Since childhood, I have been an avid reader. My love for reading was bolstered by both my curiosity about the world around me and my mother’s passion for literacy and learning. Because of the fact that I have read many books and sat in numerous literature classes, I am very familiar with the fact that readers can respond to the concepts and words they see on pages in unique and highly emotive ways. Although broadly defined, the way a reader reacts to a written text is termed reader-response theory. In discussing it, The Poetry Foundation defines reader-response criticism thus: “A theory, which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text…Unlike text-based approaches such as New Criticism, which are grounded upon some objective meaning already present in the work being examined, reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences-reads-it.” This definition is thorough and clear, so writers can use it as the foundation upon which they define the theory.
Now that we have a rich understanding of what reader-response theory is, let’s examine how recognizing the unique responses that an audience may have to a writer’s work can help you as an author:
1. You’ll Learn Not To Take It Personal If People Respond Negatively To Your Work.
As made plain by the definition of reader-response criticism outlined by The Poetry Foundation, the way an audience reacts to a written text can be entirely independent of the objective meaning the writer meant to convey. For example, you may write a love story that is meant to indicate that men and women can have romantic encounters that are not predicated on patriarchal values. Yet if you include a scene in your narrative where the male partner orders for his female lover when he takes her out to a restaurant, a feminist reader may interpret the entire story as a representation of a sexist text. In this case, the fact that your goal was to create a text revealing that men and women can have relationships marked by equality is irrelevant because the reader has already subjected your work to her or his own interpretation. Yet writers who understand reader-response criticism recognize that the way an audience interprets a story can be entirely independent to the work itself. Thus learning that readers misinterpret your work or extract meaning from it that you yourself did not create doesn’t have to bother you.
2. It Makes You Think Like The Reader.
As many writers know, the act of writing can be a very subjective experience. In essence, the construction of narratives and articulation of ideas is often the product of the individual’s imagination or ideological framework. Because this is the case, writers may forget to consider what other people might think about the concepts they convey. Yet when writers take into account the reality of reader-response criticism, they may find themselves considering how their audiences will interpret the words and concepts they use to tell a story. Doing so can lead to the construction of texts that reflect the writer’s awareness of various social, cultural, and political realities that inform the reader’s way of thinking. Thus the writer moves beyond her or his own limited frame of being and knowing and likely connects with the reader. For example, when I entered the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest several years ago, I realized that the readers for the competition were interested in the world of art and jazz. So when I wrote my story “Maybe Marrying Margaret,” I made the protagonist’s observation and thoughts about art integral to my narrative. Here, my inclusion of art was intentional rather than incidental. I wrote knowing that my reader would likely have a positive response to my inclusion of artistic references in the work. And ultimately, I am thoroughly persuaded that this understanding contributed to the positive reception my work received.
As indicated earlier, understanding reader-response theory is advantageous for writers in many ways. First, knowing that an audience may misinterpret what you attempted to articulate can prevent authors from becoming anxious or angry when their work is read wrong. Second, writers who grasp reader-response theory know that exploring or representing themes that their audience may be interested in can positively affect the way their narratives are received. These are only two reasons why recognizing the reality of reader-response theory is important. I hope that your understanding of the theory influences the way you write. Good luck!
Jocelyn Crawley holds B.A. degrees in English and Religious Studies. Her work has appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician, Nailpolish Stories, Visceral Uterus, Dead Beats, Four and Twenty, and Haggard and Halloo. Other stories are forthcoming in Faces of Feminism, The Idiom, Thrice Fiction and Calliope.