An Application of Literary Theory: Considering Reader Response Theory in the Writing of Book Reviews

This paper is about how Reader-Response Theory can be applied to writing book reviews. The notion appeals to me because I have written about a dozen book reviews for a small publication called OhioAna Quarterly. In my opinion, a good review reveals the following: what the book is about, the reviewer’s opinion of the book combined with an analysis, and reasons why or why not a reader should pick up a book. Those are the bare essentials of a review. However, I believe that applying Reader-Response Theory can enable a writer to create more depth within a book review.  As a novice in literary criticism, I became fascinated in Reader-Response Theory, because like book reviewing, the reader is thrust into the forefront when regarding the book in question. The difference between book reviewing and Reader-Response criticism is that book reviews are written for the reader while Reader-Response criticisms are written about the reader.

Reader-Response is new in comparison to other types of criticisms.  According to chapter 3 on Reader-Response Criticism in The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, “The critics grouped together as reader-response theorists share a topic rather than a set of assumptions. They all have in common the conviction that the audience plays a vitally important role in shaping the literary experience and the desire to help to explain that role” (917). It is important to note that reviewers are a part of the audience studied in Reader-Response Theory. The role of the reviewer should be to shape the literary experience and to explain their role in reading the text under examination.

The biggest challenge the theory presents is that Reader-Response Theorists tend to take differing viewpoints based on other theories. According to David H. Richter, who wrote and edited A Critical Condition, “interest in the reader is a late development in critical theory. As a topic for investigation, it has attracted each of the major schools of thought, from Marxism through structuralism and feminism to deconstruction” (931).  Reader-Response Theory attracts critics such as Stanley Fish and Hans Robert Jauss whose approaches to the theory vary. On his website John Lye notes six different viewpoints a response theorist can take. An explanation of how the viewpoints can be applied to reviews will be included in the analysis. Although there are many different theories that can be adopted such as Marxism and Feminism, potential viewpoints that will be discussed include Hermeneutic, Phenomenological, Structuralist, Psychoanalytic, Political/Ideological, and Post-Structuralist. Despite the variety of viewpoints, the main point of Reader-Response Theory remains the same—to emphasize the importance of the relationship between a reader and the respective text.

Choosing amongst the various viewpoints of Reader Response Theory to focus on can help strengthen the book reviewer’s role in shaping the literary experience. However, the task of applying reader response theory to book reviews can be complicated. Positions such as hermeneutics and phenomenology can be difficult for a reviewer to comprehend, let alone apply. However, there are choices such as the political or the psychoanalytical viewpoint that may be easier to adopt. Before choosing, it is important to be familiar with the various positions.

The Hermeneutic Position 

What a reader brings to a text in terms of contextual knowledge is primarily what concerns those critics adopting the hermeneutic position. The hermeneutic view might be tricky for a reviewer to apply because it does not address what a reader can get out of a text. According to Terry Eagleton, the word hermeneutic means “the science or art of interpretation” (56) Eagleton credits Martin Heidegger as a pioneer of hermeneutical phenomenology. He writes, “[…] it is called this because it bases itself upon questions of historical interpretation rather than on transcendental consciousness” (57). The emphasis is on the interpretation rather than the potential of a book to transform a person’s mind.

Of hermeneutics, Lye writes, “The reader can only approach the text with her own fore understanding, which is grounded in history. However as the text is similarly grounded in history, and as often there is much in the histories that is shared and well as what is not, there is both identity and strangeness.” (2) As a society we have a shared history of popular culture (most people know about Spiderman or King Kong and references to either would be identified by the reader). The general audience should also be able to identify basic historical facts such as who the President of the United States was during the Civil War. However, there is certain specialized knowledge that many readers would not have. For example, only those who have a physics background will understand Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and Quest for the Ultimate Theory, a book about String Theory, a physics concept. However, if String Theory had long been part of our culture or if everyone could easily grasp physics then most readers would understand the book. A reviewer writing about the book by Green might want to adopt a hermeneutics viewpoint. The subject matter and how many people would understand it could be featured prominently in the review.

In contrast, if the book is one that people of average intelligence can relate to and understand, based on their experiences, than hermeneutics may also be useful. However, it may not be appropriate to adopt the viewpoint while writing about a book written with the purpose of persuading people to adopt an ideology or if the book is meant to instruct or inform because those books would involve some sort of transcendence by the reader—an occurrence that Reader-Response theorists with hermeneutical or phenomenological views rejects.

The Phenomenological Position

The phenomenological view, an extension of hermeneutics, is philosophical in nature and may be the most difficult of all the positions discussed to comprehend and apply. Unlike psychoanalytical criticism, the phenomenological position is objective in nature. As Eagleton writes, “It is […] a wholly uncritical, non-evaluative mode of analysis” (52). This aspect of the position may prove useless to reviewers because the nature of a book review is subjective. The viewpoint also disregards any biographical information about the author in favor of the author’s consciousness as it applies to the text. Eagleton writes, “The text itself is reduced to a pure embodiment of the author’s consciousness: all of its stylistic and semantic aspects are grasped as organic parts of a complex totality, of which the unifying essence is the author’s mind” (51). It is not impossible for a reviewer to adopt this position because a lot of what a reviewer does is to provide an interpretation of the writer’s conscious for the reader. However, I believe the phenomenological position is a difficult one to grasp let alone apply to a review. The success of this position depends on a reviewer’s competence in understanding the viewpoint and maintaining objectivity.

Although the viewpoint seems complicated, Eagleton explains the position in simple terms. He writes, “Phenomenology varies each object in imagination until it discovers what is invariable about it” (48). He adds, “To grasp any phenomenon wholly and purely is to grasp what is essential and unchanging about it” (48). A key word that Eagleton uses is “unchanging.” Another key word is “phenomenon.” Putting the two words together may make the position easier to adopt because one will know to look for an unchanging phenomenon. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt uses a lot of internal dialogue, which explains what is in his consciousness. If a reviewer, opting to stay objective, takes a phenomenological viewpoint, then he might analyze, for example, what is unchanging about McCourt’s internal dialogue. The reviewer might also analyze how readers would process this internal dialogue.

The Psychoanalytical Position

In his outline (online) of Reader-Response Theory, Lye writes, “the real meaning of the text is the meaning created by the individual’s psyche in response to the work, at the unconscious level and at a subsequent conscious level, as the material provided by the text opens a path between the two, occasioning richer self-knowledge and realization” (2). Perhaps one of the most practical ways of applying the approach is for the reviewer to actually analyze their own psyche and to reveal how the text in question could lead to a richer self-knowledge and realization. A downfall of this position is the danger that a reviewer may come across as too self-indulgent. Further, I must note again that Reader-Response theorists such as Stanley Fish and Hans Robert Jauss downplay the idea that any kind of transcendence occurs during reading.

According to the author(s) of Reception Theory, “In Yet Once More,” Fish also says that the reception of a text governs its meaning, but he repudiates a text’s transformative force […]” (2).
A consideration of the author’s background is appropriate when adopting the psychoanalytic viewpoint. Reviewers may want to analyze how an author’s childhood, dreams, or other personal situation such as a history of mental illness impacts the audience reading the text. For example, in his memoir Teacher Man, Frank McCourt seems to be suffering on a psychological level. He writes, “If I knew anything about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis I’d be able to trace all my troubles to my miserable childhood in Ireland.” (1). Not many others would make a direct mention of a theory, but many might have a theory in mind while writing a text. This is true about any of the viewpoints/theories discussed in this paper.

It helps that the psychoanalytic viewpoint is usually subjective. Using this position, a reviewer applying Reader-Response Theory can include any personal opinion.  According to Richter, who wrote much of The Critical Tradition, “Psychoanalytic critics like Norman Holland and social psychologist like David Bleich leave the ideal reader behind in favor of the quivering and unpredictable individual reader and his or her genuine, but subjective response. (924). It is hard to imagine any reader as “quivering,” but is true that a reader is unpredictable. Even if the original writer or reviewer has a theory or viewpoint in mind while creating the text, the reader may not identify it. It depends on how obvious the writer is about presenting the viewpoint/theory. It also depends on how educated the reader is in terms of theory.

The Structuralist Position

The position of Structuralism is another possibility, though the viewpoint, popular in the 1960s, might be considered outmoded. According to Eagleton, the structuralist theory downplays the individual as well as common sense.  When not included under the umbrella of Reader-Response Theory, perhaps it is true that Structuralist Theory pays more attention to structures such as individual words, than to the author or character in a book. However, when included under the larger term of Reader-Response theory, Structuralism depends very much on an individual—the reader. John Lye writes, “The ‘meaning’ then depends largely on the competence of the reader in responding to the structures and practices of the text and which operate implicitly (i.e. they affect us without our knowing it); the competent reader can make these explicit” (2-3). In other words, the reader should understand structuralism. Without the reader’s understanding, structuralism would be rather useless to the reviewer, unless the reviewer can adequately explain the theory to readers.

Richter agrees. He suggests the potential of the theory. He writes, “Culler argues that structuralism has been led astray by its long search for syntactic keys to authorial meaning and suggests that the movement would gain momentum if it concentrated its attention on the conventions that readers must learn and the procedures they must follow in interpreting the text” (922).  The two authors are correct that a structuralist position demands that readers must have a certain amount of skill in responding to the text. Readers must be able to identify the various structures and describe the function that each structure performs in the text. The theory is complicated because one must be able to identify a structure as prescribed by the theory. Because the theory is so complicated, its potential has not been reached. In my opinion, any aspect of a novel can be a structure—a word, a sentence, a chapter, a character, and a plot are all examples of structures that can be examined using this theory. A reviewer can ask “how does this sentence inform the reader? Or, what function does this character perform in delivering the message of the text?

Another application of the viewpoint is to look at how the chapters are arranged in a book and explain how they function as whole in terms of providing meaning to the reader. Another is to analyze a plot. For example Author James Joyce, who wrote the highly regarded book Ulysses, structured his plot around the Homeric parallel of the Odyssey. The novel is extremely hard to comprehend, but one (keeping structuralism in mind) can understand the basic plot (though it varies from the version of the story it parallels) by comparing it to the Odyssey. A reviewer would have to identify both the plot and the parallel as structures and also explain to the reader how both work to make the novel easier to understand.

The Political/Ideological Position

The easiest position for a reviewer to adopt is the political or ideological position. Lye writes, “Texts that include statements, assumptions, attitudes, which are intrinsically ideological, i.e. express attitudes towards and beliefs about certain sets of social and political realities, relations, values and powers [embody the Political/Ideological position]” (3). Political or Ideological viewpoints represented in books can gain a lot of attention. In the film world, those films presenting certain ideologies, usually from a liberal standpoint, are films most likely to be nominated for an Academy Award. For example, the critically acclaimed Brokeback Mountain depicted a gay relationship between two cowboys. The film was adapted from a short story of the same name written by Annie Proulx.

Eagleton writes, “There is, in fact, no need to drag politics into literary theory: […] it has been there from the beginning. (168) I think what he means is that writers have always put their ideologies in the text. Because politics are so obvious to spot, reviewers have often examined the political bent of a book, though they may or may not have considered a reader’s response to the featured ideology. Further, some books such as How to talk to a Liberal (If You Must)by Anne Coulter, directly address politics. Others like Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon address the issue that developmentally-challenged people (such as the author’s sister) have certain rights.

Questions to be considered by a reviewer using the political position of reception theory is: How will readers react to characters in the book which represent certain social groups such as women or gays? How will readers react to the ideology or political viewpoint adopted by the writer?

Post-Structuralist Position

According to Eagleton the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism is that structuralism sees “the poem or novel as a closed entity, equipped with definite meanings which it is the critic’s task to decipher, to seeing it as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be nailed down to a singe centre, essence or meaning” (120).

Post-structuralism focuses on indefinite meanings. Lye writes, “meaning is indeterminate, is not ‘in’ the text but in the play of language and the nuances of conventions in which the reader is immersed […] (3). In other words, readers must put some effort into getting meaning out of a text.

It is important to reviewers to be familiar with post-structuralism and post modernism because many contemporary authors are considered post modernists. Post Modernist authors, such as John Edgar Wideman who wrote Sent for you Yesterday, will construct their texts in a way that encourages readers to interpret and even guess at the text’s meaning. Meaning represented in the text, therefore, depends on the reader’s interpretation. Those reviewers wanting to endorse literature as art might want to embrace post-structuralism. Authors that require some effort in interpreting the text are considered to be better writers by reviewers interested in writing as an art form. It is suggested that those reviewers who prefer books written in a more straightforward style not adopt the post structuralist viewpoint.

In conclusion, the main goal of this paper is to provide reviewers with a variety of viewpoints that Reader-Response Theory adopts so that reviewers can add depth to their reviews. Reader-Response Theory encompasses a variety of viewpoints—psychoanalytical, hermeneutical, phenomenological, political, structural and post structural. The choice of viewpoint depends on the reviewer. Reviewers are encouraged to be familiar with all the viewpoints and assess whether the viewpoint considered is a good fit for the book to be reviewed. Some viewpoints are easier to adopt than others. Hermeneutics and phenomenology are difficult to understand and thus, may be difficult to apply—especially phenomenology as it is an objective mode of analysis. A reviewer applying phenomenology may be challenged by the subjective nature of writing reviews. In contrast, the psychoanalytical and political viewpoints are easy to understand and apply in reviews. Structuralism, the favored viewpoint of this author, may be considered outmoded. It also is another difficult viewpoint for a reviewer to adopt. It depends on a reviewer’s competency in identifying structures and explaining the relevancy of those structures to the readers. Post structuralism is based on the notion of interpretation. It is an appropriate viewpoint for reviewers to adopt because many contemporary writers deliberately construct their texts so that interpretations will vary amongst readers.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1996.

Lye, John. “Reader-Response: Various Positions.” Brock University. 4 April 2006.

Machor, James L. and Philip Goldstein. Reception Study. “Introduction.” New York: Routeledge. 2001.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston and New York: Bedford Press. 1998.