Reader Response Theory

While many argue that there should be a universal aesthetic, I am convinced that every person perceives aesthetic features differently, be it art, architecture, literature or any other area of interest. Reader Response theory, which originated in the late 1960s, focuses on the reader and his or her reaction to the text. Louise Rosenblatt wrote that "a poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text" (Towards a Transactional Theory of Reading, 1969). A text requires the reader to take an important role while reading the text: he or she creates meaning by actively constructing instead of simply consuming it. According to Wolfgang Iser, the reader is first tremendously influenced by the gaps in the text, which makes him or her try to explain them, find connections and even create entirely unmentioned aspects of the work. Rosenblatt, Iser and Stanley Fish all redefine the reader as more than a ”passive recipient”, playing an active part in the creation of meaning. Reader Response criticism has been constantly evolving since it first came into prominence, Stanley Fish for example has begun looking at shared strategies of groups (”interpretive communities”) for interpreting a text. Another theory that originated in Reader Response theory is the perception theory of Hans Robert Jauss, which studies how expectations of readers for a reading change over time (Bedford/ St. Martins).

In my opinion, these theories are very interesting when looking at digital literature, because different readers can be exposed to influences of which they are unfamiliar. This elicits a response, which may be influenced by previous experiences with literature, and expectations originating in those experiences, but the unusual features of digital literature leave this response unpredictable, different and divergent for every individual as they “make meaning out of both purely personal reactions and inherited or culturally conditioned ways of reading”. In connection with digital literature, I think it is actually more than simply reading a text, but often a multisensory experience. Meaning in a text is achieved when the reader ‘experiences’ the text (Poetry Foundation).

Various questions are raised in this context. Not only is the role of the reader as a passive consumer questioned, but also the role of the author may need careful reconsideration. How is the author influencing the reader? Is he evoking a certain reaction by implementing specific literary and technological means? Is the author even still connected to the text? The creation of meaning in a text results from an exchange between author, audience and literary work. How is this creation of meaning influenced by experiences and social backgrounds of readers and author?




Digital Aesthetics »

[1] Wolfgang Iser’s texts The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (1974) and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976) offer more insight into this argumentation.
[2] For more on this topic see Roland Barthes’ post-structuralist essay “The Death of the Author”