On Reading, Part III.1: Reader Response

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:30 AM
Continuing from Part II on the New Criticism

If New Criticism's formal method focused entirely on the text to the point of losing context, I would assert that Reader Response is its polar opposite. Reader Response makes two good assertions: first, it notes, as does formalism, the impossibility of really knowing the author. Certainly, once we admit that an author is not required to present himself as himself — and that is hard to deny, for writers often adopt personae in their writings either intentionally or unintentionally — this seems like common sense. Second, we cannot really know the text as the text either, for we can only know the text such as it interacts with us and we interpret it. This too is hard to deny.

If you sense that modernism is quickly slipping away as we move through critical schools, you would certainly not be far off. Reader Response rejects the idea of objective truth in the text. Instead, what is of interest is the meeting of the written word with the mind to form “the text.” Whenever I read something, I do not read it with the same connections between the words as the author did, but rather my own ideas and connections. I read into the text my hopes and aspirations, my fears and doubts. I find T.S. Eliot particularly appealing at times because I can connect with his characters — or rather I can connect with how I read his characters — that may not be the same thing.

Now, reader response is not a free for all. It is not permission to read whatever I want into the text. But, as a critical method, we might look into how a particular hypothetical audience would read the text. In religious studies, in particular, of interest is often the feminist or liberation readings of the text. These can thrive on Reader Response, since the emphasis can be placed on the text interacting with their modern concerns, rather than trying to keep the text as the text or as the author's intended result.

To be sure, some Reader Response critics come up with some interesting ideas, and I appreciate how they see that the reader is a significant participant in the reading process. Both as a writer and a reader, it is hard to deny the importance of the audience — intended or not — that reads the text. As will become clear in part V and VI, there is good reason for many of Reader Responses' arguments.

Nevertheless, I believe particularly in the realm of Scriptural interpretation, Reader Response is highly dangerous. By rejecting the quest to bound meaning within the guidelines of what historically or formally the text might have meant, even with careful, scholarly methods, Reader Response is a free pass to provide vastly wilder interpretations than are desirable. And not only with Scripture, but also with literature.

When studying the school, more than any other, I was left questioning the exact usefulness of its pursuits. It remains the least objective school in my estimation, and while it is interesting to consider how the words and person meet to form some kind of poem, it is not terribly helpful in a quest for meaning or being.

To get closer to that, we must move on.

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