Experiencing Reading—an Introduction to Reader Response theory

Fiction is defined as imaginary writing, not necessarily based on factual or historical reality, but instead is a product of the writer's imagination. "In the broadest sense of the word," according to Bedfords Glossary of Literary Terms, "any writing that relates imagined characters and occurrences rather than recounting real ones" is fiction. Non-fiction attempts to be factual, true. Memoir and narrative non-fiction live on the border of fiction and non-fiction. Most other genres are easily classified as either non-fiction, or fiction.

The process for examining fiction is similar to reading non-fiction, even though the story being told is imaginary. When considering non-fiction the reader must determine the controlling idea, or purpose and examine the claims and evidence; however, fiction readers engage in character and plot and, hopefully, consider what deeper themes are at play. Although consideration of the author's life and purpose is also relevant when reading fiction, this consideration is secondary to the meaning derived from the actual text. Non-fiction writers are more often judged on their credentials, or ethos, including their professional stature, degrees, and experience on a topic.

No matter if it's fiction or not fiction "making meaning" of the text is central to a "reader response" essay. According to Reader Response theorists, meaning occurs during the "transaction" of reading wherein the author's intention is skewed by the reader's interpretation.

Reading is an individual process of making meaning—and this experience of meaning making varies from individual to individual. Reader Response theorists root this variety in schema theory. Schema is a mental framework of knowledge built from prior experience. Each person's schema is different therefore interpretations of reading are multiplicitous because all reading is viewed through the lens of schemata. 

In a Reader Response essay, a reader discusses her experience with the reading. This may include a discussion of how her interpretation of a text/topic differs from the author, or how the writing triggered a memory or deeper personal reflection on an aspect of the text or life in general, or how the text made her consider a topic in a unique and/or meaningful way, or how the act of reading itself unfolded, including challenges or difficulties with the reading. Ultimately, it is the reader's experience with the text that matters, and as long as the response is connected to the text, the sky is the limit as far as where this type of writing can go. 

Read more about Reader Response theory and Stanley Fish

Fish emphasizes the concept of Interpretive Communities and how agreed upon strategies in Interpretive Communities also have powerful influences over the process of making-meaning. One thing to keep in mind is that reading is a temporal process, according to Reader Response theorists, so the way a text unfolds contributes to its meaning. One way to pay attention to the temporal process of reading is to frequently make predictions (write them in the margins) as you read, then take time to think about how accurate previous predictions are about the reading.

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