Reader-response criticism

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Reader-response criticism is a primarily German and American literary theory that arose in response to the textual emphasis of New Criticism from the 1940s to the 1960s in the West. New Criticism had emphasized that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of a text. No appeal to the authority or intention of the author, nor to the psychology of the reader, was allowed in the exegesis of literary works for the most orthodox New Critics.

Reader-response criticism is a group of approaches to understanding literature that have in common an emphasis on the reader's role in the creation of the meaning of a literary work. The term encompasses theorists who share very little besides an attention to the reader. Since the theorists who make up reader-response theory were not consciously creating a school of thought, it is very difficult to say when and with whom the movement began. Also, since reader-response criticism is a reaction to perceived excesses of New Criticism, it did not emerge as a total system.

Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work by reading it and completes its meaning "by applying codes and strategies". It is concerned with the reader's contribution to a text. It stands in total opposition to the text-oriented theories of formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's role interpreting literary works are not taken into account.

In general, one can group reader-response theorists into three groups: those who focus upon the reader's experience and psychology, those who concentrate on the linguistic and rhetorical dynamic of audience, and those who concentrate on readers as cultural and historical ciphers.

Among the most important writers who can be called Reader Response are Wolfgang Iser, Umberto Eco, Hans-Robert Jauss, Stanley Fish, Eve Sedgewick, and Jane Tompkins. Some take the position that there is no objective literary text at all, that the entire meaning of a literary work is in the reader's mind, and that the reader's personal biography, physical status, and psychology lay therefore at the center of a literary text. Others argue that meaning is a human event, rather than an objective fact, and therefore all of the meaning of a literary work is a social event (and not so solipsistically private) where the text creates a society and a common culture. Still others argue that the psychological effects of a literary event reveal the fringes of a culture's ideology, so that the reactions to literary works can be a tool for historical analysis. This last approach, sometimes called "reception aesthetics" rather than "reader response," is the approach taken by some followers of Hans-Georg Gadamer, most notably Jauss.

Louise M. Rosenblatt's book, Literature as Exploration (1938) is a useful place to begin an inquiry into Reader-response criticism. She argues that it is important for the teacher to avoid imposing any "preconceived notions about the proper way to react to any work." Instead, "the student must be free to grapple with his own reaction... to be given the opportunity and the courage to approach literature personally, to let it mean something to him directly" (p. 66).

Litterature should be viewed as a performing art where each reader creates their own, possibly unique, performance.he:Reader response


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