Some Reader Response Theories from Lois Tyson

last revised 2/27/14

Reader Response theory is very much about audience and the text-as-event (rather than object). Readers do not passively consume "the text itself."

Reader Response theories are, in a nutshell, focused on analyzing the reader's experience with the text. These theories are, therefore, meta (above, or about its self). The text is "not an object...but an event" (172). Reader response theories, for the most part, are theories about how we interpret vs. interpreting a text.

Transactional Reader Response

Louise Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser

Affective Stylistics

early Stanley Fish

Psycholgical Reader Response

Norman Holland

Social Reader Response

later Stanley Fish

Subjective Reader Response

David Bleich

Very close to New Criticism, but these theories allow the reader to have some power since "the text itself" is impossible.

Meaning is based on a transaction between text and reader.

Rosenblatt--reading in "efferent mode" is like reading only for denotations; reading in "aesthetic mode" is more like looking at connotations/ambiguities, emotional connections to the work (173).

Iser--look for determinacies (denotations) and indeterminacies or gaps in the text (connotations, ambiguities) which can shift over time.

For Rosenblat, the text is what's on the page, the reader is the reader, and the "poem" is what happens when they come together.

Iser--the reader always defaults to the text for final meaning when faced with "indeterminacies" or gaps in the text (174).

--text as "blueprint" for the reader's analysis (Rosenblatt)

--text as that which "prestructures" the reader's projected meanings (Iser)

"Text as event"--rather close to some of what Iser discusses (174).

  1. "What does the sentence do to the reader?
  2. How does the reader of this sentence make meaning?" (176)

--"map the pattern by which a text structures the reader's response while reading" (176).

Based on reader's expectations reading word by word, line by line, and the fulfillment, or violation, of those expectations; a description of the mental processes the reader goes through as they read the text.

Not "impressionistic" (175).

How the text teaches us to read it...

Meta--thinking about how the theme of the text also supports the reader's experience (if the theme is confusion or uncertainly, that should also be the reader's experience--see Heart of Darkness or Apocolypse Now).

"The inevitability of misreading" (177). this thus a better way to read texts with more "gaps" like postmodern works?

--can combine these close reading techniques with discussions about psychological coping strategies and and social RR and assumptions (what Lee keeps calling authoritative fields)

--hard to think about "expectations" without thinking about shared assumptions (thus Fish later talks about Social Reader Response theories)

Affective stylistics is a useful way to read a draft in creative writing workshop since expectations are often violated, sometimes in artistically sound ways, sometimes not (patterns of "internal" logic are important in good writing).

What reader's reactions reveal about themselves psychoanalytically; the same things that cause defenses in life cause them when we read

--"the coping process is interpretation" (182)

3 stages:

  • defense mode (toward indeterminacies; defenses raised)
  • fantasy mode (push uncomfortable realizations down in favor of comfortable realizations; tranquilizing interpretations)
  • transformation mode (abstract interpretation to avoid first two stages; abstractions that create avoidance like saying that you are reading only "the text itself" scientifically or logically and objectively)

--"the pattern of our psychological conflicts and coping strategies [is our] identity theme" (183) that we project on to all texts...(and this projection is largely unconscious because being aware of projections causes anxiety)

Can analyze the author's own "identity theme" by reading their statements about their lives and their writing (biographical criticism?), and by analyzing how they express those identity themes through their creative works.

Interpretive Communities (185), and institutionalized assumptions (what makes something literature; how we are supposed to interpret properly); we could also call these ideologies (think Marxism)--what "natural" ways of reading the text have we been taught (and that predispose us to seeing the text in certain ways)?

Interpretive communities change over time (185)--i.e. that's why biographical criticism stopped being the "natural" method of literary critique in the 1940's.

In other words, literary reading is learned (186)...

Reading is meta--it reveals group codes about interpretive strategies that the group or culture shares (i.e. what is allowed--what is art? what is literature?; think about how dada--see Duchamp--questions this; high vs. low art being questioned in Semiotics). 

Interpretations are shown to be shared constructs or ideologies rather than personal or natural (this is obviously somewhat more Poststructural or deconstructive since it can focus on the politics in play as we read).

--readers are already "predisposed" to interpret in a certain way by being a member of multiple communal authority groups determine how students interpret (vs. Bleich focusing on a group that negotiates in the now?).

--we don't interpret a text, we create a text...(185)

--one might contrast (get meta about) different critical camps, say a religious communal authority group vs. a literary theory communal authority group...what tensions about, say, Death of a Salesman arise between the different reading assumptions in these groups? What tensions arise in a reader intersected by both?

--See Jonathan Culler's Structuralism p. 232

Reader's responses ARE the text (we analyze readers negotiating meaning (178)--we get meta); "Real objects" are the books; "symbolic objects" are created when we read, or the conceptual space we create when we read.

Our interpretations of the text are interpretations of our own conceptual, or symbolization.

Re-symbolization happens when we start doing more interpreting of the text (the text in our heads)

--our interpretations are part of a community, are negotiable rather than objective (objectivity is often what we call our personal, negotiated re-symbolizations; 179).

--students produce communal authority as they negotiate meaning (vs. Fish)

--can do "studies" about groups of readers who look at the same text and create "response statements" and then analyze those response statements with a "response-analysis statement" (180) to see how they come to interpret and collaborate about meaning--and also to show the readers that their interpretations are not objective.

Response-Analysis Statements have the reader:

  1. Give their overall emotional response to the text (enjoyment, dissappointment, discomfort; a meaning statement (181)?)
  2. Give their specific and varied responses to the text which lead to the overall response
  3. "Determine why these responses occurred"

Questions you can use to determine why the reader responded that way : why do you think that? why do you focus on that? what makes you interpret the text that way?

--what Lee might call the Indentity Laundry list reaction which may lead to judging a text based too much on impressionism or relatability--"reader oriented" or "reality oriented" readings instead of "experience oriented" readings where reactions to the text are discussed (179-180)

--hard to think of this without thinking about the shared literary/cultural assumptions that form our reading (see the latter Fish and Culler)



        Then there's what Lee calls Narcisistic Reader Response, or the kind of free for all, "impressionistic" personal readings each of these theories critique...

All this is also dependent on what is often called the Ideal Reader, Informed Reader (Fish), Implied Reader (Iser), Intended Reader, or what I like to call the more Experienced Reader, for a particular text (or the best text for that particular reader?)--i.e. I have a lot of experience reading and thinking in meta ways about postmodern fiction, so I am the Ideal Reader for that kind of "experimental" work.  In other words, I have "literary competancy" for this kind of fiction (187). This reader has at least some level of readerly or scholarly familiarity with the genre she is reading, someone who suppresses "strictly" impressionistic (personal or idiosyncratic) responses as much as possible.

Three broader reader response questions to put all this into a nutshell:

  1. What indeterminacies in a text help the reader create "new" meaning?
  2. What is an ideal reader's process of reading and creating meaning?
  3. How and why does a reader's reading of a text change over time, history, and cultures? (How do we read Huck Finn now as opposed to the 1800's?)