Imagine you’re a child going to a birthday party with your friends; one of you think the cake is made of concrete. No. Imagine a house with many rooms, and in each room is a velociraptor. Wait. Let me start again. Every book is like a mystical land to a different world, but the same book goes to different worlds depending on the reader. Because magic. Oh, forget this.
Reader-response criticism is based on the empirical (like science!) study of reading. Researchers examine not just texts but readers’ interpretations of texts. While the New Critics believed the text was a thing-in-itself, reader-response holds that reading is a performance, inherently subjective.
Now what do I think about that? I believe there is an objective world. I am a physicalist. I also know that that without rigorous scientific practices, human observation will always be skewed by imperfect senses, memory, and biases. Literature is an imperfect communication, one author’s skewed view of the world filtered through the reader’s own skewed view. Literature is not reality, and just because the reading experience is subjective does not mean reality is. Language did not create reality; it only attempts to recreate it. In this I think there is something valuable in analyzing reading strategies.
The caveat is that of course an author has an intended reading in mind. This is itself “fuzzy” and protean, though. No author of any note could be of a sufficient genius to hold the entirety of her work (as a static object) in her mind. New Critics called the technique of impressionism (focusing on the emotional effect on the reader) an “affective fallacy.” Of course, contending that a text has an objective meaning is the same fallacy the Greeks were guilty of (though we may be barbarians yet).
None of this means we can’t rhetorically analyze a text. Neither does it mean that all interpretations are equal. What it means is that we have to keep the reader in mind. We have to acknowledge that the reader creates the reading from the text. Architectural analogies could be helpful here, but they are tiresome.
I promise that next I will talk about something less dry. Like Batman.