Reader-Response Theory: Putting the "You" Back into Literary Criticism!

When diving into literary criticism, I always encourage people to start with reader-response theory because it is something most people are already doing—they just don’t know it!

Beginning in the 1960s, criticism shifted to view the reader as an active participant in creating literary meaning. The cornerstone of reader-response is YOUR relationship with the text and the various ways you interact with it as you read.

Reader-response theory believes that

  • no matter the type of work (poem, novel, essay, etc.) it has no real existence until it is read;

  • the response of each reader is an essential part of understanding literature; and,

  • readers are not passive as they read, but actively instil a work with their own understanding.

But does the reader interpret based on their own lenses or where the author is leading them? A possible answer is that a reader applies social, historical, and cultural lenses, but it is the text that calls them to mind.

For example, as a woman, I tend to have a feminist bent in how I read works since it is my experience (social, historical, cultural). On the other hand, if you’re reding a whodunnit, even if the ending is predetermined, you actively participate in “solving” the crime by reacting to and evaluating the text (ex: like falling for red herrings the author has built into a novel).

Reader-response is a big reason why I love hosting virtual literary salons. It is fascinating to hear the interpretations of others which adds to or evolves my own understanding.

Do you think you’ve ever participated in reader-response theory? Consciously or not!

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