual reader is a living being  who brings to bear upon the text he reads his knowledge of the world. He is an ‘informed reader’ who is educated, whose understanding and experience of the world is comprehensive. He has the competence to experience the text in all its linguistic and literary complexity.

The general theory of the reader-response school may be classified into several categories:

Transactional reader-response theory:  Formulated by Louise Rosenblatt, it believes that the literary text is a result of the transaction between the text and the reader.  Wolfgang Iser (The Act of Reading, 1978) says that in his effort to create meaning the reader fills in the indeterminate elements or the gaps over and above the determinate meanings which refer to the facts in a text.  By doing this, the reader completes the work and participates in the production of its meaning. Such filling of gaps is called concretization. Iser distinguishes between text, the concretization and the work of art. The first is what the author gives us; the second is the reader’s activity of producing the text, and the work of art lies at a point where the text and the reader converge. Thus the artistic point of the text is created by the author and the aesthetic point concretized by the reader.

Affective stylistics: Stanley Fish ( “Is there a text in this class?”) is the proponent of this theory. The text is put to a close examination to see how stylistically it affects the reader and how the sequence of words gets converted to a felt experience. It entails a word-by-word analysis of the response of the reader. In following the printed text with his eye, the reader makes sense of what he has so far read by anticipating what is still to come. The anticipations or expectations may or may not be fulfilled by what follows in the text. If the reader finds himself mistaken in his expectations, it is “part of the  experience provided by the author’s language” and is an integral part of the meaning of the text. There could be different interpretive strategies adopted by different readers.

Subjective reader-response theory: David Bleich (Subjective Criticism, 1978) is the exponent of this theory. According to him, the response of the reader is not detrmined or controlled by the text. Reading is wholly a subjective process determined by the distinctive personality of the individual reader. The act of reading creates a ‘conceptual, symbolic world’. In other words, reading is symbolization or creation of meaning.

Psychological reader-response theory: Norman Holland advanced this theory. According to this, a literary text projects fantasies and the reader’s interpretations of it fulfill his psychological needs. He projects his desires, fears etc into his interpretation of the text. The source of pleasure for the reader lies in the transformation of unconscious wishes through the literary work.

Reception Theory: It is a term coined by Hans Robert Jauss. It is also  called the ‘aesthetics of reception’ or ‘reception history’. It deals with the way in which the text has been received over a period of time. It focuses not on the individual response to the text but on the response of an entire generation or period. The analyses could either look at the reception of texts in one particular period , ie synchronic analysis, or trace the changes and developments in the reception of texts in literary history, ie, diachronic analysis. In such an analysis, the readers of a later generation have access to the response of the earlier ones. Out of the cumulative response of readers, there grows an evolving, modifying historical tradition, that could give us newer and newer ways of looking at a text.


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