Literary criticism is not an abstract, intellectual exercise; it is a natural human response to literature. Literary criticism is nothing more than discourse—spoken or written—about literature. Reader-response criticism attempts to describe what happens in the reader’s mind while interpreting a work of fiction. This type of literary criticism recognizes that like writing, reading is a creative process. Reader-response critics believe that no text provides self-contained meaning; literary texts do not have meaning independently from readers’ interpretations.
According to this school, a text is not complete until it is read and interpreted. The easiest way to explain reader-response criticism is to relate it to the common experience of re-reading a favorite book after many years. A book one read as a child might seem shockingly different when re-read as an adolescent or as an adult. The character once remembered favorably might seem less admirable while another character becomes more sympathetic. The book has not changed. However, our life experiences between the first reading and any subsequent re-reading can affect the way we respond to a story.
Reader-response criticism explores how different individuals see the same text differently. It emphasizes how religious, cultural, and social values affect the way we read and respond to a work of fiction. Of course, no two individuals will necessarily read a text in exactly the same way nor will they agree on its meaning. Rather than declare one interpretation correct and the other mistaken, reader-response criticism recognizes that different insights are inevitable.
Instead of trying to ignore or reconcile the contradictions, it explores them. Reader-response criticism also overlaps with gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the same text with different assumptions. While reader-response criticism rejects the notion that there can be a single correct reading for a literary text, it doesn’t consider all readings permissible. Each text creates limits to its possible interpretations. We cannot suddenly change the setting, the way a story’s plot unfolds, or redefine its characters.
Keeping a reader’s journal is a great way to keep track of the fiction you read and your emotional responses to the stories. You can use the journal to explore ideas for essays, note important quotations, and list words to look up in the dictionary. Use your reader’s journal while studying Sun, Stone, and Shadows to provide a convenient way of documenting your own response to the stories you read in the anthology. Excerpted from The Longman Anthology of Short Fiction by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn, eds.
Critical approaches to literature that stress the validity of reader response to a text, theorizing that each interpretation is valid in the context from which a reader approaches a text.
Reader-response criticism arose as a critical theory in response to formalist interpretations of literature. Unlike the latter, which stressed the primacy of the text and an objective interpretation of it based on established criteria, advocates of reader-response criticism focused on the importance of the reader and their individual, subjective response to the text. One of the earliest proponents of this theory was Louise Rosenblatt, who stated in her Literature as Exploration (1938) that “a poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text.” The significance Rosenblatt and other reader-response critics placed on the reader was in direct opposition to the position taken by formalist critics in the past—for them, the text was the primary focus, and its impact on the reader or the idea that the reader's response was in any way relevant in the interpretation of the work was inconceivable.
In addition to Rosenblatt, other influential reader-response critics include Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser, both of whom argued against regarding literary works as objects. In his essay on reader-response criticism, Steven Mailloux explains that Fish, Iser, and other reader-response critics actually had very different approaches to the critical study of literary texts. However, all of them were unanimous in their rejection of the “affective fallacy” theory proposed by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in an influential essay in 1949. In this essay, Wimsatt and Beardsley stated their misgivings about what they termed as “obstacles to objective criticism” and the dangers of “intentional fallacy” (defined as confusion between the text and its origins) and “affective fallacy” (explained as the distinction that should be made between what a text is and what it does). According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, as well as many other formalist critics, the effect of the text on the reader should be irrelevant to the study of the text because this type of approach leads to the destruction of the text as an object of “specifically critical judgment.” In contrast, reader-response critics advocated the primacy of a reader's response to the text, stressing that there was no such thing as an “objectively correct interpretation,” says Mailloux.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, reader-response criticism, influenced in part by trends in other disciplines, especially psychology and psychoanalytical theories, expanded to include a study of the reader as subject, a combination of various social practices, defined and positioned socially by his or her environment. This shift from the relationship between reader and text, and their mutual impact, to a focus on self-knowledge and observation has been summarized in anthologies, including Jane Tompkins's Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Poststructuralism (1980). Recent works by critics including David Bleich, Normal Holland, and even Stanley Fish, have also expanded the focus of reader-response theory to include the validity and significance of interpretations guided by the environments or communities inhabited by the readers. This is a departure from their earlier-held position, which emphasized the primacy of the relationship between reader and text, regardless of environment. Fish, in particular, laid out his theories regarding interpretive strategies, which, he stated, are shared by “interpretive communities” in several essays during the 1980s and later. In his study of the history of reader-response criticism, Terence R. Wright explains that while the field has expanded its boundaries to include numerous approaches, the concern reader-response critics have with the act of reading remains constant. What has changed is the awareness these theorists now have of the ways in which environment, history, politics, and even sexual orientation, can affect a reader's response to a text. This expansion of criteria has led many contemporary critics to refer to this type of critical theory as reader-oriented criticism rather than reader-response criticism.