Reader-Response Criticism

The Play of Meaning(s):
Reader-Response Criticism and Dialogics
I. Reader-Response Criticism
The book cover of ReaderResponse Criticism, edited by
Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
•Reader-response theory
arose in large measure as
a reaction against the
New Criticism, or
formalist approach.
•Reader-response critics
feel that readers have
been ignored in
discussions of the reader
process, when they
should have been the
central concern. A text
does not even exist until
it is read by some reader.
•Reader-response critics are
saying that in effect, if a text
does not have a reader, it
does not exist– or at least, it
has no meaning.
•The text is not the most
important component; the
reader is. The reader created
the text as much as the author
•The interaction that takes
places between the reader
and the text.
Davis,Todd F. Formalist Criticism
and Reader-Response Theory. N.Y:
Palgrave, 2002.
Reader-response critics see
formalist critics as narrow, dogmatic
elitist and certainly wrong-headed in
essentially refusing readers even a
place in the reading interpretive
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Paradoxically, the
ultimate source of this
subjectivity is modern
science itself, which has
become increasingly
skeptical that any
objective knowledge is
• Einstein's theory of
relativity stands as the
best known expression
of that doubt.
Thomas S. Kuhn’s
demonstration that
scientific fact is dependent
on the observer’s frame of
reference reinforces the
claim of subjectivity.
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Another special feature of
reader-response theory is
that it is based on rhetoric,
the art of persuasion.
• The New Criticism, which
strongly influenced the
study of literature and still
does maintaining that it
was a critical fallacy to
mention any effects that a
piece of literature might
have on them.
Fro example, in a close reading of
Jane Austen’s Emma, Booth
demonstrates the rhetorical
strategies that Austen uses to ensure
the reader’s seeing things through
the heroine’s eyes.
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Louise Rosenblatt, Walker Gibson
and Gerald Prince are critics who
affirm the importance of the reader
but not willing to relegate the text to
a secondary role.
• Gibson injects the reader further
into the interpretive operation as a
way of gaining fresh critical insights.
• Prince demonstrates the strategies
by which the narrative creates the
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Wolfgang Iser is a German
critic who applies the
philosophy of
phenomenology to the
interpretation of literature.
The critic should not
explain the text as an
object but its effect on the
• Iser says a text does not tell
readers everything; there
are gaps or blanks, which
he refers to as the
‘”indeterminacy” if the text.
Wolfgang Iser, the
writer of The Act of
Reading. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP,
Iser ‘s implied readers
are fairly sophisticated:
they bring to the
contemplation of the
text a conversance with
the conventions that
enables them to
decode the text. Text is
subjective and no
longer the author’s.
I. Reader-Response Criticism
Promulgated by Hans
Robert Jauss, in his Toward
and Aesthetic of reception
• Yet another kind of readeroriented criticism is reception
theory. Such criticism depends
heavily on reviews in newspapers,
magazines, and journals and on
personal letters for evidence of
public reception.
• Jauss seeks to bring about a
compromise between that
interpretation which ignores
history and that which ignores the
text in favor of social theories.
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was not well
received by its mid-19th century readers, whi
objected to the impersonal, clinical,
naturalistic style.
• Delayed hostile reader response to firmly
established classics surfaced in the latter half
of the 20th century.
• Huckleberry Finn became the target of harsh
and misguided criticism on the grounds that it
contained radical slurs in the form of epithets
like “nigger” and demanding portraits of
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Feminists have resented what they considered
male-chauvinist philosophy and attitudes in
Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Horizons of
expectations do not establish the final meaning of
a work. We regard our interpretations as stemming
from a dialogue between past and present and
thereby representing a fusion of horizons.
• More recent psychological critics have focused on
the unconscious of readers.
• Norman Holland argues that all people inherit
from their mother an identity theme or fixed
understanding of the kind of person they are.
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• David Bleich, in
Subjective Criticism,
denies that the text
exists independent of
• Bleich claims that
individuals everywhere
classify things into
three essential groups;
objects symbols and
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Stanley Fish calls his technique of
interpretation affective stylistics.
• Fish rebels against the so-called rigidity
and dogmatism of the New Critics and
especially against the tenet that a person
is a single, static object, a whole that has
to be understood in its entirety at once.
• Fish argues that meaning in a literary work
is not something to be extracted, as a
dentist might pull a tooth; meaning must
be negotiated by readers, a line at a time.
• His term for such readers is “informed.”
I. Reader-Response Criticism
• Two distinguishing features characterize reader-response
1. The effect of literary work on the reader
2. The relegation of the text to secondary importance: the
reader is of primary importance.
• When reader-response critics analyze the effect the text on
the reader, the analysis often resembles formalists criticism or
rhetorical criticism or psychological criticism.
II. Dialogics
Mikhail Bakhtin’s constant
focus is on the many voices in
a novel.
• Dialogics is Bakhtin’s key term used to describe the narrative
theory. Dialogics refers to the inherent “addressivity” of all
• It is safe to say that Bakhtin would have rejected any “ism” as
an approach to the novel if it failed to recognize the essential
indeterminacy of meaning outside the dialogic relationship
between voices.
II. Dialogics
• Indeed, Bakhtin seems to
believe that a writer such as
Dostoevsky actually
thought in voices rather
than ideas and wrote novels
that were thus primarily
dialogical exchanges.
• Bakhtin’s constant focus is
thus on the many voices in a
novel, especially that way
that some authors in
particular allow characters’
voice of the author.
Fyodor Dostoevsky creates a polyphonic
discourse in which the author’s voice is
only one among many and the characters
are allowed free speech.
• Another of Bakhtin‘s
key term is
• Just as the public
ritual of carnival
inverts values in order
to question them, so
the novel may call
closed meanings into
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres &
Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W.
McGee. Texas, Austin: U of Texas
P, 1986.
Emerson, Caryl. The First
Hundred Years of Mikhail
Bakhtin. New Jersey,
Princeton: Princeton UP,
• As carnival concretizes the
abstract in a culture, so
Bakhtin claims that novel
carnivalizes through
diversities of speech and voice
reflected in its structure.
• Bakhtin extends his ideas to
dialogicity. The person is
always the “subject of an
address” because one “cannot
talk about him; one can only
address oneself to him.”
Such “dialogic opposition” means that the greatest challenge
for an author, ” to create out of heterogeneous and
profoundly disparate materials of varying worth a unified and
integral artistic creation,” cannot be realized by using a single
“philosophical design” as the basis of artistic unity.
• Dialogicity in characterization thus leads to particular
• Not “evolution” but “coexistence and interaction” characterize
such structures.

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