Reader-Response Criticism

From Gerald R. Lucas

What is it we are supposed to get out of a work of literature, especially those composed hundreds of years ago? We can approach any work of literature from a variety of perspectives, but reader-response criticism locates the center of meaning in the reader, and therefore relies on her experiences to guide her interpretation.

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If we look at a work of literature, we might place it in its historical context to teach us something about the culture that produced the work; or we might look at the ethical systems at work in the text to make determinations about its representation of morality. Yet, while these approaches offer interesting insights into a work, reader-response allows us to read ourselves into the text and pick out components that speak to us as individual members of a community. Since the center of the text’s meaning is located in the reader, this fact will hopefully motivate the reader to understand herself better through the text as part of a larger community.

In approaching a text using a reader-response interpretation, you will rely on your “forestructure” i.e., your accrued life experience: memories, experiences, and beliefs constitute your forestructure and are unique to each person.[1] When your forestructure meets a text, often it finds comfort in that the text meets your expectations. However, often, especially when looking at the group of texts that we call “literature,” our expectations are not met, and we struggle to make sense of the work. This experience causes us to either (1) throw the book out the window, or (2) question our expectations. Since the former choice is not an option in college if you want to succeed, the latter is frequently necessary as we encounter new texts.

When approaching a work for the first time, don’t think about its strangeness. Instead, consider what parts of it talk to you: what aspects of the work can you locate in your own experience? What aspects of your forestructure are represented within the text? Chances are, you can find something, however small. If not, look harder, and turn off that TV.

Literature, like all art, is our attempt to bring order to our lives by representing that which we as human beings find important to how we live as individuals and as members of a larger community. Bring your experience to the text: energize the text with yourself, but also use this process as a chance to question yourself, to learn more about what makes you unique. Interact with the text; don’t push it away. Find something of yourself within the text to grasp onto or grapple with. We are all trying to do the same thing. You’re not alone.

Once you find something that interests you in the text, you need to convince others to see it as well. The first step involves your individual encounter with the literature, but the second step brings it into the discussion: you must convince others that your particular point of view has credibility. To do this, use persuasive language, presented in a well-organized fashion that refers directly to the text through illustrations or evidence. Your interpretation may mean something to you, but you must be able to articulate it to others, even if it is only to your professor.

So, when approaching a work for the first time or revisiting one of your favorites, think about what speaks to you and what doesn’t about the text, then ask yourself why? We read literature not to understand the text itself, but to better understand the values of the cultures that produce(d) that literature. Remember, what’s important is your interpretation of the text and convincing others that your point of view has merit. This should be the starting point for all of your responses in this class.

Notes

  1. Originally written on January 12, 2014 and published on Medium.

References

  1. Sipiora, Phillip (2002). Reading and Writing about Literature. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. vii.