Reader-Response Criticism Terms and Principles

Common Assumptions of Reader-Response Theories:

 Readers follow learned interpretive rules or conventions (see Tyson on Culler as a Structuralist [1975], 230-2) Readers actively construct the text's meaning by processes which are not necessarily linear but which can be predicted. The text is a program designed to produce events in readers' minds, not all of them "correct."  Texts try to mislead us and we make predictable mistakes. Readers' responses to texts may be predicted because of recurrent patterns in those texts which are presumed to manipulate processes run by readers' rules or conventions.   Reader responses to texts may be analyzed in their "temporal" or diachronic dimension just as Structuralism analyzed texts in their synchronic dimensions.

Types of Reader-Response Methods, Objectives and Terms of Art:

R-R Type / Practitioner "Reader" Definition "Text" Definition Terms of Art for Kinds of Reading Behaviors Studied Terms of Art for Kinds of Meaning
Transactional Reader-Response--Louise. Rosenblatt (1978), Wolfgang Iser (1974), and Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction, (1961) (Please read this page on Booth's "sub-authors" and Barthes on types of readers and texts!  Tyson doesn't cover either of them.)  No prior-constraints on who qualifies as a "reader," defined as a "poem" constructor (Rosenblatt); OR a more precisely defined "implied reader" whose beliefs and conventions may be inferred from the text's strategies  (Iser and Booth) A set of instructions coded in words on the page, from which readers make "poems," acting at times as a "blueprint" to correct assumptions (LR) or to project meanings upon the text (WI) efferent vs. aesthetic reading (LR)

stimulus function produces meaning and blueprint function corrects meaning (LR)

anticipation, retrospection, fulfillment or disappointment, revision of understanding (WI)

"determinate meaning"

"indeterminate meaning"

"gaps" in the text (q.v. Derrida's "aporeia" but these produce predictable interpretive results, not infinite "play of signifiers")


Affective Stylistics--Stanley Fish (the "Early Fish" of Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 1967)  The "Later Fish" lost his belief that texts produced any stable meanings for readers unless those readers belonged to "discourse communities" that told them what texts meant. Literature is designed for the "informed reader" who has achieved a definable "literary competency" for the genre and era from which the work arises No fixed meaning independent of readers, but rather the product of how the work affects its readers, phrase by phrase, clause by clause, sentence by sentence. Slow-motion analysis of sentences' release and concealment of meaning in the readers' processing of syntactic complexity and usage's power to generate denotative and connotative varieties of meaning. The reader's "experience of reading" a text

Differing published interpretations as "models of reader response" (see also Mailloux)

"unsettled, decentered, confused, or undecidable" readings

Subjective Reader-Response--David Bleich (1975)

(A subset of Psychological Reader-Response)

Readers are psychological subjects who may discover their unconscious motives by observing their habits of meaning-distortion.  There is no such thing as a "misreading" of the primary text in Subjective R-R criticism, only symptoms. The text in the mind, which we observe by means of reading protocols recording what we thought the printed text meant and how we responded to that text/meaning. Symbolization (the dreamlike symbolic world our minds create in response to the text)

Resymbolization (what our unconscious inscribes upon what we read)

"response statements" (hereafter, "RS")

"reader-oriented" RS

"reality-oriented" RS

"response-analysis" RS

"the organized examination of taste" (Tyson 182)

Psychological Reader-Response--Norman Holland (1975)  (Another subset of Psychoanalytic Reader-Response now largely superseded by Holland's later work, informed by neurobiological studies of the mind.) Readers are psychological subjects whose unconscious drives may be studied by examining their interpretations of texts for the errors of omission and commission they reveal.  Holland recognizes "misreading" but still treats it as a reader's "symptom." The text of the readers' interpretations of literature are the critic's true "text" and they are read for thematic repetitions of addition to or subtraction of the literary work which reveal the readers' "life themes," their personalities' grounding narratives about existence. perceived threats in literature

defense strategies

fantasy strategies

transformation strategies

anxiety reduction


"identity theme"

"fears, defenses, desires, needs, anxiety, guilt"

Social Reader-Response--Stanley Fish (the Later Fish of Is there a text in this class?,1980)  We will encounter him again in the last week's readings. Readers form "communities of interpretation" based on shared beliefs about the world, texts, and reading behaviors.  Those beliefs establish legitimate and illegitimate categories of behavior for readers, and define unacceptable or acceptable interpretations. Whatever the interpretive community says the "text" is. actions of self-aware interpretive communities

actions of unconscious interpretive communities


pre-existing interpretive practices

"always already" (as in "our current interpretive practices are predetermined by the interpretive communities to which we always already belong")

Steven Mailloux's "Temporal Reading" (1977/1982) (Note Mailloux is synthesizing a number of previous critics' work, including Kenneth Burke's Counter-Statement (1953), Roland Barthes' S/Z (1970), Stanley Fish's "Interpreting the Variorum" (Critical Inquiry, Spring 1976), and Stephen Booth's "On the Value of Hamlet," 1969):

Mailloux Readers are the text's experimental subjects, students, explorers and detectives.  "Holistic" or "synchronic" interpretations can be surveyed for evidence that readers have arrived at differing views of the text, creating the need for a "temporal" or "diachronic") interpretation to explain how the differing holistic readings result from text-reader interactions. (Borrowed from Burke, Fish, and Booth) The text is structured by repeated strategies of engagement which place readers in intentionally designed interpretive positions which are the text's temporal structure.  The proairetic code of actions moves the plot, but the readers also follow the hermeneutic code of expectation and fulfillment, mystery and solution.  Why things happened is as important as what happened. (All borrowed from Barthes) thematization (repetition of a datum until it becomes a problem to solve)

formulation (the reader's working with thematized data to construct the enigma lurking in the text)

(All borrowed from Barthes)

snare (a plot move designed to trap readers in a mistaken solution that will be disproved)

equivocation (a plot move designed to direct readers in two different directions for solutions)

partial answer (an insufficient set of data designed to produce a temporary reduction but not elimination of the desire to solve the problem/enigma)

disclosure (any revelation of plot data, but especially the revelation of enough data of the right kind to enable solution of the problem/enigma)

(All borrowed from Barthes)

Do you want to test your abilities to apply Reader-Response criticism's methods?

Do you want to see how Mailloux's  introduction might prepare you to write the final paper for English 215?