Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Reader Response Theory: Say Whatever You Want! (Within Reason)

After reading Rosenblatt (The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work) and Fish ("Is There a Text in this Class?") it becomes clear that although the Reader Response Theory allows more freedom for interpretation than the New Critics, it is not limitless. Reader Response critics believe that a reader should be able to bring their personal experiences and opinions to the table when analyzing a literary work because that is how a text's meaning is illuminated. This is because no one is completely objective when reading something, so why should a literary analyst pretend to be? Recognizing personal experiences and emotions that are initiated by the reading of a text is an important part of the analyzing process. Now this is not to say that a reader can blindly say that a poem makes them feel something without having evidence and reason to support such a claim. As Rosenblatt puts it, ""poem" presupposes a reader actively involved with a text and refers to what he makes of his responses to a particular set of verbal symbols" (p. 12). A reader can only discover meaning based on the evidence that the text itself gives him. A reader's interpretation is further limited by both context and social factors, as well, because they are not able to interpret anything separate from these factors. Stanley Fish sends this point home when he says "communication occurs within situations and that to be in a situation is to already to be in possession of (or be possessed by) a structure of assumptions, of practices understood to be relevant in relation to purposes and goals that are already in place" (p. 318). Basically, a literary analysis can include emotions and personal reactions, but these are limited by context, social structures, and verbal cues of the text itself.

My "artwork" is a simple drawing of, believe it or not, art supplies. When I think of the Reader Response Theory, I think of it in the sense that the readers play the main role in uncovering the meaning in a literary work. Therefore, I think of the readers as paintbrushes, essential to the creation of a meaningful masterpiece. Each paintbrush (a.k.a. reader) is dipped in a different color to represent different emotions and experiences they bring to a work. However, the reader's ability to create meaning is confined by social construction, which I represented with the different colors of paint, and is bound by context, which I represented with the canvas. A paintbrush (reader) works within those boundaries of color (social constructs) and surface (context) with the text to create meaningful art.

Personally, I think that the Reader Response Theory makes way more sense than New Criticism, simply because it more accurately reflects the way people interpret literature in reality. No one is objective, so we shouldn't pretend we are simply because we"re analyzing literature. What are the possible consequences of analyzing literature in the style of Reader Response Theory? Are there other limitations to reader's interpretations besides social constructs, context, and verbal cues?


  1. The last question you pose is really interesting to think about, especially after having just read Fish. Although he suggests that readers unfamiliar with a certain context might be able to come to understand that context with some work, I think there are definitely other forms of "bondage" (especially linked with institutions like higher education) that are harder to overcome than Fish cares to admit. I'm thinking about how even this current discussion would be totally over my head (an for that reason also alienating) had I tried to take part in it without all of the college level classes dealing with literature and analysis I have been privileged to take this far. What about those who have not had the same amount of privilege as me?

  2. What you two are pointing towards here are exactly the kind of questions that RR theory opened up...and why Marxism and Feminism and Critical Race Theory and Poco and Queer Theory are all indebted to RR theory. Once the idea that social context can influence interpretation gained traction, people starting looking into the "institutional nesting" that Fish discusses, and asking questions about how class and race and gender and sexuality and ability (and so on) contribute to the meaning-making process. So it will not surprise either of you when we move in this direction in the course!