Module 4: Literary Analysis

Reader-response criticism.

We have examined many schools of literary criticism. Here you will find an in-depth look at one of them: Reader-Response.

The Purpose of Reader-Response

  • why you like or dislike the text;
  • explain whether you agree or disagree with the author;
  • identify the text’s purpose; and
  • critique the text.

Write as a Scholar

Criticize with examples.

  • Is the text racist?
  • Does the text unreasonably puts down things, such as religion, or groups of people, such as women or adolescents, conservatives or democrats, etc?
  • Does the text include factual errors or outright lies? It is too dark and despairing? Is it falsely positive?
  • Is the text poorly written?
  • Does it contain too much verbal “fat”?
  • Is it too emotional or too childish?
  • Does it have too many facts and figures?
  • Are there typos or other errors in the text?
  • Do the ideas wander around without making a point?

In each of these cases, do not simply criticize, but give examples. As a beginning scholar, be cautious of criticizing any text as “confusing” or “crazy,” since readers might simply conclude that  you  are too ignorant or slow to understand and appreciate it.

The Structure of a Reader-Response Essay

  • title of the work to which you are responding;
  • the author; and
  • the main thesis of the text.
  • What does the text have to do with you, personally, and with your life (past, present or future)? It is not acceptable to write that the text has NOTHING to do with you, since just about everything humans can write has to do in some way with every other human.
  • How much does the text agree or clash with your view of the world, and what you consider right and wrong?  Use several quotes as examples of how it agrees with and supports what you think about the world, about right and wrong, and about what you think it is to be human.   Use quotes and examples to discuss how the text disagrees with what you think about the world and about right and wrong.
  • What did you learn, and how much were your views and opinions challenged or changed by this text, if at all?   Did the text communicate with you? Why or why not?   Give examples of how your views might have changed or been strengthened (or perhaps, of why the text failed to convince you, the way it is). Please do not write “I agree with everything the author wrote,” since everybody disagrees about something, even if it is a tiny point. Use quotes to illustrate your points of challenge, or where you were persuaded, or where it left you cold.
  • How well does the text address things that you, personally, care about and consider important to the world?   How does it address things that are important to your family, your community, your ethnic group, to people of your economic or social class or background, or your faith tradition?  If not, who does or did the text serve? Did it pass the “Who cares?” test?   Use quotes from the text to illustrate.
  • What can you praise about the text? What problems did you have with it?  Reading and writing “critically” does not mean the same thing as “criticizing,” in everyday language (complaining or griping, fault-finding, nit-picking). Your “critique” can and should be positive and praise the text if possible, as well as pointing out problems, disagreements and shortcomings.
  • How well did you enjoy the text (or not) as entertainment or as a work of art?  Use quotes or examples to illustrate the quality of the text as art or entertainment. Of course, be aware that some texts are not meant to be entertainment or art: a news report or textbook, for instance, may be neither entertaining or artistic, but may still be important and successful.
  • your overall reaction to the text;
  • whether you would read something else like this in the future;
  • whether you would read something else by this author; and
  • if would you recommend read this text to someone else and why.

Key Takeaways

  • In reader-response, the reader is essential to the meaning of a text for they bring the text to life.
  • The purpose of a reading response is examining, explaining, and defending your personal reaction to a text.
  • When writing a reader-response, write as an educated adult addressing other adults or fellow scholars.
  • As a beginning scholar, be cautious of criticizing any text as “boring,” “crazy,” or “dull.”  If you do criticize, base your criticism on the principles and form of the text itself.
  • The challenge of a reader-response is to show how you connected with the text.

Reader-Response Essay Example

To Misread or to Rebel: A Woman’s Reading of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

At its simplest, reading is “an activity that is guided by the text; this must be processed by the reader who is then, in turn, affected by what he has processed” (Iser 63). The text is the compass and map, the reader is the explorer. However, the explorer cannot disregard those unexpected boulders in the path which he or she encounters along the journey that are not written on the map. Likewise, the woman reader does not come to the text without outside influences. She comes with her experiences as a woman—a professional woman, a divorcée, a single mother. Her reading, then, is influenced by her experiences. So when she reads a piece of literature like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, which paints a highly negative picture of Mitty’s wife, the woman reader is forced to either misread the story and accept Mrs. Mitty as a domineering, mothering wife, or rebel against that picture and become angry at the society which sees her that way.

Due to pre-existing sociosexual standards, women see characters, family structures, even societal structures from the bottom as an oppressed group rather than from a powerful position on the top, as men do. As Louise Rosenblatt states: a reader’s “tendency toward identification [with characters or events] will certainly be guided by our preoccupations at the time we read. Our problems and needs may lead us to focus on those characters and situations through which we may achieve the satisfactions, the balanced vision, or perhaps merely the unequivocal motives unattained in our own lives” (38). A woman reader who feels chained by her role as a housewife is more likely to identify with an individual who is oppressed or feels trapped than the reader’s executive husband is. Likewise, a woman who is unable to have children might respond to a story of a child’s death more emotionally than a woman who does not want children. However, if the perspective of a woman does not match that of the male author whose work she is reading, a woman reader who has been shaped by a male-dominated society is forced to misread the text, reacting to the “words on the page in one way rather than another because she operates according to the same set of rules that the author used to generate them” (Tompkins xvii). By accepting the author’s perspective and reading the text as he intended, the woman reader is forced to disregard her own, female perspective. This, in turn, leads to a concept called “asymmetrical contingency,” described by Iser as that which occurs “when Partner A gives up trying to implement his own behavioral plan and without resistance follows that of Partner B. He adapts himself to and is absorbed by the behavioral strategy of B” (164). Using this argument, it becomes clear that a woman reader (Partner A) when faced with a text written by a man (Partner B) will most likely succumb to the perspective of the writer and she is thus forced to misread the text. Or, she could rebel against the text and raise an angry, feminist voice in protest.

James Thurber, in the eyes of most literary critics, is one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century, and his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is believed to have “ushered in a major [literary] period … where the individual can maintain his self … an appropriate way of assaulting rigid forms” (Elias 432). The rigid form in Thurber’s story is Mrs. Mitty, the main character’s wife. She is portrayed by Walter Mitty as a horrible, mothering nag. As a way of escaping her constant griping, he imagines fantastic daydreams which carry him away from Mrs. Mitty’s voice. Yet she repeatedly interrupts his reveries and Mitty responds to her as though she is “grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in the crowd” (286). Not only is his wife annoying to him, but she is also distant and removed from what he cares about, like a stranger. When she does speak to him, it seems reflective of the way a mother would speak to a child. For example, Mrs. Mitty asks, “‘Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?’ Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again” (286). Mrs. Mitty’s care for her husband’s health is seen as nagging to Walter Mitty, and the audience is amused that he responds like a child and does the opposite of what Mrs. Mitty asked of him. Finally, the clearest way in which Mrs. Mitty is portrayed as a burdensome wife is at the end of the piece when Walter, waiting for his wife to exit the store, imagines that he is facing “the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (289). Not only is Mrs. Mitty portrayed as a mothering, bothersome hen, but she is ultimately described as that which will be the death of Walter Mitty.

Mrs. Mitty is a direct literary descendant of the first woman to be stereotyped as a nagging wife, Dame Van Winkle, the creation of the American writer, Washington Irving. Likewise, Walter Mitty is a reflection of his dreaming predecessor, Rip Van Winkle, who falls into a deep sleep for a hundred years and awakes to the relief of finding out that his nagging wife has died. Judith Fetterley explains in her book, The Resisting Reader, how such a portrayal of women forces a woman who reads “Rip Van Winkle” and other such stories “to find herself excluded from the experience of the story” so that she “cannot read the story without being assaulted by the negative images of women it presents” (10). The result, it seems, is for a woman reader of a story like “Rip Van Winkle” or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to either be excluded from the text, or accept the negative images of women the story puts forth. As Fetterley points out, “The consequence for the female reader is a divided self. She is asked to identify with Rip and against herself, to scorn the amiable sex and act just like it, to laugh at Dame Van Winkle and accept that she represents ‘woman,’ to be at once both repressor and repressed, and ultimately to realize that she is neither” (11). Thus, a woman is forced to misread the text and accept “woman as villain.” as Fetterley names it, or rebel against both the story and its message.

So how does a woman reader respond to this portrayal of Mrs. Mitty? If she were to follow Iser’s claim, she would defer to the male point of view presented by the author. She would sympathize with Mitty, as Thurber wants us to do, and see domineering women in her own life that resemble Mrs. Mitty. She may see her mother and remember all the times that she nagged her about zipping up her coat against the bitter winter wind. Or the female reader might identify Mrs. Mitty with her controlling mother-in-law and chuckle at Mitty’s attempts to escape her control, just as her husband tries to escape the criticism and control of his own mother. Iser’s ideal female reader would undoubtedly look at her own position as mother and wife and would vow to never become such a domineering person. This reader would probably also agree with a critic who says that “Mitty has a wife who embodies the authority of a society in which the husband cannot function” (Lindner 440). She could see the faults in a relationship that is too controlled by a woman and recognize that a man needs to feel important and dominant in his relationship with his wife. It could be said that the female reader would agree completely with Thurber’s portrayal of the domineering wife. The female reader could simply misread the text.

Or, the female reader could rebel against the text. She could see Mrs. Mitty as a woman who is trying to do her best to keep her husband well and cared for. She could see Walter as a man with a fleeting grip on reality who daydreams that he is a fighter pilot, a brilliant surgeon, a gun expert, or a military hero, when he actually is a poor driver with a slow reaction time to a green traffic light. The female reader could read critics of Thurber who say that by allowing his wife to dominate him, Mitty becomes a “non-hero in a civilization in which women are winning the battle of the sexes” (Hasley 533) and become angry that a woman’s fight for equality is seen merely as a battle between the sexes. She could read Walter’s daydreams as his attempt to dominate his wife, since all of his fantasies center on him in traditional roles of power. This, for most women, would cause anger at Mitty (and indirectly Thurber) for creating and promoting a society which believes that women need to stay subservient to men. From a male point of view, it becomes a battle of the sexes. In a woman’s eyes, her reading is simply a struggle for equality within the text and in the world outside that the text reflects.

It is certain that women misread “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I did. I found myself initially wishing that Mrs. Mitty would just let Walter daydream in peace. But after reading the story again and paying attention to the portrayal of Mrs. Mitty, I realized that it is imperative that women rebel against the texts that would oppress them. By misreading a text, the woman reader understands it in a way that is conventional and acceptable to the literary world. But in so doing, she is also distancing herself from the text, not fully embracing it or its meaning in her life. By rebelling against the text, the female reader not only has to understand the point of view of the author and the male audience, but she also has to formulate her own opinions and create a sort of dialogue between the text and herself. Rebelling against the text and the stereotypes encourages an active dialogue between the woman and the text which, in turn, guarantees an active and (most likely) angry reader response. I became a resisting reader.

Works Cited

Elias, Robert H. “James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 5. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 431–32. Print.

Fetterley, Judith.  The Resisting Reader . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. Print.

Hasley, Louis. “James Thurber: Artist in Humor.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 11. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 532–34. Print.

Iser, Wolfgang.  The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981. Print.

Lindner, Carl M. “Thurber’s Walter Mitty—The Underground American Hero.”  Contemporary Literary Criticism . Vol. 5. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 440–41. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M.  Literature as Exploration . New York: MLA, 1976. Print.

Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading . Ed. William Vesterman. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993. 286–89. Print.

Tompkins, Jane P. “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism.”  Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism . Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. ix-xxvi. Print.

  • Putting It Together: Defining Characteristics of Romantic Literature. Authored by : Anne Eidenmuller & Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution

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  • A Research Guide
  • Literary Movements

What is Reader Response Criticism

History and role of reader’s response theory, what is the reader response theory, purpose of modern reading-response theory.

  • The theme and purpose of the text
  • Explain why or why not you like the text
  • Flaws in the plot
  • Explain if you agree with the writer’s perspective or if you disagree with it

How to Write a Reader Response Journal

Evidence-based criticism.

  • Is this text racist?
  • Is there anything in the text that degrades things like Democrats, religion, adolescents, conservatives and any specific group?
  • Are there any factual errors in the text? Is it despairing, falsely positive and dark?
  • Does text have high linguistic complexity?
  • Does it use poor language?
  • Are there any grammatical errors?
  • Is it full of figures?
  • Does it have too many emotional and childish details?
  • Does the text lack cohesion? Moreover, does it make any point?

 Structure of a Response Journal

  • Title of your work (the one you have chosen to respond)
  • Main thesis and theme of the text
  • Author’s name
  • Does the text have anything to do with your personal life? Try to establish a connection.
  • Does it hold the same opinion or perspective of the world as you have? What is there you consider wrong and why? (Use examples, quotes to raise an argument or to discuss your opinion).
  • What is your learning? Or does the text challenge your opinion? If yes, how?
  • What is there you like the most in the text? Reflect critically
  • How could it have been better? (Fault-finding does not mean that you have to criticize the text. Instead, use positive language and discuss the shortcomings).
  • Conclude your reading – response by writing your overall reaction and recommendation.

Bottom Line

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English 333

Tianna Tatum-Fisher

Reader-Response Criticism

“ How do readers feel about what they read? ” (Tyson 161).

Description of Theory:

Reader-Response theory focuses on the individual reaction and interpretation of a text by the reader as it is proposed that only the reader can give a text sufficient meaning.  Each and every reader will interpret a text differently between readings depending on their intellect or knowledge of the history of which the text describes, mood, personal experiences, ideologies, and culture.

Benefit of Theory:

The text forces the reader to look beyond its words and search for the deeper meaning.  As each reader interprets differently groups of readers form connections and understandings based on each other’s perspectives.  As well perspectives will change over time and therefore making meaning unstable.

Disadvantage of Theory:

This theory is too subjective because it focuses on the reader’s interpretation therefore reader’s bias and ignores the actual meaning of the text (if there is one), meaning the reader can misinterpret the text and if the reader knows the author’s interpretation then the reader may not believe it, find fault in it, or completely disregard it.

Questions of Reader-Response Theorists to Interpret a Text:

These questions are important because different perspectives will help enlighten different aspects of the story that would not be seen if not from a certain point of view.

  • Where does the text have gaps of missing information “indeterminacy” in the story that causes the reader to have to fill in themselves?
  • At what points is a reader most connected to a text? Why?

Notable Theorist/s:

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How to Write a Reader Response

Last Updated: March 14, 2023 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Diane Stubbs . Diane Stubbs is a Secondary English Teacher with over 22 years of experience teaching all high school grade levels and AP courses. She specializes in secondary education, classroom management, and educational technology. Diane earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware and a Master of Education from Wesley College. There are 9 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 421,971 times.

A reader response assignment asks you to explain and defend your personal reaction to an assigned text. Reader response papers can be difficult because they force you, the reader, to take responsibility for giving meaning to the text. Often these assignments feel open-ended and vague, but don't worry, a good reader response paper will follow a standard essay format that you can easily master. This guide will walk you through the creation of a well-crafted reader response paper that's sure to wow your instructor and earn you an awesome grade.

Writing the Reader Response

Step 1 Write the introduction.

  • It is often helpful to use the first body paragraph to include more information about the text, the plotline, major themes, etc., and then use the rest of the paragraphs to provide an analysis of how you felt about the text.

Step 3 Remember to explain how, why, and what.

  • Remember that a reader response is meant to be personal, so it's OK to incorporate personal anecdotes and opinions into your analysis.
  • Example: "Forcing Hester Prynne to wear the scarlet "A" reminded me of a time when I was cyber-bullied in eighth grade, and my "friends" spread rumors about me online where the whole school could see."

Step 4 Incorporate specific examples into your analysis.

  • Example: "At the end of The Old Man and the Sea, Manolin promises to once again fish with Santiago, so the old man no longer has to be alone. This was Santiago's greatest wish, but it was a different kind of success than he initially set out to achieve."

Step 5 Keep quotations short and sweet.

  • Example: "'My big fish must be somewhere,' said Santiago. This is exactly how I felt after I received my third rejection letter, but like Santiago, I kept trying, and eventually I was accepted."
  • Make sure and cite your examples per class directions. You will usually be required to note the page numbers of any quotations or specific examples in parentheses at the end of the sentence.

Step 6 Write the conclusion.

  • A great way to think of your conclusion is that it's one last chance to explain to your reader how you see all of your points fitting together.

Step 7 Proofread, proofread, proofread!!

  • Sometimes it's hard to see our own mistakes, so it can really help to exchange papers with a friend, and proofread each other's work.

Drafting the Reader Response

Step 1 Identify an angle you can take when talking about the text.

  • "Even though I found The Scarlett Letter hard to follow at times, Hester Prynne's story is still relatable, and made me think a lot about the effects of publicly shaming people online."
  • "Some people believe the Old Man and the Sea is a book about failure, but it is really a story of perseverance that teaches us that success may not always come in the form we expect, and even disasters can lead to positive outcomes."

Step 2 Outline the essay.

  • Introduction: 1 paragraph.
  • Analysis/Body Paragraphs: 3-4 paragraphs. How you organize these paragraphs will depend on the parameters of the assignment.
  • Conclusion: 1 paragraph.

Step 3 Choose example passages to use in your analysis.

Reading the Text

Step 1 Go over the assignment directions before you begin.

  • Do you like or dislike the text?
  • Can you identify the author's purpose?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author?
  • Does the text relate to you and your life? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Does the text agree with, or go against your personal world view?
  • What, if anything, did you learn from the text?

Step 2 Read the text.

  • Taking a bit of extra time during this phase will save you a lot of time in the writing process. [9] X Research source

Step 3 Contemplate what you have read.

  • I think that...
  • I feel that...
  • I see that...
  • I have learned that...

Sample Reader Response

paper reader response criticism

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About This Article

Diane Stubbs

To write a reader response, develop a clear thesis statement and choose example passages from the text that support your thesis. Next, write an introduction paragraph that specifies the name of the text, the author, the subject matter, and your thesis. Then, include 3-4 paragraphs that discuss and analyze the text. Finish up with a conclusion paragraph that summarizes your arguments and brings the reader back to your thesis or main point! For tips on analyzing the text before writing your assignment, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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How to Write a Reaction Paper or Reader Response. (A Quick Introduction to Reading and Writing Critically) Analyze the text as an individual reader.  This process is as much about YOU as it is about the text you are responding to.  As a scholar you stand in judgment over the text.  Critical reading: [from the ENGL 0310 Syllabus] "A reader response asks the reader [you] to examine, explain and defend her/his personal reaction to a reading.  You will be asked to explore why you like or dislike the reading, explain whether you agree or disagree with the author, identify the reading's purpose, and critique the text.  There is no right or wrong answer to a reader response. Nonetheless, it is important that you demonstrate an understanding of the reading and clearly explain and support your reactions. "     DO NOT use the standard high school-level approach of just writing: "I liked this book (or article or document or movie) because it is so cool and the ending made me feel happy,"   or "I hated it because it was stupid, and had nothing at all to do with my life, and was too negative and boring." In writing a response you may assume the reader has already read the text. Thus, do NOT summarize the contents of the text at length .  Instead, take a systematic, analytical approach to the text.   ---First of all, be sure to mention the title of the work to which you are responding, the author , and the main thesis of the text, using correct English for the first sentence of your paper!  Then, try to answer ALL of the questions below. a. What does the text have to do with you, personally , and with your life (past, present or future)?  It is not acceptable to write that the text has NOTHING to do with you, since just about everything humans can write has to do in some way with every other human.  b. How much does the text agree or clash with your view of the world, and what you consider right and wrong? Use several quotes as examples of how it agrees with and supports what you think about the world, about right and wrong, and about what you think it is to be human.   Use quotes and examples to discuss how the text disagrees with what you think about the world and about right and wrong.  c  How did you learn, and how much were your views and opinions challenged or changed by this text, if at all?   Did the text communicate with you? Why or why not?  Give examples of how your views might have changed or been strengthened (or perhaps, of why the text failed to convince you, the way it is). Please do not write "I agree with everything the author wrote," since everybody disagrees about something, even if it is a tiny point. Use quotes to illustrate your points of challenge, or where you were persuaded, or where it left you cold.    d. How well does it address things that you, personally, care about and consider important to the world? How does it address things that are important to your family, your community, your ethnic group, to people of your economic or social class or background, or your faith tradition?   If not, who does or did the text serve? Did it pass the "Who cares?" test?  Use quotes to illustrate.     e. Critique the text. Reading and writing "critically" does not mean the same thing as "criticizing," in everyday language (complaining or griping, fault-finding, nit-picking). Your "critique" can and should be positive and praise the text if possible, as well as pointing out problems, disagreements and shortcomings.      f. How well did you enjoy the text (or not) as entertainment or as a work of art? Use quotes or examples to illustrate the quality of the text as art or entertainment. Of course, be aware that some texts are not meant to be entertainment or art--a news report or textbook, for instance, may be neither entertaining or artistic, but may still be important and successful.      g.  To sum up, what is your overall reaction to the text? Would you read something else like this, or by this author, in the future or not?  Why or why not?  To whom would you recommend this text?  An important tip from the UTEP History Tutoring Center: Your first draft is just that, and you should expect to re-write your work several times before you consider it completed.  This means you should start your writing project in advance of the due date, in order to allow yourself enough time to revise your work.  Ask someone else to read your draft(s) and write their comments and suggestions on how you might improve the work directly on your drafts.   
Tips from UTEP History Prof. I.V. Montelongo: The goal is to present a coherent essay with a clear argument. ...[Y]ou should state your general argument (your thesis) in an introductory paragraph and then use the rest of the essay to support your position, making sure that you deal carefully with each of the issues the questions raise somewhere in the paper.   1.)  You don�t need to use footnotes.  When quoting or citing from the documents or your textbook, simply put author and page numbers in parenthesis.  Ex. (Gorn, 52) or (Jones, 167). There is absolutely no need to refer to other, outside sources for this assignment�this is a critical essay, not a research paper...   2.)  Be very careful to avoid plagiarism.  Do not use words or ideas from the internet, from any publication, or from the work of another student without citing the source.  Also, if you use more than three words in a row from any source, including the document you�re writing about, those words must be enclosed in quotation marks.  3.)  Please just staple your papers in the upper left hand corner.  You may use a title page if you like, but please avoid plastic covers. [ However, in English 0310 use no title page, and do not staple!  O.W .]  4.)  Your essay should be based primarily on evidence drawn from a close, careful reading of the documents.  You can also use appropriate background information from the textbook and lectures, but you should use most of your space to discuss the documents.  5.)  Writing style counts.  You need to revise your paper multiple times to be a successful writer.    <>  

OW 7/06 rev 10/11

Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Reader Response Criticism: An Essay

Reader Response Criticism: An Essay

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on October 23, 2016 • ( 5 )

Reader Response, primarily a German and American offshoot of literary theory, emerged (prominent since 1960s) in the West mainly as a reaction to the textual emphasis of New Criticism of the 1940s. New Criticism, the culmination of liberal humanist ideals, had stressed that only that which is within a text is part of the meaning of the text; that the text is “autotelic” entity (complete within itself). Hence, it neglected authorial biography, social conditions during the composition of a work of art and the reader’s psychology. Reader Response Criticism wholly repudiated all these notions; instead, it focuses on the systematic examination of the aspects of the text that arouse, shape, and guide a reader’s response (for instance, Aristotelian Catharsis/ Brechtian alienation effect “. It designates multiple critical approaches to reading a text. According to Reader Response criticism, the reader is a producer rather than a consumer of meanings (parallel to Barthes’s Birth of the Reader ). In this sense, a reader is a hypothetical construct of norms and expectations that can be derived or projected or extrapolated from the work. Because expectations may be violated or fulfilled, satisfied or frustrated, and because reading is a temporal process involving memory, perception, and anticipation, the charting of reader-response is extremely difficult and perpetually subject to construction and reconstruction, vision and revision.


Reader Response criticism does not denote any specific theory. It can range from the phenomenological theories of Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden (both were faculty members at the University of Constance, Germany) to the relativistic analysis of Stanley Fish , who argues that the interpretive strategy of the reader creates the text, there being no text except that which a reader or an interpretive community of readers creates. Being both a reception aesthetic and a reception history, Reader Response criticism examines how readers realize the potentials of a text and how readings change over the course of history; it believes that although the the reader fills in the gaps, the author’s intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions

One can sort Reader Response theorists into three groups: those who focus upon the individual reader’s experience (“individualists”); those who conduct psychological experiments on a defined set of readers (“experimenters”); and those, who assume a fairly uniform response by all readers (“uniformists”). In a more general sense, one can break down Reader Response theorists into those who concern with the reader’s experience and psychology, those who concentrate on the linguistic/rhetorical dynamic of audience, and those who deal with readers as cultural and historical ciphers.

Hans Robert Jauss (1921-97), the German theorist, inspired by the phenomenological method of Husserl and Heideggeris Hermeneutics, gave a historical dimension to reader-oriented criticism by developing a version of Reader Response Criticism known as Reception Theory in his book, New Literary History.  In this book, Jauss eschewed objectivist views of both literary texts and literary history and endeavoured to attain an agreement between Russian Formalism (which ignores historical and social contexts) and social theories as Marxism (which neglects the text). To him, a text is not simply and passively imbibed by the audience, but on the contrary, the reader makes out the meanings of the text based on his/her cultural background and experience. He exhorted that literature is a “dialogic” entity, a sort of dialogue between the text and the reader; a dialectic process of production and reception; he added that there is always “negotiation” and “opposition” on the part of the reader. “Horizons of expectations”, a term developed by Jauss to explain how a reader’s “expectations” or frame of reference, is based on the reader’s past experience of literature and what preconceived notions about literature the reader possesses (i.e., a reader’s aesthetic experience is bound by time and historical determinants). Reader Response Criticism tries to establish these “horizons” by analyzing the literary works of the age in question. Jauss also contended that for a work to be considered a classic it needed to exceed a reader’s horizons of expectations. The renowned cultural theorist, Stuart Hall , is one of the main proponents of reception theory; he developed it for media and communication studies from the literary- and history-oriented approaches.


Another leading exponent of German reception theory, Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007), drew heavily on the phenomenological aesthetics of Roman Ingarden and the writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer . To him, the literary work is not an object in itself, but an effect to be expounded; the text is the result of the author’s intentional acts and it controls reader’s responses. In his work, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976, trans. 1978), Iser posits that all literary texts have “Leerstellen” (blanks/gaps/ lacunae), which have to be filled in or “concretized” by the creative reader to interpret the text. “Implied Reader” is a term used by Wolfgang Iser to describe a hypothetical reader of a text. Such a reader is a “model” or a “role”. The implied reader “embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect – predispositions laid down,. not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structures of the rext; he is a construct and in no way yo be identified with any real reader”.The Implied Reader is established by the text itself, who is expected to respondin specific ways to the “response-inviting structures” of the text. While the “Actual Reader” is the one whose responses are coloured by his/ her accumulated personal experiences; one, who receives mental images during the process of reading through the knowledge and experience of one’s own. However the implied and actual readers co-exist, and are truly one and the same person, responding to a text in two different ways and levels of consciousness.

lser also describes the process of first reading, the subsequent development of the text into a ‘whole’, and how the dialogue between the reader and text takes place. In his study of Shakespeare’s histories, in particular Richard II , Iser interprets Richard’s continually changing legal policy as the expression of his desire for self-assertion. Here, he follows Hans Blumenberg , and attempts to apply his theory of modernity to Shakespeare. He also maintained that there are two poles in a literary work – “the artistic pole” (the text created by the author), and the “aesthetic pole” (the realization accomplished by the reader).


the 1960s, David Bleich began collecting statements from students of their feelings and associations. He based his analysis on classroom teaching of literature, and hold that reading is not determined by the text; instead, reading is a subjective process designed by the distinctive personality of the individual reader. He also claimed that his classes “generated” knowledge, the knowledge of how particular persons recreate texts.


Norman Holland makes use of psychoanalytic analysis of the process of reading. He viewed the subject matter of a work as the projection of the fantasies that constitute the identity of its author. To him, reading is the encounter between the author’s and the reader’s fantasies; the reader transforms the fantasy content, that constitutes the process of tnterpretation. He also declared that there is no universally determinate meaning of a particular text


Michael Riffaterre , Jonathan Culler and Terence Hawkes  proposed the idea of “literary competence”, which maintains that mere linguistic competence is inadequate to understand literary meaning, and that “literary competence’ is necessary to go beyond the surface meaning of a text.

There are really two kinds of Reader-Response Criticism that could be found in the writings of the American literary theorist, Stanley Fish ; one is a phenomenological approach and the other is an epistemological theory characteristic of Fish’s later works. The Phenomenological method has much to commend itself to us as it focuses on what happens in the reader’s mind as he or she reads.


Reader-response critics hold that, to understand the literary experience or the meaning of a text, one must look to the processes readers use to create that meaning and experience. Traditional, text-oriented critics often think of reader-response criticism as an anarchic subjectivism, allowing readers to interpret a text any way they want. They accuse reader-response critics of observing that the text doesn’t exist. Another objection to reader-response criticism is that it fails to account for the text being able to expand the reader’s understanding. While readers can, and do put their own ideas and experiences into a work, they are at the same time gaining new understanding through the text. This is something that is generally overlooked in Reader Response Criticism.

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Tags: affective stylistics , Anxiety of Influence , apophrades , askesis , autotelic , clinamen , daemonization , Dasein , Edmund Husserl , Hans Blumenberg , Hans Georg Gadamer , Harold Bloom , Horizons of expectations , Implied Reader , Is There a Text in This Class? , JF Worthen , Jonathan Culler , kenosis , Literary Criticism , Literary Theory , Louise Rosenblatt. , Martin Heidegger , Michael Riffaterre , New Criticism , Norman Holland , Paradise Lost , Phenomenology , Reader Response Criticism , reception aesthetics , Roman Ingarden , Stanley Fish , Stuart Hall , Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost , Tansactional analysis , Terence Hawkes , tessera , Wolfgang Iser

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How readers respond to texts clearly matters, maybe more than the text itself; without us, books sit on shelves and collect dust.It's likely that you've been in an English lesson that began with the teacher asking the class just for their thoughts and feelings on a particular text or chapter.…

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Save the explanation now and read when you’ve got time to spare.

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

How readers respond to texts clearly matters, maybe more than the text itself; without us, books sit on shelves and collect dust.

It's likely that you've been in an English lesson that began with the teacher asking the class just for their thoughts and feelings on a particular text or chapter. For those first five minutes, all your first impressions are valid. You're allowed to hate it or explain why it resonated so strongly with you.

Reader Response Criticism, an illustrated woman with brown hair reading, StudySmarter

Reader Response Criticism seeks to redefine the reader's relationship to the text, arguing that readers are not just passive consumers of a text's meaning, rather, they create its meaning. This article should act as a toolkit to help you understand and apply this critical approach.

Content warning : The following article makes reference to sensitive topics.

Definition of Reader Response Criticism

Reader response criticism is all about changing how we see and treat the text, the reader and the creation of meaning.

An approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.

The key idea of Reader Response Criticism is that readers create meaning rather than find it in a text. Works of literature are always incomplete without a reader to put in their half of the work to create meaning.

This is the starting point for all Reader Response critics. However, from this point, they often disagree on whether there are valid and invalid interpretations and the extent to which a text shapes the reader's responses to the text.

Context and History of Reader Response Criticism

Reader Response Criticism emerged in Germany and the United States in the late 1960s. Reader Response Criticism does not refer to a specific theory or to a unified critical school, but to literary criticism that takes a reader-based approach to textual analysis.

This critical movement emerged as a challenge to New Criticism , a movement that dominated American literary criticism during the 1940s-1970s period.

New Criticism is a school of thought that proposed all meaning was contained within a text's form , structure and content . External factors, such as context and the author's identity and authority played no role in a text's meaning. In this sense, texts have objective meanings.

Reader Response Criticism stood in opposition to the notion that a text's meaning was self-contained . It proposed that a text's meaning was instead created by readers' responses to the text.

Reader Response Criticism was mostly eclipsed by the Poststructuralist critical movement that emerged in the 1960s.


A school of thought that stressed the indeterminacy of the meaning of texts. Poststructuralists believe it is impossible for texts to have objective meanings because there are many ways to interpret the same text.

The Poststructuralist movement also placed a similar emphasis on the reader's active role in the creation of meaning, a principle that remains influential today.

Key Ideas of Reader Response Criticism with Examples

Reader response criticism is all about changing our perceptions of the text, the reader and the creation of meaning. Meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text.

Reader Response Criticism focuses on the reader's psychological experience of reading a text, and how the reader creates meaning from what the text has given them as they read.

While this approach sees readers as creating their own, unique meanings, that is not to say that they can come up with any random interpretation; interpretations always need to have textual support . The reader must create meaning out of what the text has given them; for example, through language, structure, etc.

The text cannot be ignored. If there is a scene or device in a text that contradicts your interpretation of it, you must still consider how this scene or element fits into your interpretation, even if this means need to reconsider the text's personal meaning to you.

Implied Reader

The term 'implied reader' was coined by the critic Wolfgang Iser.

Implied reader

The implied reader is who the author has in mind when they are writing the text, who they expect to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.

The implied reader is contrasted with the actual reader , the person who sits down to read a book, who may belong to a different social or historical context, and whose identity and opinions may mean that they read the text differently from how they are "supposed to" - the responses that the text invites .

Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) is about a young woman who is rewarded for keeping her "virtue" by eventually marrying the man who robbed her of her innocence by assaulting and kidnapping her. This text's implied reader is someone who believes that innocence and "virtue" are good values and who wants to take a moral message from this text.

The resisting reader

The literary critic Judith Fetterley found the concept of the implied reader problematic and came up with the concept of a 'resisting reader', who refuses to fulfill the role of the implied reader - who refuses to read the text how it was "supposed to be read".

Due to the disenfranchisement of women and other marginalised groups throughout history, many classics are written from the perspective of privileged authors, whose biases about race, class, gender, etc. are sometimes felt in their texts. These texts often anticipate an educated, white, male audience.

Fetterley argues that it's important to resist a text's biases and use the text to come up with meanings that resist these biased interpretations that the text invites.

If we take the example of Pamela above, Samuel Richardson's identity as a man and the fact that he was writing in a socio-historical context where women were unequal to men means that his ideologies and biases are built into the novel . A reader may read Pamela through a feminist lens and resist the idea that it is virtuous to marry an abusive rake.

Interpretive Communities

Stanley E. Fish came up with the idea of interpretive communities to differentiate between different groups of 'actual' readers . Fish argues that individual reader responses must be seen as part of the bigger picture - in the context of the wider interpretive community that they belong to.

Interpretive Community

A way of grouping readers that share historical and cultural contexts, which shapes the way they read and interpret texts.

Fish's theory is that all meaning is dependent on the different interpretive strategies that different interpretive communities use. There is no objectively correct interpretation of a text because all interpretations are the product of different cultures .

English students in 1950s England had different interpretive strategies to English students today.

In the 50s, under the influence of New Criticism , students approached texts with the belief that texts have objective meanings and it is their duty to discover them.

We can see this focus on objective meanings as a limited interpretive strategy . Today, due to the influence of Reader Response Criticism and Poststructuralism , we are encouraged to be creative in our readings (so long as we have evidence to support our claims, of course!).

Ordinarily, when we use the term 'text', we are referring to a physical or digital copy of a work of literature.

Reader Response Criticism argues that the text is a performance; an event; an interactive process. Reader Response critics also focus on the importance of the reading experience.

Performing art, event, interaction

We often think of literature and the performing arts as very different subjects. Performance is lively and dynamic, and reading is a quiet, serious activity. Some Reader Response Critics think that the literary text can actually be viewed as a performing art, with different readers creating different performances of texts.

Reader Response Criticism also invites us to look at the text as an event , rather than a lifeless object. The text is not sheets of words bound together, the text needs you to read it for it to be a text.

Therefore, the text is an interactive event. The text is alive in the interaction between the reader and the words on the page.

If the text is an interaction or event, how do readers experience the text?

Stanley E. Fish thinks that the readers' experience of movement through a text is an important factor in the creation of meaning. As we move onwards through a text, we fill in the blanks and form expectations.

We may expect a character to meet a certain fate, anticipate a certain resolution, interpret a character as hiding a secret if they act suspiciously, etc.

Wolfgang Iser focused on how readers react differently to texts based on where they are in their reading journey. Different interpretations are produced on the first reading of a text in comparison to the interpretations that the reader makes once they have finished a text, and have a fuller picture of it. New meanings may also be produced when a text is reread.

Reader Response critics focus on different aspects of the reader experience. Such as:

  • how the text tries to structure a specific experience,
  • the extent to which readers' experiences match the intended experience,
  • and the ways in which readers' experiences differ from the intended experience.

Have you ever read a book where you felt that the author wanted the reading experience to be an important part of its meaning?

' Paradise Lost ' (1663)

Stanley E. Fish wrote a whole book on the experience of reading John Milton 's Paradise Lost , which tells the story of Adam and Eve. He argues that the reading experience is part of the poem's meaning. To Fish, the reading experience mirrors the fall of Adam and Eve into sin.

Jacob's Room (1922)

Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room is about an unnamed narrator trying to chase Jacob and understand him. The reader also feels desperate to understand Jacob, and, like the narrator, the reader feels distanced from him and unable to know him. The chase-like reading experience mirrors the narrator's chase.

Key Theorists of Reader Response Criticism

Let's go over the main Reader Response theorists and their theories.

Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997)

The work of Hans Robert Jauss takes a reader response approach that considers how society and time period influence readers' interpretations of texts. Based on the culture and time period the reader belongs to, they will have a certain kind of ' horizon of expectations '.

Readers' horizons of expectations are always changing, as the years pass and times change. It is the critic's job to consider the effects of context on how readers read, and how authors write.

Note: Jauss served the Nazi Party in the SS during World War II. As such, his contribution to academic fields is constantly debated.

Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007)

Wolfgang Iser worked alongside Hans Robert Jauss. Iser came up with the concept of the ' implied reader ' and placed importance on the reading experience of reading a written work for the first time, and then as a 'whole'.

Iser argued that a text has what he calls ' response-inviting structures ' that guide reader interpretation.

Louise Rosenblatt (1904-2005)

Louise Rosenblatt is a highly influential critic who saw reading as a transaction between reader and text, where both are equally important.

Rosenblatt is one of the Reader Response critics that thinks there are acceptable and less-acceptable interpretations of texts - not all are valid.

To Rosenblatt, the text acts as a stimulus to the reader that invites them to find personal interpretations; and as a blueprint that disciplines the reader's interpretation so that it doesn't stray too far from the contents of the text.

Stanley E. Fish (1938)

The context in which readers read texts is important to Stanley E. Fish. Fish is interested in the impact that the interpretive community to which a reader belongs influences the meanings they garner from a text. A second key focus of Fish is how readers experience texts as they progress through them, from beginning to end.

Norman Holland (1927-2017)

Norman Holland focuses on how readers' ' identity themes ' impact their readings of texts. He believes that readers' life experiences and psychologies (the impact of childhood, unresolved issues, etc.) affect how they read.

If a reader has a good or bad relationship with their parents, this is likely to influence how they read parental figures in a text.

This is what is known as a psychoanalytic approach to Reader Response Criticism.

Like other Reader Response critics, Holland disagrees with the idea of objective meanings, arguing that readers may have similar interpretations insofar as they share similar identity themes .

David Bleich (1940- Present)

David Bleich puts forward a radical reader response theory, known as S ubjective Reader Response Criticism . Bleich argued that reader responses are the text. There is no text beyond the meanings that the readers come up with. This in turn means that when critics analyse texts, what they are analysing are the readers' responses (which constitute the text).

How to apply Reader Response Criticism

Here are some questions to help you get started with a Reader Response approach to literary interpretation and analysis:

Questions about types of readers:

  • Who is the implied reader? Who is the target audience of this text and how does the text anticipate certain types of people (educated, privileged, disenfranchised, etc.) reading it?
  • How might different groups of readers - interpretive communities - respond to a text? Think of students in different countries, in different decades, for example.
  • How might readers' personal experiences influence how they read a certain text? For example, childhood experiences, experiences of racism or sexism, etc.
  • How might critics' own 'identity themes' and personal experiences influence or bias their interpretations? For example, white male scholars may have a different, perhaps more limited, view of gender and race issues in a text.

Questions about reader experience:

  • What is the overall impact of the differences between the reader's experience of reading the text when compared to the characters' experiences in the text? Is the reading experience parallel to the experiences of the text's characters or narrator? Or is it quite different? Does the reader know more than the characters?
  • Is the reading experience deliberately difficult? How does the quality of the reading experience contribute to the text's overall meaning?
  • How does the text want readers to react to a key event or plot twist?

Applying a reader response approach to literary analysis will help you come up with new and exciting meanings.

The Importance of Reader Response Criticism

Many important works of recent literary criticism have taken a reader response approach. For example, Roland Barthes ' famous essay, The Death of the Author (1967), which disregards the author as the authority of a text's meaning; the author's interpretation of their own work is just as important as any readers'.

The influence of a reader-based critical approach can be felt in Literature classrooms around the world, as discussions are spurred by questions like 'How did this scene make you feel?'.

Reader Response Criticism - Key Takeaways

  • Reader Response Criticism is an approach to literary criticism and analysis that focuses on how readers are actively engaged in the creation of meaning in a text.
  • The implied reader is the reader that the text expects to react to, pick up on, interpret and experience aspects of the text in a certain way.
  • Readers belong to interpretive communities based on shared contexts and traits, and this influences how they create meanings in texts.
  • According to Reader Response Criticism, the text is an event, an interaction, a performance.
  • It is important to consider the way a text cultivates a specific reading experience for its reader. Oftentimes, the reader experience is built into how we should interpret the text.
  • The key theorists of Reader Response Criticism are: Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Louise Rosenblatt, David Bleich, Norman Holland, and Stanley E. Fish.

Frequently Asked Questions about Reader Response Criticism

--> what is the basic idea of the reader response criticism.

The basic idea of Reader Response Criticism is that the reader creates meaning in a text, rather than just finding it. This means that texts have no objective meanings, and that any reader can create their own interpretation with a good amount of textual support.

--> What is the goal of Reader Response Criticism?

Reader response criticism seeks to put the reader at the forefront of the textual analysis. Previous approaches to literary criticism assumed that texts had objective meanings and that it was the reader's job to discover the right meaning. The Reader Response approach argues that the meaning of a text is only activated when a reader reads it and responds to it.

--> What is an example of Reader Response Criticism? 

An example of reader response criticism is Stanley E. Fish's analysis of John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1667). Fish argues that, as the reader finds themselves preferring the devil over God in the poem, the reader falls into sin, like Adam and Eve fall into sin in the Bible and in Milton's poem.

--> How to write Reader Response Criticism?

To write good Reader Response Criticism, avoid dismissing a text on account of it having bored you or you thinking it stupid. Focus instead on exploring how your identity, the groups you belong to, and the historical moment you belong to (the present) influence how you and others read a given text. You can also focus on the reading experience, your reactions and feelings as you progressed through a text and how reader experience may be important to the text's overall meaning.

--> What are the types of reader-response approaches?  

Reader Response criticism can be divided into the different priorities of different theorists:

  • Historical context is the focus of Hans Robert Jauss's work.
  • Transactional reader response theory is the approach taken by Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser.
  • Affective stylistics is Stanley E. Fish's Reader Response theory.
  • Psychological Reader Response Criticism is employed by Norman Holland.
  • Subjective Reader Response Criticism (David Bleich).

Final Reader Response Criticism Quiz

Reader response criticism quiz - teste dein wissen.

What is Reader Response Criticism?

Show answer

Show question

What is the context and history of Reader Response Criticism?

  • This approach to criticism emerged in Germany and the US in the late 1960s.
  • Reader Response Criticism is not a unified critical school, but the umbrella term given to literary criticism that takes a reader-based approach.
  • It emerged as a challenge to New Criticism, a movement that believed all meaning was contained within the text alone.

What are the key focuses of Reader Response Criticism?

The reader, the text and the creation of meaning.

How does Reader Response criticism view the role of the reader?

The reader creates a text's meaning.

What is the implied reader?

Why might the idea of the implied reader be viewed as problematic?

  • Many texts written by privileged authors anticipate an educated, white, male audience.
  • The literary critic Judith Fetterley came up with the concept of the 'resisting reader' to resist limited ways of reading a text.

What is an interpretive community?

  • A term coined by Stanley E. Fish to group readers that share historical and cultural contexts, which shapes the way they read and interpret texts.
  • There is no objectively correct interpretation of a text because all interpretations are the product of different cultures.

According to Reader Response Criticism, what is a text?

  • A performing art,
  • An interaction, or an interactive process.

Why is the reading experience important to Reader Response Criticism?

  • Readers don't just passively consume texts, they experience them.
  • The reader's progressive movement through a text is an important factor in the creation of meaning because the text deliberately takes the reader on a journey, creating expectations, etc.

What are the key contributions of Hans Robert Jauss to Reader Response Criticism?

  • Focused on the impact of social and temporal context on reader interpretation.
  • Readers have different 'horizons of expectations' based on the society and time they belong to.

What are the key contributions of Wolfgang Iser to Reader Response Criticism?

  • The concept of the implied reader
  • The interpretations that readers come up with at different reading stages are important. Different meanings are created on first, and second readings.

What are the key contributions of Louise Rosenblatt to Reader Response Criticism?

  • Rosenblatt argued that reading is a transaction between reader and text.
  • Rosenblatt thinks some interpretations are more acceptable than others.
  • Believes that the text should act as a stimulus to the readers' interpretation, and as a blueprint to guide their interpretation.

What are the key contributions of Stanley E. Fish to Reader Response Criticism?

  • The idea of interpretive communities,
  • his focus on the reading experience as important to the creation of meaning.

What are the key contributions of Norman Holland to Reader Response Criticism?

  • A psychoanalytic approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea of identity themes; how readers' identities impact their readings.

What are the key contributions of David Bleich to Reader Response Criticism?

  • A subjective approach to Reader Response Criticism.
  • The idea that reader responses  are  the text.

How can you apply Reader Response Criticism?

By looking at how different types of readers create meanings, and how reading experiences influence the creation of meaning, as well.

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  • Literary Movements
  • American Drama
  • Literary Criticism and Theory

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