Reader-Response Criticism

During my time in school, I read a lot of different pieces and genres of writing. Whether it was short stories, long form novels, novelas, poems, articles, criticisms, letters, speeches, or song lyrics, we read it all. As we continued to grow as readers, we started to learn that there were different ways to read and analyze different works. Over time, the different ways of looking at literature, have become their own pocket of English. The same way people study vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation, people now study reading technique in that same manner. I was very interested in the provided list of the different varieties of reading. I tried to do a small overview of as many of them as I could. I found that they were all very interesting and thought provoking, but overall I thought that the one I had the most experience with was reader response criticism. 

Reader response criticism is a school of literary thought which believes that the reader’s reaction to a piece of written work is essential to look at when determining the meaning of a text as a whole. There are many different scenarios in which reader response is used, such as reading a text from a black perspective, feminist perspective, lgbtq perspective, etc. The idea being that the numerous perspective’s reactions of the piece of work, are a key component to its overall meaning. This school of thought believes that when creating your piece of work, you must consider its impact on all different types of readers. For example when a republican politician is crafting a speech, they’ll have to consider not only how their own party will react to it, but also how the democractic readers will respond to it. By keeping reader response in mind, they are able to write a speech which could attempt to either soften the negative of democratic readers, or attempt to sway them to the republican side. 

There’s been a lot of different works of art which I’ve analyzed from a reader response stance, over the course of my life. In my eyes, no story has better exemplified reader response than James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. This story follows a white sheriff named Jesse during the Civil Rights Movement. As he lays awake one night in bed unable to sleep, he begins to reminisce about different experiences he’s had with African American citizens. First he thinks about a few days prior, when he savagely beat a jailed black man for his participation in protests. Jesse then recounts a time in his childhood, when his parents brought him to a special “picnic”. Rather than eating sandwiches, this picnic instead was spent watching a lynching. Jesse watches as a part of the crowd cheering on the castration and eventually burning alive of a black man. By the end of the story, it’s shown to the audience that Jesse seems to almost get sexually aroused through his recounting of these events. Never in my life, had I ever been so disgusted while reading a story. I remember genuinely feeling as if I would throw up, as I read the gruesome hateful dialog in the story. What I came to realize soon after, was that this was the point of the story. James Baldwin was a black author, and I’m sure he knew the impact that this harsh tale would have on his readers. I believe that James wanted to turn the stomachs of those who read, as it would make them realize the terrible injustices his community has had to endure. The character Jesse is never remorseful for his actions in the story, but James Baldwin is still able to get his Civil Rights message across. This is due to his genius use of reader response. Baldwin made sure to write the story with the reactions of the readers in mind, though he isn’t the only author well known for their reader response ideas. 

Many would argue that Louise Rossenblatt, was the original purveyor behind reader response. This comes from the fact that in her book Literature as Exploration, she argues the idea that teachers would need to make it a point to refrain from encouraging that there was a proper way to react to any piece of work. She thought that any student’s individual experiences would be correct. Another famous name in reader response is Stanley Fish. Fish is best known for popularizing the concept of interpretive communities, that describes how a text is meaningless outside of cultural concepts as to what the characters actions mean and how they are to be interpreted. Wolfgang Iser is another figure in the reading response scene. He is best known for his work with the concept of reception theory, which is a literary theory that believes individual readers’ interpretations of a text are necessary to look at when determining the overall meaning of a work. 

Overall, I believe that reader response criticism is an incredibly useful tool when crafting or analyzing a story. By looking at the different reactions a story is given by readers, we can work out a more concrete and definitive meaning for the story as a whole. Reader response is a concept that I definitely will be continuing to use more often in the future. By keeping the future reaction to my works in my mind as I write, I believe I’ll create works with a better message than I could have previously.

Here are a few additional sources that I either used in the making of this blog post, or I believe would be beneficial if looking to conduct additional research on this topic. (Reader-Response Criticism | Introduction to Literature (lumenlearning.com)) (Reader-Response Criticism // Purdue Writing Lab) (Reception Theory (communicationtheory.org)) (Interpretive Communities: A Brief Note – Literary Theory and Criticism (literariness.org)

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