Reader-Response Criticism

        Established in the late 1970s and still active today, Reader-Response criticism interprets literature as an author's tool for manipulating the expectations of readers.  Authors encourage readers to speculate forward from current to foreseen plot events, and to imagine from small details the inner motivations of characters.  All this work is possible because of two kinds of semiotic codes we learn to "read" when growing up literate: the codes of culture, itself (signs of status, signs of gender, signs of power, etc.); and the codes of literature (plot conventions, character conventions, rhetorical devices like metaphor, irony, paradox).

        R-R critics look for early passages in which authors "train" readers to expect certain rules will govern a narrative ("Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death."--the dénouement will involve a health surprise).  They also look for cultural or literary conventions authors may be manipulating without even having to "explain the rule" ("Once upon a time..."--it's a fairy tale and magic is allowed; rhyme--it's a poem and rhymed words matter to each other's meaning). In drama, for instance, if Ben Jonson's Volpone sings a love song in Act I, erotic behavior might be expected to follow in Acts II-V, but if the song is sung to stacks of gold, the "eros" might be satiric, ironic, tragic, or somehow twisted by the contextual impropriety of its initial sign.

        R-R critics, as the theory became more sophisticated, also began to specify types of audiences for whom a work of literature might be constructed.  A single work might anticipate several different audiences viewing it simultaneously.  For instance, when Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus uses his magical powers invisibly to invade the Vatican where he insults and assaults the Pope, Marlowe knew well that his theater might contain both open and proud Protestants, who would cheer these events, and secret Roman Catholics, who would find them highly offensive.  Each "community of interpretation," to use Stanley Fish's term, would follow a different reader rule regarding how to interpret this treatment of the Pope.  Faustus' damnation in Scene 13 (of the A-Text, the last scene of Act V of the B-Text) would be a satisfying confirmation of the Protestants' belief that the doctor deserved no less for his proud failure to repent his sins, but the same damnation also would provide the "recusant" or secret Catholics with an additional satisfaction by punishing the man who had defiled the custodian of the Throne of Peter.

        Multiple reader types also can be invoked by the novelist or dramatist writing for an educationally and intellectually diverse audience.  The most highly educated, intellectually astute "super-readers" might be expected to arrive at correct assumptions about the conclusion of a work from the merest hint dropped in the opening lines.  Well-educated and slightly less masterful interpreters might need another few clues, still obscure and cleverly hidden, to bring them to the same anticipation of the end.  The average readers probably need a mid-work revelation, called by Roland Barthes a "partial disclosure," to help them notice and add up the evidence.  The weakest interpreters may not "get it" even when the work has ended, but this is a chance writers often are willing to take so as to avoid alienating the super-readers and their cousins, the pretty-darned-good readers.  Those rare works by the masters of literature, and those like the Odyssey, crafted by generations of master poets, have achieved such density of structure that even repeated readings/viewings/hearings will continue to astonish any and all readers capable of paying proper attention to how they are made.