Reader-response theory, also referred to as reader-response criticism, generally refers to a category of literature theories that the reader at centre of interpreting and giving meaning to a piece of literature work (in this case poetry). The theory, emphases on the audience /reader’s reaction to a literature work than on the work itself. In fact, the theory suggests that the text (poem) cannot exist without the reader and thus cannot be interpreted and/ or understood in the absence of the reader’s reaction. As such, reader-response criticism renders literature a performing art with the reader as an active agent that gives the work its real existence and meaning through interpretations. In addition, each reader gives a poem his/her own different and unique meaning depending on his/her own view/perspective.
Unlike other text-based approaches, such as new criticism, formalism and structuralism, which primarily focuses on the author, the structure (form) and the content of the poem while giving minimal role to the reader, the reader-response criticism primarily focuses on the reaction of the reader. The other theories look at a literature work objectively paying closer attention to the others development of idea while the reader-response is more interested on how the readers receives the work and thus the work only exists when read. In addition, the text-based theories focus on an objective meaning (in the process of interpretation) inherent in the poem (literature work) while the reader-response theory postulates that any literature work only has meaning after the reader encounters (reads) it. In other words, the reader has the central role in giving the poem its meaning. Thus, like in the post-structuralism, the reader is not just a passive consumer of the text but an active agent involved in constructing and interpreting the poem.
2.0 Key theories of reader response
Depending on the theorists that developed it and their approach in the analysis, there are three categories of reader response theories; the individualistic, the experimenters and the uniformists. The first group of reader response theories focuses on the experience of an individual reader and claims that the reader and the poem always coexist. This approach was developed in the 1960s by David Bleich in a classroom where he collected statements from individual students and postulated that readers generate their own knowledge. The individualists focus on the diversity of the responses by real readers and how these reader’ personality, upbringing, career and training influence their analysis, interpretation and response. For example, a psychologist and a lawyer would read and interpret a poem differently and thus give the work two very distinct meanings. This group of theorists is also based on the concept of interpretive communities which presupposes that certain group have similar approached to reading due to their similar background, training or career. The individualists argue that the individual’s identity themes and personal disposition (character, needs, desires, resistance and experiences) influences his/her response. As such, interpretation is considered a function of the reader’s identity and the correctness/accuracy is not important. It is for this very reason that this category of reader response criticism is also referred to as “personal” or “subjective” criticism. As such, according to the individualists responses that are highly personal can be a basis for critical analysis of literature. Other theorists (individualists) that have participated in the development of this group of theories include Walter Slatoff, Michael Steig, Jeffrey Berman, Stan Fish, Norman Holland among others.
The second group of reader-response criticism was developed psychological experiments to evaluate and determine the relationship between the poem (work) and the reader. The experimenters that have participated in the development of the theories include David Miall, Richard Gerrig, Donald Kuiken and Reuven Tsur. This school of thought postulates that the interpretation of the poem is influenced by the state of mind of the reader during and after reading the poem. As such the reader, when reading and interpreting a poem puts aside the generally accepted knowledge and for instance considers criminals to be heroes depending on the reader’s frame of mind. Simply put, the experimenters postulate the understanding and interpretations is not so much affected by the reader’s personality, career or upbringing but rather is affected by the reader’s mental framework at the time of reading and interpretations. As such, the explainers believe that the understanding and the interpretation of a poem are affected by emotions such as curiosity, suspense and surprise as well as the psychological demeanor of the reader.
The third class of reader-response is what is referred to as uniformists, which was introduced by Wolfgang Iser. This theory presupposes uniform interpretation based on the text because the text informs and limits the interpretation. Uniformists do not therefore; consider the reader as an individual but rather a theoretical reader. The reader has to be directed by the text that may have gaps left there by the author to be filled in by the reader. It is envisioned that the author, when writing the poem, imagines the reader s/he is writing the poem for. Therefore even though the reader is given preeminence, like in all reader response theories, s/he must be guided by the author. In addition to what is in the text, what the text provokes in the reader determines the interpretation of the poem. Therefore, uniformists presumes a bi-active reading and interpretation, with the both the reader and the poem (text) directing the interpretations.
3.0 The value of reader response in terms of analyzing poetry
The reader-response criticism, which was developed Germany and the United states, analyses the variety and the scope of reactions by different readers (called interpretive communities). As such, the meaning of the poem is divers and richer because meaning is derived from several perspectives/ points of views both personal and culturally imposed or inherited. In addition, the theory acknowledges that the interpretation of a poem is not static but dynamic depending on the time or occasion when the reader encounters the work. Therefore, readers give a poem different meaning at different points depending on the life circumstances and experiences of the readers at the specific points. This goes further to enrich the meaning and value of poetry.
Another value of reader-response criticism in poetry analysis is that it elevates the reader to the level of the author and content in terms of giving meaning to the poem. In reader response, reading a poem is not a merely passive process but an active conversation between the poem and the reader. Thus, the reader does not just passively receive the content of a poem but actively participates in giving meaning to the poem. In this theory, the poem stimulates thoughts and memories within the reader so that he/she can connect the poem and his/her personal life, circumstances and experiences. This way the poem can make sense to anyone and everyone and thus makes poetry enjoyable to all readers. In addition, the readers can give meaning to each word and phrase in the poem as they read it. In fact, the shapes and sounds made by the words in the poem and even the pronunciation of the said words alter the meaning of the poem. Therefore, in the reader response, the interpretation/meaning of the poem is not a preserve of the author but the reader plays a central role.
Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.
Cengage. Reader-Response Criticism. 2013. 6 July 2013 <http://www.questia.com/library/literature/literary-themes-and-topics/reader-response-criticism>.
Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. What Is Reader Response Criticism? 2003. 6 July 2013 <http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-reader-response-criticism.htm>.
Queensland Studies Authority. Approaches to reading practices. Queensland: Queensland Studies Authority, 2011.
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