Why every review of a creative work is as valid as the other

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Reader-Response Theory
AKA why no one is right and no one is wrong – or both at the same time

I have always believed that every review of a creative work i.e. in this instance a fictional text/work of fiction, is as valid as the other, because there is no “true” or “ultimate” meaning in any text. The author’s is just another meaning, and the moment the text is out there it becomes owned and understood by each and everyone who engages with it.

Every reader makes their own meaning of a fictional text, and that’s why one can find wildly different reviews and opinions of every work of fiction that has ever been made available to readers. Have we not all encountered this phenomenon and sometimes thought “but how can this reader like this? It’s crap!” or “I don’t understand how they could not like this, it’s fantastic!” and every single shade in between. This is particularly true for sequels, where reader expectations play a strong part, because they will have built their own meaning already.

Let’s have a look at Reader-Response Theory, which to me explains the above admirably.

Back in the 1930s a new attention to the reading process – and thus the reader – emerged to focus on the reader’s role in creating meaning. Louise Rosenblatt was the pioneer in 1938 in Reader-Response Theory, with other leading proponents being much later in the early 1960s Wayne Booth, and in the late 1970s Stanley Fish.

Back in the 1980s, when I was in grammar school, I remember that we were still looking for meaning in a text and interpreting literature by trying to understand what the author might have meant – and by learning everything about the author and what might have influenced this meaning-making. All well and good, and certainly interesting, but as someone else has said: “sometimes the meaning of ‘the wall was blue’ is not that the author tried to express melancholy, but that the wall was f****ing blue!”

Reader-Response Theory, on the other hand, is built on “Text and text alone”, and there are two fundamental beliefs:

  1. The role of the reader is vital for our understanding of literature.
  2. Readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an ‘objective’ literary text. Instead they actively make the meaning they find in the text.

Therefore, different readers will read the same text differently, and the reader is the necessary third component in the relationship that constitutes the literary work:

Any literary work is not fully created until the reader assimilates it and actualises it in light of their own knowledge and experience. Even the same reader reading the same text on two different occasions will probably produce different meanings because of the many variables contributing to the experience of a literary text.


Reading is a process, and during this process the reader continually reflects on the text while meaning-making within their own context. Each reader reads literary work for himself/herself, while drawing on past experiences, and molding new experiences from new text.

As a literary text is read, readers respond to it in their own personal way:

  • Feelings, associations, memories, etc. occur as we read
  • These responses influence the way in which we make sense of the text as we move through it.
  • Literature read prior to this reading has an effect on the meaning-making
  • The reflection is based on the sum total of accumulated knowledge at any given reading
  • Current mental (mood) and physical condition are influencing factors

The second reading of a literary text produces greater (different) insights:

  • Knowledge acquired between first and second reading (including other literary texts)
  • Personal experiences that have taken place since
  • Change in condition and mood between two readings
  • Change in purpose/why the text is read again

Transactional Reader-Response

Transactional Reader-Response analyses transactions between the reader and the literary text. Both elements necessary in meaning-making i.e. no text = no meaning, no reader = no making, and vice versa.

Well, does this ring a bell for anyone? Of course there are also varied criticisms of the Reader-Response Theory, and I encourage you to take a look around and make up your minds for yourselves.

Next up I will take a look at Cognitive Reading Theory and Theory of Mind to further understand why no story is ever read the same at any given time, and no reaction is ever the same, either.


Knapp (2010) Reading Fiction—an Introduction to Reader Response theory. Available at: http://instructorknapp.blogspot.com/2010/09/reading-fictionan-introduction-to.html

Lorenzen, J (2006) An Application of Literary Theory: Considering Reader Response Theory in the Writing of Book Reviews. Available at: http://www.oppapers.com/essays/Theory-In-The-WritIng-Of-Book/439750

Rosenblatt, L (1938) Literature as Exploration, New York: Appleton-Century.

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