Reader-Response Criticism is the conventional notion that a writer or speaker has an “idea,” encodes it—that is, turns it into words—and the reader or listener decodes it, deriving, when successful, the writer or speaker’s “idea.” The reader-response critics assume, however, that such equivalency between sender and receiver is impossible. The literary work, therefore, does not exist on the page; that is only the text. The text becomes a work only when it is read, just as a score becomes music only when it is played. Eric Kandel takes reader-response critcisim further with his theory of the “beholder’s share.” (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Writing Reader-Response Exercise
How many literature teachers have prompted you to figure out “what the author means when…”? According the reader-response critics, “what the author means” is irrelevant to the reader’s experience of the text. The experience should be whatever the reader perceives and brings to the text.
First, choose a scene from a narrative you wrote several weeks or months ago. It should be a scene that you haven’t edited or read for a sufficient amount of time so that you will have fresh eyes.
As you read the scene, consider whether or not the “meaning” or context of the scene aligns with your original intention for the scene. This is different than the craft or technical intention. Of course, you want the technique of the scene to serve the overall narrative; however, the “meaning” of the scene might change over time as your experiences in life change over time, allowing for you and other readers to experience the scene in an organic and personal way that transcends the mere text.
If you find that the scene reads the same for you, regardless of time, and for other readers, regardless of their experiences, consider whether or not the scene could be “opened” a bit more so that readers can find personal connection. Of course, sometimes, we want our scenes to read more statically so to perform an essential need within the overall manuscript; however, too many static scenes can marginalize the reader’s creative response to the text.
Take time to consider reader-response within key scenes. Your readers will thank you.
Consider Other Critical Theories
Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
Like Marxist criticism, feminist criticism derives from firm political and ideological commitments and insists that literature both reflects and influences human behavior in the larger world. Feminist criticism often, too, has practiced and political aims. Strongly conscious that most of recorded history has given grossly disproportionate attention to the interest, thoughts and actions of men, feminist thought endeavors both to extend contemporary attention to distinctively female concerns, ideas and accomplishments and to recover the largely unrecorded and unknown history of women in earlier times. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Write More Reader-Response in the [Em]Powering Self Workshop
The “[Em]Powering Self Workshop” is a gender and diversity narrative project taking its title from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman but it does not stop at gender. This workshop is open to all forms: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and hybrid. It is open to all genders, identities and backgrounds. In this course we will explore how progressive experiences with cultures, both our own and others, inform our voice in both the artistic expression of voice and the voice we give to self. It is our intention to give power over self, not others.
Reader-Response Criticism Sources
A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.
“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.
The Elements of Style. William Strunk.
Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Stephen Eric Bronner.
The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter.
A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.
Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism. Purdue Online Writing Lab.
New Oxford American Dictionary. Edited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Martin Puchner, et al.
The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.
Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.
Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.