So, you’re interested in reader response? Good choice. This is a popular theory in literature in which author intentions do not matter, and no reader interpretation can be wrong. It’s the literary equivalent of giving everybody a medal, even if they come in last place, and that is why it is so enduring. You have chosen to learn about the Steve Guttenberg of literary theory. Congratulations. It’s the best.
Where does reader response come from?
Reader response was popularised by American libertarian Stanley Fish, who was like ‘No gov’ment gonna tell me what my stoh-ries gonna be ’bout.’ But it has its roots much earlier. A significant moment in the movement was Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, in which he stated that killing authors and then absorbing their essence is ok. When he was arrested for these remarks, he clarified that he’d meant that the author is only involved in creating the architecture of the book, and that meaning is forever deferred to the reader. The author ceases to be an authority. Hence, he/she ‘dies’. Barthes was a huge drama queen.
Can you give me an example?
As you wish. As an example, I’ve chosen the bio-mythography ‘Zami: A New Spelling of my Name’ by Audre Lourde.
Audre Lourde, the black, lesbian poet?
Yes. You see, when people consider author intent, they will consider some things that Audre intended to portray. Her battles against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her struggle with identity when there was nothing but social stigma against everything that she was. Her bold reclaiming of self against a world that sought to define and control the very essence of how she existed as a person. But with reader response, I can say ‘fuck all that, this book is about lego’.
… Aren’t you a straight, white guy?
Yep! And it’s my solemn right to take this very personal story by a black, gay woman, a group never represented in literature, and say ‘ignore all that. It’s about a Danish building toy.’
… What makes you think it’s about lego? Is lego ever mentioned? Is there lego imagery?
That’s the beauty! The imagery can be made to back up anything you say too. You see, there’s a scene in the book in which Audre sleeps with a woman for the first time. She portrays it as a moment of self-acceptance, of realising who she is. But I interpret it as a rumination on how difficult it is to build Arkham Asylum in lego. Sex represents madness, which represents Arkham Asylum. The woman is in her fifties, and lego is also kind of old. Hence, lego Arkham Asylum. And Audre’s inexperienced, hence difficulty.
Wow. That is a really big stretch. Like, you’d have to be a crazy person to come up with that.
Doesn’t matter! Nobody can tell me I’m wrong. There’s another image, in which Audre’s mother tries to shield her from the dehumanisation of racism as a child by telling her that when white people spit at them, it’s because those people are ill-mannered, and are spitting into the wind, not at them.
Holy fuck. That’s devastating.
Yeah, well now it’s about the fraught relationship between lego and kinex.
I took their suffering, and I made it about toys. Boom. Reader response.
This is upsetting me.
Why? With reader response, we can do whatever the hell we want! We are like GODS! You were trying to talk about poverty and infant mortality Charles Dickens? Well now it’s about lego. You wanted to write about the horror of child soldiers Ken Saro-Wiwa? Well now it’s about lego!
Why would you want to do that?
It’s a way of empowering the readers. Like when Jeanette Winterson wouldn’t take a selfie with me, so I wrote a reader response book that said her work was sympathetic towards fascism.
Yeah. I’m not considered a good person. But nobody could tell me I was wrong, because it’s not possible to be wrong in reader response. Hence, I am empowered.
I don’t want to talk to you anymore.
That’s understandable. But have you learned something about reader response theory?
I’ve learned that you can say whatever the hell you want without any attention to facts or context. So it’s basically like arguing on the internet.
Yes. The most noble endeavour a man can undertake.
Please get away from me.
You’re welcome Padawan. You’re welcome.
@stanleyfishfan has an internet connection, and once considered maybe doing a night class on literature, but realised that people were idiots who could never know as much as him. He likes lego.