The reader-response approach to literary criticism, as put forth by Louise Rosenblatt and Stanley Fish, is one that gives considerable credit to the reader in the discovery of meaning in a work of literary art. Reader-response theorists claim that it is wholly impossible for readers to analyze objectively. They are always going to bring their own beliefs and knowledge to the table when it comes to interpreting anything – be it literature or the world around them. Reader-response theorists assert that this should not be dismissed as a flaw of criticism and analysis, but, rather, an integral tool in creating meaning. A text by itself is nothing. Sure, it has the author’s thoughts and creativity, but this is nothing unless there are readers there to read it and interpret it. Rosenblatt refers to this as a transactional experience. There is both a give and take between reader and text that results in the meaning. In that way, the reader must be valued far more than new critics would like to admit. Rosenblatt likens texts to musical scores and readers to musicians. Both the reader and the musician, armed with their texts, bring their own personalities to the process which create the beauty/meaning that we appreciate.
When first encountering the reader-response theory, some are anxious that this might mean a complete dismantling of literary analysis. It initially seems as though any interpretation can be deemed legitimate, because it seems wholly subjective. Stanley Fish settles this fear with his essay “’Is There a Text in this Class?’” in which he asserts that a legitimate supposition of meaning can only be derived from spheres of common and agreed-upon knowledge.
I very much enjoyed Rosenblatt’s idea of a poem being an event in the reader’s life: “Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, [the reader] marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes a part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being” (Rosenblatt 12). This idea, and this quote in particular, seem to articulate that amazing feeling that reading can foster; however, this idea seems even more subjective than what the rest of the theory is suggesting. It seems less like a form or theory for analysis and more like the Theory Toolbox quote that tells of a reader liking Moby Dick, because he feels it is about his grandmother. Sentiments like that can be wonderful, but perhaps they don’t belong in analysis. I agree with most everything else that Rosenblatt and Fish put forth, and I totally agree with this idea, but I am not sure if it has a place in analysis.
My artwork – yes I know, it’s terrible – is supposed to be a representation of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. The beautiful representation on the left is a man playing Juliet as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. The one on the right is a woman playing Juliet as is normal in modern times. Rosenblatt proposed that readers like actors and directors of plays bring their own interpretations and personalities to the characters and situations they are meant to perform or convey. My artwork, then, is a very literal depiction of this: a man would play the role of Juliet far different than a woman would. Rosenblatt, I believe, was suggesting a much more subtle difference, but I was not sure how to betray that with by subpar art skills.