Note on Reader response theory

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Source:www.uic.ede/Stanley Fish
Source:www.uic.ede/Stanley Fish

Reader-response theory

Reader-response criticism is the criticism based on the reader’s response to the text that is literary text. It gives validity to every response given by the readers. It assumes that every response is valid. It gives the validity to the every response given by the readers and no responses are insufficient. It values the multiplicity of the meaning of a text. It focuses on the reader’s response in the interpretation of the text. The basic focus is on the reader and the process of reading. This criticism emerges during the 1930s but it did not get exact attention till 1970s. This criticism came as a reaction against the new criticism that rejected the reader’s role in the production of the meaning and focused on the single based interpretation whereas the reader response criticism focuses on the reader’s participation in the production of the meaning of the text. The text is incomplete until the reader comes and reads it because the text is for the reader. Further, it regards that text does not have to say anything itself rather it is the reader who asks the meaning out of it. The reader actively participates in the product of the meaning. Reader’s response criticism is a broad, exciting and evolving theory of literary studies that contains various schools under it.

Reader response theory is one of the critical theories that study the responses of the reader. A text can have various responses depending upon the motive and interest of the reader. So reader response criticism is a criticism based on the responses of the reader upon a text. By the name, it implies anybody can think easy to make a reader-response criticism as it cannot be wrong. A reader is free to interpret a text anyway he likes. But it is not so. Any responses can be insufficient as reader response criticism is a broad, exciting, evolving domain of literary studies that can help us learn about our own reading process and how they relate to among other things, specific elements in the text we read, our life experiences and the intellectual community of which we are a member. The reader response criticism has border area. Any kind of criticism can be reader response criticism. Obviously, a text has multiple meanings. The reading of a text cannot be same for various readers. Even the first reading and the second reading may be different. Understanding of a text depends on upon the knowledge a reader has acquired, personal experience, moods, the purpose of reading etc.

Within the reader response theory there are different schools some school shares some common features and at the sometime within the same school, some points may differ depending upon the practitioners. Therefore we can divide reader response theory into the following sub division:

  • Transactional reader response criticism

The concept of transactional reader response criticism is propounded by Louise Rosenblatt. By the terms transaction, we mean some kind of exchange. Exchange of ideas experiences between the text and the reader. So in this school of criticism both text and the reader gets an equal place and importance. Reading a text is a stimulus process. While reading a literary text we get association within the text throughout feeling, memories, moods and experience. We get attach with the text. Sometimes the idea conveyed in the text helps us to correct our self. In this way, not only reader interprets the text but the text also guides readers self-corrective process.

Our reading of a text may be of two types-aesthetic and efferent. The efferent reading of a text is a tendency of seeking information from the text. Readers just read and collect the fact whereas in aesthetic reading, readers get emotional closeness with the text. They move along with the emotion of a text. These two types of reading enhance two types of meanings of a text determinate meaning and indeterminate meaning. Transactional theories believe that different readers come up with different acceptable meanings because the text allows for a range of acceptable meaning. For them to a text is self-sufficient. It functions as a blueprint. The basis differences between transactional theorist and new critics are that new critics believe on single based interpretation but transactional theorist upon the possibility of multiple meanings.

  • Affective stylistics

Affective stylistics as its name implies is a response of the readers toward the stylistics of the text. Any literary text has their own stylistics. The sentence structure, the plot, the narrative are different from ordinary language use. Therefore, the affective stylistics is an answer to the question how the text affects the reader in the process of reading. Because of its most concern to the text, some says that it is like transaction reader response but it is not so. The scholar like Stanley Fish believes that a text does not have fixed reader structure. The structure of the text is the structure of the reader mind while reading a text. It is because a text always moves towards the uncertainty. Nevertheless, affective stylistics is not a description of the reader’s impressionistic responses but a cognitive analysis of the mental process produce by specific elements in the text.

  • Subjective reader-response theory

The profounder of subjective reader response theory is David Bleich. The subjective reader’s response theory is based on the subjective criticism. It does not give emphasis to the text. The text for subjective reader response theory is the written responses of the reader. It believes that all the literary text get meaning through reader’s interpretation. Language is the base of literature. Language is symbolic in nature. The language in literature gives the concept to the mind of the reader. Bleich fragments a text into two levels. The first is the objective or physical existence of the book, its pages, size, color etc. Bleich calls it a real object. The real object for him is a physical object such as tables, chairs, car and so on. The printed pages of literary texts are a real object. For Bleich the process of interpretation is re-symbolization. It is the desire of explanation of our symbolization.

  • Psychological reader-response theory

The profounder of this theory is Norman Holland. According to psychological reader response theory and interpretation of a text is a psychological response of a reader towards the text, its character. The psychological motives influence readers how to read a text. For Holland reading a text is a transactive process. He believes in the objective text. Holland focuses on what reader’s interpretation reveal about themselves, not about text.

The psychological reader response has therapeutic value. Reader through fictional character shares their psychological pain. Through characters they criticize themselves. They get knowledge about themselves. Similarly, psychological reader theory text author as reader and text as a response to the world and society.

  • Social reader-response theory

Stanley Fish’s later work has established the concept of social reader response theory. It is believed that interpretation is not subjective or personal. It rather depends on upon the communities which Fish called interpretive communities where the interpreters have grown up. Knowingly or unknowingly we are always using the strategies of interpretive communities. For example, rose stands for love. It is a shared belief. These interpretive strategies depend on the institutionalized assumption, in high school, churches and colleges by prevailing cultural attitudes and philosophies. That is why the interpretation various according to the variation in interpretive communities.

  • Defining Readers

In reader response theory, theorists are found using a terms readers and the reader. The concept of the reader and the reader is associated with the real reader and the hypothetical reader. Norman Holland and David Bleich use readers that denote the real people. However, many theories analyze the reading experience of a hypothetical ideal reader encountering a specific text.

Reference- Tyson, L. (2013). the critical theory today. Kathmandu: Ekta Publication.

  • Literature is the performative art and each reading is the performance.
  • Readers belong to same interpretive communities with shared reading strategies, values, and interpretive assumption.
  • Readers are situated at common cultural or historical setting and shaped by dominant discourses and ideology.
  • The reader-response theory is one of the critical theories that study the responses of the reader.

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