How a Reader’s Responses to Literature Creates Meaning

Reader-response criticism is a type of literary theory that sees the reader as creating meaning for literature. In this lesson, we’ll read about what literary scholars Hans-Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, and Stanley Fish have to say about readers and interpretation.

What is Reader-Response Criticism?

Have you ever wondered how you could know what the author meant? Especially when you read a book that was written a long time ago – how do you know if certain metaphors or political undertones were intentional acts of the author?

Hans-Robert JaussHere is the truth: you cannot always know what the author meant. But to some extent, it does not matter what the author meant or if certain literary features were an intentional act by the author. Believe it or not, as a reader, your response to a book can create meaning. Reader-response criticism is a way of approaching the interpretation of literature that focuses on the role of the reader in creating meaning and ‘experiencing’ the literature. Reader-response criticism sees that the author creates the text, but after that, readers are the ones who experience the text and create meaning through interpreting the text. Let us look at three of the most important theorists of reader-response criticism: Hans-Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, and Stanley Fish.

Hans-Robert Jauss was a German literary scholar. He thought that the history of literature should be focused on what people were reading and what they continue to read, not just a list of works in chronological order. According to Jauss, readers have a certain set of mental expectations that they bring to the interpretation of whatever they are reading.

Wolfgang Iser

Wolfgang Iser, like Jauss, was a German literary scholar. Iser realized that the meaning of a book is not just what is contained in the words of the book, written by the author, but also that meaning is created by the reader. He said that meaning in reading was kind of like looking up at the stars: two people can look up at the same sky and see different pictures in the sky. Iser believed that texts and readers are in a kind of communication and dialogue. According to him, successful literary communication needs a balance between shared knowledge, values and norms, and strategic communication between the text and the reader.

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