Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reader Response Theory and Writing

As a writer, it is interesting to look at different approaches to literature. Recently I’ve been reading Louise Rosenblatt’s work on Reader-Response Theory. Her interpretation of this concept posits that the reader takes an author’s work, examines it, runs it through a filter of past experiences, and creates his or her own text or "poem" of the work.

Rosenblatt and Reader Response theory has impacted American education. Instead of a rigid interpretation, students were given much more freedom in giving voice to their own views and creativity. Rosenblatt believed that teachers should approach literature without imposing pre-conceived notions to the text. The reader thereby completes the work by attaching his or her interpretation to the work and making it whole. Some people have criticized this, arguing that students became undisciplined thinkers.

Sounds a little high fallutin’? There’s truth to Reader Response Theory though. The writer can intuit it when reading his or her work aloud. Doing so, we try and impart a meaning to it, to influence interpretation; doing it in a way that would influence the reader. Makes you wonder if it isn’t a form of cheating.

So, how can a writer take Reader Response Theory and work with it? How can you know that the work will be reinterpreted based on context and the filter of reader experience? I’ll leave these questions sitting out here. I have more to say on this matter. I’ll pick up this thread of thought in a day or so and welcome your dialogue.


spyscribbler said...

That's fascinating. You know, even in blogging, it's funny how people draw different things from a post, in the comments.

I believe it's the same with readers: you never really know what will touch a reader; you can only guess. I do think of my reader's wants, desires, hopes, and dreams when I write. I know them, in a way. But in a small niche, it's easier. :-)

spyscribbler said...

Great post, by the way! I'm looking forward to reading more of yours and everyone else's thoughts.

Vwriter said...

Now I see why you endlessly go to school. Definitely womething worth thinking about. Of course, at an instinctive level, every writer knows this. You know, those times when you overhear a reader explaining your story to someone else and you don't even recognize it? They emphasize things you didn't notice, lay out the theme you didn't even know what there- that sort of thing.

Once, I met with a group of sales directors who for some odd reason were discussing a book. Their comments went something like this, "Yeah, I could tell that he's selling this there and that there. And did you see how that setting was like an assembly of sales props." I was stunned. I asked what they thought of the theme, and one told me, "Oh yeah, that subliminal persuasion selling trick. That's really low."

Can't wait to see your next post on this topic.

Zoe Winters said...

I'm not sure if I agree that something like that makes someone an undisciplined thinker (and I know it wasn't you that was saying it). It seems anything that keeps people from just regurgitating other people's thoughts is a good thing.

Charles Gramlich said...

There's definitely something to be said for this response. One particular issue, though, is that reader response varies with reader mood and many other external factors not under the reader or author's control.

William Jones said...

Reader Response theory is a growing trend in the teaching of literature. And, I think, there is no doubt that a reader has a personal response to a work. The question of critical thinking is often raised because so many readers dismiss a work, reading it at the surface level, or not attempting to do more than have a response of "I like it" or "I didn't like it."

Why is that a problem? Many suggest that new readers are not being taught how to read metaphor, simile, or sub-text. And to suggest that such things exist in a work often gets the response, "You're reading too much into it."

I'm always amazed when some teachers revolt against reader response as though a reader cannot have an opinion, while others embrace to the point of allowing the students to teach each other about the work. Mind you, students exchanging ideas is very good. But if everything is read concretely, then there could be a problem.

A few months back I read a review of a book on Amazon. The author was condemned by the reviewer for saying that the "...clouds clawed across the sky." The grumble was "clouds don't have claws and that wasn't the only stupid sentence in the book."

That is perhaps reader response at it's worst. :)

Stewart Sternberg said...

It's a blessing of genre writing, isn't it Spy? A hard target audience.

Why do people keep saying I "endlessly go to school"? I'll tell you one major reason though. If you are going to be a teacher, it is expected that you will continue your education. It's also expected that you will not be reimbursed. At least I've never been. Money, anyone?

Zoe, I am always looking for signs of internalization of content in my students. As for my readers?

Charles, that's what makes it so difficult. If you accept Rosenblatt, you also come to her views with the understanding that we approach materials with something called "multiple identities". Because there are so many factors at play, sifting through them all and looking for underlying patterns becomes something of a conundrum.

You know, William, before teacher and student can begin exploring interpretations, there must first be a common vocabulary. Without an understanding of metaphor, simile, or subtext, the conversation cannot go forth. That being said, unless the students make a connection with a work, they are going to fight the interpretation and appreciation of that work.

I shudder when I think of where such discussions might lead, namely the idea that too many books being taught are the products of old white men. You know I think that's an absurd line of reasoning, but I can hear the "connections" and "identities" lines of reasoning being used to buoy up that perspective. God help us all.

Donnetta Lee said...

Hmm. I need to study this more in order to make a thoughtworthy decision. It seems to me that if a good teacher can draw students back to the language and use of language in the piece THEN solicite responses THEN (where it is known) discuss what the writer supposedly intended--that would be a good exercise. Encourage free thought but also encourage understanding and use of language/literature. I'll have to talke to the English/reading teachers when school starts and ask them about this. Interesting.

SQT said...

I like this idea. I can't tell you how many times the teacher's explanation colored my perception of books I read in college. I found, as I got older, that I prefer to read something on my own, without input from anyone, until I have drawn my own conclusions. Then I like to hear what others have to add. I have found out that I am more perceptive than I originally gave myself credit for.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Initially, there is merit to watching what inexperienced students will bring to the work. But it's the educator's job to guide them beyond that or learning stagnates. Ideally, there should always be room for both.

Stewart Sternberg said...

donetta, I promise to do more research and more postings on this subject. It's of tremendous interest to me.

SQT, I am for anything that can give me additional strategies for reaching out to students and improving their experience in education.

l.a. mitchell, what you pose is the interesting argument between student centered and teacher centered learning. I think you would agree that the extreme in either direction is a bad thing. I think you would also agree that without first giving students the intellectual tools they need, they would be unable to articulate or defend a position.