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date: 05 March 2021

Reception Theory, Reception History, Reception Studiesfree

  • Ika WillisIka WillisSchool of the Arts, English and Media, University of Wollongong


Reception-oriented literary theory, history, and criticism, all analyze the processes by which literary texts are received, both in the moment of their first publication and long afterwards: how texts are interpreted, appropriated, adapted, transformed, passed on, canonized, and/or forgotten by various audiences. Reception draws on multiple methodologies and approaches including semiotics and deconstruction; ethnography, sociology, and history; media theory and archaeology; and feminist, Marxist, black, and postcolonial criticism. Studying reception gives us insights into the texts themselves and their possible range of meanings, uses, and value; into the interpretative regimes of specific historical periods and cultural milieux; and into the nature of linguistic meaning and communication.

What Is Reception?

Reception is often identified with one particular strand of thought, the “reception aesthetic” or “reception theory” of the Konstanz School: significant theoretical work on reading and understanding, influenced by the philosophy of Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, undertaken at the University of Konstanz in the 1960s and 1970s by the medievalist Hans Robert Jauss and the 18th-century scholar Wolfgang Iser.1 In current practice, however, reception and its sister term, reader-response, usually refer to a much more methodologically and theoretically eclectic field, drawing on the theories of Jauss and Iser but also on some of the most important critical traditions of the 20th century: book and media history; reader-response criticism; feminist, Marxist, black, and postcolonial theory; and the poststructuralist, semiotic, and deconstructive tradition associated with the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s.

Reception is best understood, then, not as a unified theory or a school of criticism, but as an orientation which cuts across multiple schools, approaches, and methodologies within literary studies, literary theory, and literary history—as well as other fields, especially cultural studies, media studies, and the history and sociology of reading.

In literary studies, reception involves a focus on meaning and other textual effects as they are produced by readers, rather than as they are intended by authors or stably encoded in texts. In literary theory, reception maps dynamic processes of semiosis, interpretation, appropriation, and adaptation, rather than stable textual or even contextual structures. In literary history, reception emphasizes processes of selection and reception in accounting for the ongoing, or interrupted, transtemporal movement and power of texts. Barbara Goff describes this as a “pull” model rather than a “push” model: great texts do not survive by pushing themselves through time to outlast their competitors through their own superior strength, but rather are constantly pulled into the ever-changing present by repeated acts of reception, which cumulatively create a selective tradition.2

Ultimately, reception is an orientation to the study of literature which takes seriously the communicative nature of the literary text. Texts are communicative, firstly, in the sense that they are linguistic or semiotic artefacts, which are designed to be read; their meanings (and other, noncognitive, effects) are generated only in and through encounters with readers.3

“Nothing is a sign,” wrote Charles Saunders Peirce, “unless it is interpreted as a sign.”4 Similarly, if there is no one capable of reading a text, or at least recognizing it as a text, it is not a text—a notion explored in Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction short story “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” where the therolinguists of the future learn how to read many objects which do not appear to us today as susceptible to reading.5 They begin with a message “written in touch-gland exudation on degerminated acacia seeds” beside the dead body of a revolutionary warrior ant, and dream of the day in the far future when they will “fac[e] the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant,” ultimately aspiring to decipher “the . . . wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.”6

Texts are communicative, secondly, because they themselves are communicated: they travel through time and space on circuits of reception, often enjoying a long and varied afterlife beyond the initial moment of their production and first reception, their traces appearing in a vast array of texts, objects, and artefacts across space and time. The reception of classic Hollywood cinema, for example, takes place not only in reviews, or even in remakes, but in the bodies of women cinemagoers who held cigarettes, brushed their hair, or walked down staircases in ways copied from Bette Davis and other 1930s stars.7 Meanwhile the texts which make up the Christian Bible, composed over millennia, live on in acts of reception “from Jesus reading Isaiah, or Augustine reading Romans, to a Sunday-school nativity play, or the appearance of 2COR4:6 as a stock number of military gunscopes.”8

Texts communicate something to readers, and are themselves communicated across time and space. It is appropriate then that the term “reception” is drawn from the lexicon of communications theory, invoking a sender, a message, a receiver—and, crucially, a system of communication, which pre-exists the activities of sender and receiver. Such a system both enables and constrains the possibilities of communication according to its particular social-semiotic-technical features or affordances. In fact, acts of reception are shaped not just by readers, not just by texts, but by a complexly interlocking and historically variable set of systems—semiotic, interpretative, technological, material, physiological-cognitive-affective, institutional, ideological, and socio-cultural—which position readers and texts in relation to one another before any encounter, any response, even takes place.

Taking seriously the communicative nature of the literary text means approaching texts not as the “well-wrought urns” that the New Critics saw—aesthetically unified, bounded and self-identical objects—but rather as objects with an uncertain boundary and an “unstable ontology.”9 The text becomes unstable and its boundary dissolves from two directions at once. Firstly, as Roland Barthes points out, meaning cannot originate in a text, because texts draw on linguistic and semiotic systems and conventions which pre-exist them. “A text is . . . a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”10 Secondly, meaning cannot end up in a text, because texts exist as such only when read—that is, only in dynamic interaction with readers. “There is no text,” writes John Fiske, “there is no audience, there are only the processes of viewing.”11 Similarly, Janice Radway advocates in New Directions in American Reception Study for a shift of focus away from “texts” and “readers” to “something like the cultural network of capillary action by which a society talks to itself about its conditions of existence.”12

According to the communicative model which underlies all reception-oriented approaches to literature, the literary text comes into being as a text when the manifold codes and signs which make it up are decoded by individual readers, according to particular conventions of interpretation (such as genre conventions), in historically and culturally specific contexts of use.13 These acts and processes are multileveled and complex, but for the purposes of analysis, we can roughly separate them out into four broad levels: (a) language and meaning (the basic semiotic structures within which texts are “encoded and decoded”); (b) readers (the specific, historically conditioned subjects who read and respond to texts); (c) regimes of reading (technological systems for recording, transmitting, and decoding information, as well as institutional, ideological, socio-cultural, and historical norms of interpretation which enable and constrain the reception acts and processes of individual readers); and (d) rewritings (the new texts produced by readers in response to older texts).14

Rewritings (Text-to-Text Reception)

Although rewritings come last in the sequence of reception just outlined, they are in some ways the most straightforward available object for analysis by reception scholars. Studying reception always means studying something which functions as evidence of reading or interpretation: my reading of an advert on the bus to work this morning, which takes place only inside my head and is quickly forgotten even by me, is an act of reception, but one which leaves no trace behind for analysis. To some extent, then, all scholars of textual reception are studying some form of rewriting.

In Umberto Eco’s words, “every reception of a work of art is both a translation and a performance of it”: that is, every individual reading creates a new, unique version of the text.15 (Barthes calls the act of reading “semelfactive,” drawing on a linguistic term for non-repeated actions.16) We can reconstruct a reader’s interpretation of a text from various forms of evidence which can be construed as translation or commentary: these may include actual comments (written down in the margins of the text, for example, or in a diary or an Amazon or Goodreads review), but they may also include new literary texts, written in response to the earlier one. John Frow argues that “taking new production as a stand-in for reception” in this way enables us to “focus on relatively objective transformations which can be taken as correlates for a process of reception that can only be reconstructed with great difficulty.”17 In other words, if we examine full-scale rewritings of texts, we can compare the rewritten version to the earlier text and observe “relatively objective” similarities and differences between the two, including formal features like medium, length, point of view, and narrative structure: this is a less “methodologically cumbersome” way of analyzing interpretative processes than attempting to reconstruct the whole chain of reading, reception, and interpretation.18

A receiving text “works by selection;” it “realigns along its own axis the features of the [earlier text] that are pertinent to it, activating some of them and disregarding others.”19 We can see how a reader/writer has interpreted an earlier text by comparing her rewriting to the text being rewritten: which features have been selected, activated, or disregarded in the new version?

Such a “text-to-text” (rather than “text-to-reader”) approach to reception is frequently taken by Classicists and scholars of Biblical reception, in part because they have such a rich variety of material to work with in the form of retellings and re-versionings of Classical and Biblical texts and artworks, from early modern sermons to contemporary stagings of Greek tragedy. Gerard Genette refers to re-versionings as “literature in the second degree,” or “palimpsests:” works which are “in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts.”20 That broad relationship is one of reception, and palimpsestuous works are commonly referred to as “receptions” in themselves in both Classical and Biblical reception studies.

Viewed as interpretations of earlier texts, receiving texts tell us both about the earlier texts themselves and about the interpreters and their processes of interpretation. The art critic, narratologist, and literary theorist Mieke Bal argues that

art is inevitably engaged with what came before it, and that engagement is an active reworking. It specifies what and how our gaze sees. Hence, the work performed by later images obliterates older images as they were before that intervention and creates new versions of old images instead.21

That is, a later artwork which “quotes” Caravaggio, say, determines what we see and understand when we look again at the Caravaggio painting itself, irreversibly altering our interpretation of the earlier text. This way of positively valuing the way that later artworks alter our appreciation and understanding of earlier works is characteristic of reception-oriented scholarship, as opposed to critical work which seeks to restore the “original” text or context—as, for example, when Richard Jenkyns speaks of the “need to scrape away” the “barnacles of later tradition and interpretation . . . if we are to see [an ancient literary work] in [its] true shape.”22

The greatest intensity of scholarly attention and theorizing has probably, as Julie Sanders argues, been directed towards rewritings which involve some degree of what Genette calls “transposition:” rewritings which “write back” to an earlier text, “resist” it, “misread” it, or read it “against the grain” along political, ideological, ethical, or (more rarely) aesthetic lines.23 A very wide range of rewritings have been read and valorized as acts of subversion of, or resistance to, dominant discourse, from amateur fiction to canonical and complex works of literature. Thus slash fan fiction—stories written by fans about same-sex sexual or romantic relationships between characters in existing media texts, such as Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager—has been seen as a politicized form of writing which insists on the reality of queer desire and its potential to disrupt the heteronormativity of mainstream popular culture and its reception, by refusing to assign same-sex attraction a “subtextual” status.24

In another literary domain, “writing back” and “re-visioning” are central techniques in many canonical works of postcolonial and feminist literature. Gayatri Spivak describes postcolonial rewriting as a process of “reversing, displacing, and seizing the apparatus of value-coding,” as Chinua Achebe does, for example, in Things Fall Apart, a novel which is also a merciless exposure of the racism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.25 Meanwhile, Adrienne Rich describes feminist re-visioning as “the act of . . . seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction.”26 Jean Rhys does exactly this to Jane Eyre in her 1975 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which centers on the experience of the abjected Creole first wife of Mr. Rochester in Bronte’s novel, giving Bronte’s Bertha (now Antoinette) a coherent life narrative and engaging our sympathies with her. These novels, seen as acts of reception, critically interpret, comment on, recontextualize, and transform the texts they receive and rewrite.

Rewriting, however, as Julie Sanders points out, does not always seek to critique or transform an earlier text. It “can also constitute a simpler attempt to make texts ‘relevant’ or easily comprehensible to new audiences and readerships via the processes of proximation and updating.”27 Translations, anthologies, reviews, abridgements, and study guides such as Cliff’s Notes are examples of this kind of rewriting, which has been less exhaustively analyzed by scholars even though, as Andre Lefevere writes, “non-professional readers of literature are, at present, exposed to literature more often by rewritings than by means of writings.”28 Such “proximating” rewritings seek to make texts more easily legible within the dominant poetics and the dominant ideology of the receiving period, culture, or group. For example, E. V. Rieu’s 1946 English translation of Homer’s Odyssey for the Penguin Classics series rendered the work as prose, rather than poetry, on the basis that prose was the usual, and thus unmarked, form for long narratives in the Anglophone world in the 20th century, as hexameter poetry had been for Homer’s original audience. In relation to ideology, Lefevere gives the example of the first German translation of Anne Frank’s diary, noting that it softens or leaves out anti-German sentiments, rendering the book more palatable to its German readers—a decision which was clearly taken by its translators and editors because they felt that it was important to transmit the content of Frank’s diary to a German audience, and they did not want to place unnecessary barriers in the way of that audience.29 In this way, rewriters constantly make small, pragmatic decisions about which elements of a text constitute its core content or essence, and which features are dispensable—as well as making decisions and judgements about what will appeal to a particular audience at a particular time.

A fascinating example, because of its highly constrained form, is the Cosy Classics series of novelty board books for toddlers which represents canonical works of European literature—mainly long 19th-century novels, including Jane Eyre and War and Peace—through only twelve words (together with photographs of needlefelted characters and scenes from the books): Jane Eyre is boiled down to “girl / red / stand / woman / fall / help / kiss / stairs / leave / cold / hot / care.” The text chooses short, everyday words which can be related to the life-world of a 21st century toddler, and which also convey key aspects of the text—defining these key aspects around affect and interpersonal relationships (help, kiss, leave, care); iconic settings (stairs); structural tensions and contrasts (girl/woman; hot/cold); and imagery (red). Presumably a different twelve words will seem salient to a reader in the 22nd century, if Cosy Classics (and Jane Eyre) last that long; we might remember that marriage did not seem to E. M. Forster to be a particularly important feature of Jane Austen’s novels, although the last forty or fifty years of critical and popular reception of Austen has centered on her use of the “marriage plot.”30

Studying rewritings, especially where a text has survived to be rewritten across multiple contexts, can thus reveal a great deal about the ideological and poetological priorities and norms of interpretation in operation at a given time and for a given audience, as we seek to reconstruct the “rules” which have governed the particular operations of selection, combination, and realignment which structure a reception of an earlier text.

Regimes of Reading

“The most subjective reading imaginable,” Barthes states in a 1970 essay, “Writing Reading,” “is never anything but a game played according to certain rules.”31 In other words, the way we read texts is primarily determined neither by our unique subjectivity as readers, nor by the features of the text itself, but rather by the dominant norms or rules for interpretation which govern any particular reading situation. Indeed, the same reader may read the same text quite differently at different moments, depending on whether she is reading it for pleasure or for study.32

Meanings are not to be found, secure and entire, within texts: in order to signify, or mean, at all, texts must invoke broader systems of signification, from genre conventions to language itself. As objects which require to be read, texts thus prompt their readers to construct meanings according to particular conventions of interpretation.33 Wolfgang Iser sums this up when he describes literary texts as “instructions for meaning-production.”34 Peter Rabinowitz likens these “instructions” to those that come with flat-pack furniture: the manufacturer (author) has a particular end product (meaning) in mind, but the consumer (reader) must follow the instructions in order to create the desired object out of the materials provided.

Rabinowitz points out, however, that in practice, readers must be guided by two separate sets of instructions in order to create meaning. Iser refers to “the text’s directions” (the flat-pack instructions): various techniques for positioning the reader and guiding her response, including, for example, narrative structure, evocations of genre conventions, and focalization. Rabinowitz adds that there are also “the readerly presuppositions that allow those directions to work” in the first place.35 Indeed, the same text—embedding the same “directions”—may be interpreted quite differently when different “readerly presuppositions,” conventions, or interpretative strategies are applied to it.

For example, in the afterword to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ describes finding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God “episodic . . . thin . . . uninteresting . . . [and] clearly inferior to the great central tradition of Western literature” on first reading.36 After reading a quantity of “novels, short story collections . . . literary criticism [and] literary journals” by women of color, however, Russ returns to Hurston’s book: “it was astonishing,” she writes, “how much it had improved.”37 Of course, the novel itself, and the directions to the reader embedded in it, have not changed; instead, Russ has learned and internalized a different set of presuppositions which enable her to follow the text’s directions more adequately, and to come to a different set of judgements about the narrative structure and style of the text.

All interpretations, then, proceed on the basis of some kind of rules, conventions, or norms, which are not observable in the text itself but which we may be able to recover. This is the aim and premise of much work in the history of reading or “historical hermeneutics”: James Machor writes that “a historical hermeneutics needs to reconstruct the shared patterns of interpretation for a specific historical era.”38

What the history of reading shows is that the meanings assigned to given texts change over time, often radically, as patterns and norms of interpretation shift. Yvonne Sherwood shows how “between the early Christian period and critical biblical studies,” the dominant interpretation of the Biblical book of Jonah “manages to rotate in meaning through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees,” as Jonah himself moves from being read as a Christ-figure to being seen as the Antichrist.39

Meanings change, but more than this, historically and culturally specific patterns of interpretation actually govern what we see when we look at a text. The Joanna Russ example just given demonstrates this, as does that of the 16th-century miller Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio, whose reading practices are analyzed by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms. Ginzburg shows that the meanings that Menocchio finds in the texts that he reads are determined not so much by the texts themselves as by

the key to his reading, a screen that he unconsciously placed between himself and the printed page: a filter that emphasized certain words while obscuring others, that stretched the meaning of a word, taking it out of its context, that acted on Menocchio’s memory and distorted the very words of the text.40

Tony Bennett has rightly critiqued Ginzburg’s formulation for suggesting that “texts are things that have meanings that may be traduced” or distorted by the “filters” and “screens” we place upon them: in fact, as Bennett argues, “meaning is a transitive phenomenon. It is not a thing that texts can have, but is something that can only be produced, and always differently, within the reading formations that regulate the encounters between texts and readers.”41 Indeed, these filters and screens—the conventions we use to decode the text—are what enable us to construct meaning at all.

Ginzburg’s “filter” metaphor here is, however, useful in that it gives us a striking image for the fact that what one person sees as being in a text is not what another will see. For example, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers has been received by a majority of readers as a humorous collection of fictional/satirical biographies of non-existent (or pseudonymized) Australian authors; these readers miss the fact that the book is actually a novel which works in a similar way to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, by mimicking a non-fictional, scholarly form (in Nabokov’s case, a poem and commentary), and leaving it to the reader to discover the narrative line that gradually develops. In the lengthy and overwhelmingly positive review of O’Neill’s book by Shannon Burns in The Sydney Review of Books, no reference is made to the narrative line, the murder-mystery elements, or to the central character, Rachel: indeed Burns goes so far in his reading of O’Neill’s book as “a raging satire of the literary-biographical form” as to claim that his “only disappointment” is the fact that its blurb refers to it as a novel.42 Readers whose “filter” or “screen” selects and emphasizes the narrative aspects of O’Neill’s text, by contrast, will turn eagerly to the index, compiled by “Ryan O’Neill’s” fictional dead first wife, Rachel, to discover both the outlines of the mystery and its solution. The book is thus what Gary Saul Morson calls a “boundary work” in terms of its genre: “doubly decodable, the same text becomes, in effect, two different works,” here both a satirical history of Australian literature and a murder mystery.43

Wolfgang Iser argues that

The impressions that arise as a result of [the reading] process will vary from individual to individual, but only within the limits imposed by the written . . . text. In the same way, two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable.44

In fact, what counts as a star is also variable according to the “patterns of interpretation” or “filters” which determine what we select as significant or meaning-bearing features of a text. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, who analyzed the notes on the text of Livy made by one particular 16th- or 17th-century reader, Gabriel Harvey, found that “if we use our own understanding of the salient features of the text of Livy (say) to identify the points of crucial importance to an Elizabethan reader we are very likely to miss or to confuse the . . . objects at which reading was directed.”45

People in different historical periods read in different ways and according to different norms, patterns, and principles of interpretation, but so too do people in different interpretative communities within the same period and/or broader culture. Alongside the history of reading, the sociology or ethnography of reading aims at recovering the interpretative strategies and norms of particular reading communities, this time contemporary ones. In 1984, Janice Radway’s highly influential book Reading the Romance sought to discover how a small group of romance readers in a small town in the mid-West of the USA, identified pseudonymously as Smithton, read and evaluated formula romance novels.46 The principles on which this reading community ranked the books they read were opaque to “outsiders” (both literary critics and publishers), and it took significant ethnographic work, analogous to the historical work undertaken by the scholars just cited, for Radway to map and understand them.

Reading Technologies

“Reading is not,” then, as William Johnson writes, “simply the cognitive processing by the individual of the technology of writing, but rather the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context.”47 Technologies of writing, reading, and information storage and transmission in general, change over time and across cultures, and the materiality of the book as object is certainly important to the ways in which readers engage with it.48 However, as Johnson’s own work on reading in the High Roman Empire shows, reading and writing technologies are not simply material, but are always embedded in a broader “sociocultural system” of reading and writing.

For example, in the High Roman Empire, texts were produced and reproduced on scrolls, written in scriptio continua—all in capitals, with no spaces between the words. Contemporary neuroscience shows that THISFORMATISOBJECTIVELYHARDER-FORTHEHUMANBRAINTOPROCESS. Skilled readers tend to respond to the overall shape of words, using risers and descenders (the rising stems of “ds” and descending stems of “ps,” for example) and spaces between words to recognize whole words very quickly: indeed, we can ullausy dcpehier stennneecs nad prhesas wrehe teh ltetres of ivandiuidl wrods hvae been scarbmled firaly elsiay, as long as the first and last letters of the words stay the same. Moreover, early writings in Latin do mark spaces between words, so it is not simply the case that the Romans were late to discover a technological innovation. Why, then, did the Romans reject a mode of writing which leads to more efficient neurocognitive processing of information? Johnson argues that it was because scriptio continua is more difficult to read, and that there is a congruence between the affordances of the technological system of writing and the values associated with reading and writing in the broader Roman sociocultural context. He writes: “We can infer a profound symbiosis between this exaggerated idea of reading competency and the idea of a literature that was itself challenging, in many prominent cases necessitating years of advanced study to fully apprehend.” Indeed, in this context, “it becomes . . . an insult . . . to mark the phrases of a sentence or the basic units of compositional structure in a speech.”49

Over three millennia in the West, there have been several shifts in the dominant forms of information technology, from the scroll to the codex (the bound book); from scriptio continua to Space between Words; from oral to silent reading; from manuscript to print; and from print to digital forms.50 These technological shifts are associated with broader shifts not only in reading practices but also in social organization, “experience and mental outlook,” and even “human consciousness.”51

For example, the rise of print culture and the technological reproducibility of written works is associated with new forms of payment to writers (including royalties) and with the introduction of copyright law.52 Print capitalism has also been linked to the rise of the nation-state as a dominant form of collectivity, wherein widely dispersed subjects/citizens, reading the same newspaper at the same time, felt themselves to be part of the same “imagined community.”53

Meanwhile, new forms of reading and information dissemination associated with digital media, the Internet, and social media platforms, are seen as “reshaping our understanding of what it means to read,” often in negative ways: “portable digital devices . . . coax us to skim rather than read in depth”; “continuous, absorbed,” immersive, or “deep” modes of reading, which are associated with specific forms of aesthetic appreciation, sociality, and empathy, are seen as being threatened by the modes of reading enabled by digital technologies.54

In general, the specific forms, features and affordances of particular technologies are inseparable from broader social and cultural factors: as the film historian Richard Dyer argues in his analysis of the technological and ideological factors affecting the representation of racialized whiteness on film, “all technologies are at once technical in the most limited sense (to do with their material properties and functioning) and also always social (economic, cultural, ideological).”55 Along with technologies come what Lisa Gitelman calls “protocols,” “a vast clutter of normative rules and default conditions, which gather and adhere like a nebulous array around a technological nucleus.”56 Thus, for example, in formal written English the ends of sentences are consistently marked with full stops; in text messages, by contrast, protocol dictates that full stops are generally omitted and their presence at the end of a sentence or message (especially a short message like “Yes”) can become a tonal marker, connoting anger on the part of the writer.

Literacy is itself a technology embedding a “vast clutter” of historically and culturally variable norms and protocols. D. F. McKenzie’s influential 1984 essay “The Sociology of the Written Text” analyses the processes and protocols at play in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the legal basis of British sovereignty over Aotearoa, New Zealand.57 The Treaty was signed in 1840 by the British Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand and about 540 Maori chiefs (rangatira), only twenty-five years after the introduction into Maori culture by British colonizers of alphabetic writing and the system of print literacy—a system very different from the Maori’s pre-existing inscriptive and legal practices.

There are manifold problems with this document, not least the contested translation of “sovereignty” in the Maori version as kawanatanga (a transliteration of the British word “governorship”), apparently deliberately avoiding any number of words/concepts already existing in the Maori language such as mana (prestige, power, status, authority) or rangatiratanga (chieftainship). In addition to these, however, as McKenzie points out, there are the “subtler, more elusive and indeterminate” aspects of literacy: the culturally and historically specific protocols surrounding the act of signing a legal document in a culture of print literacy. McKenzie enumerates some of the protocols which underpin this act and make it legally meaningful: not just “the reduction of speech to alphabetic forms” and “an ability to read and write them,” but also

a readiness to shift from memory to written record, to accept a signature as a sign of full comprehension and legal commitment, to surrender the relativities of time, place and person in an oral culture to the presumed fixities of the written or printed word.58

It is these conventions, not simply the technology of literacy in alphabetic script, which make the signing of the Treaty meaningful to the British in a different way from the Maori chiefs: for example, McKenzie points out that “In signing the treaty, many chiefs made complementary oral conditions which were more important than (and certainly in their own way modified) the words on the page.”59 These modifications, however, although meaningful, legitimate, and real to the chiefs who made them in the context of Maori legal practice, did not significantly modify the terms of the treaty according to the conventions of British law—and it was these conventions which ultimately prevailed.


Texts, then, must always be decoded according to systems of interpretation which are locally and historically variable in ways which may be profoundly significant. As Stephen Mailloux argues, these “interpretive conventions,” “communal procedures for making sense of the world, behavior, communication, and literary texts,” constitute the “most important constraints” on “the production and acceptance of interpretations” in a given cultural (or cross-cultural) and historical (or transtemporal) context.60

This does not mean, however, that individual readers within a particular set of circumstances must necessarily produce identical readings of the same text. On the contrary, as has been shown by, for example, John Brewer’s analysis of the reading practices of the 18th- and 19th-century diarist Anna Larpent, individual readers are powerful agents in the making of meanings and in the reception of texts, and “the reader” has always been a key figure in reception and reader-response criticism—although, inevitably, a vexed one.61

The key conceptual difference to be borne in mind when thinking about “the reader” in literary criticism is the difference between real readers and implied readers.62 Wolfgang Iser, who developed the notion of the implied or implicit reader (impliziter Leser “implicit reader,” translated into English as “implied reader”) in his books Der Impliziter Leser (The Implied Reader) and Der Akt des Lesens (The Act of Reading), writes that “the implied reader . . . has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with the real reader.”63

The implied reader is the addressee of the text, and as such is a textual entity. The means that we can make claims and draw conclusions about certain features of the implied reader on the basis of evidence in the text itself. For example, when Melissa Lucashenko opens her novel Mullumbimby with the line “It is a truth universally acknowledged, reflected Jo, that a teenager armed with a Nikko pen is a pain in the fucking neck,” we can observe that the implied reader of Mullumbimby is familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.64 The fact that there is a glossary of key words from Aboriginal English, Bundjalung, and Yugambeh provided at the back of the book suggests that the reader is expected to be monolingual in non-Aboriginal Australian English—or at least, to be ignorant of words from specifically Aboriginal languages and dialects.

In practice, of course, there is nothing to stop a bilingual English-Bundjalung speaker who has never read Pride and Prejudice from reading Lucashenko’s book. Real-life readers can and do differ in important ways from the readers implied in, or addressed by, texts, as ethnographies and histories of reading have shown: “middle-class girls in the [Edwardian] period preferred the Boy’s Own Paper to its putatively gender-appropriate Girl’s Own,” for example.65 Meanwhile, the animated television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010–2019), aimed at pre-teenage girls, has a substantial adult male following.66

In addition to these potential demographic differences between the reader being addressed and the real-life readers of texts, real-life readers may interact with texts in ways not expected, foreseen, or desired by their authors. If texts do contain “instructions” for readers, as suggested above, real-life readers may disobey or even fail to register those instructions, for a variety of reasons.

Real-life readers may skim and skip or, alternatively, reread the same text over and over again, with fanatical attention to detail, in an act of “overinterpretation.”67 They may attribute texts to genres or even languages other than the ones the author seems to have intended, as in “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” or Pierre-Jaquez Hélias’s mishearing of the Latin Mass in his memoir of a childhood in a Breton village:

We sing the Kyrie eleison with great fervour . . . But we still wonder what all those carts have to do with the celebration of mass. Our ears hear Kirri eleiz 'so (there are heaps of carts), but we never see the colour of a single one.68

They may erase existing characters, as Lynne Pearce does with The Piano, wanting “to inhabit Ada’s dreamscape without Ada in it.”69 They may also insert new ones, as “Beth” does, also with The Piano: “I actually made up a new character that was a woman that Holly [Hunter] fell in love with and of course lives a much better life than she would have.”70 They may “mentally edit” scenes as they watch films, and ignore the endings of narratives.71 They may even not read at all—a mode of engaging with texts which is more complex and manifold than might at first appear.72

None of these activities can be predicted or prevented by the text’s techniques of address, and it is for this reason that Jonathan Rose refers to the “receptive fallacy,” where “critics . . . try to discern the messages a text transmits to an audience by examining the text rather than the audience.”73 Or, as Michel de Certeau puts it, “once the images broadcast by television and the time spent in front of the TV set have been analyzed, it remains to be asked what the consumer makes of these images.”74 It is thus crucial to maintain the theoretical distinction between implied and real readers.

Nonetheless, addressivity remains an important part both of the dynamic signifying processes of the text, and of the (real) reader’s experience. Despite the strong distinction he draws between the real and the implied readers, Iser also emphasizes the interplay between them: “no matter who or what [s/]he may be,” he writes, “the real reader is always offered a particular role to play, and it is this role that constitutes the concept of the implied reader.”75

Reading may then involve playing the role, or moving into the position, that the text sets out for the reader. Critics from Virginia Woolf to Derek Attridge have advocated for a mode of reading where, in Woolf’s terms, “our first duty . . . is to try and understand what the writer is making,” or in Attridge’s, we must “suspend habitual modes of thinking and feeling” in “readiness to have one’s purposes reshaped by the book one is reading.”76 For Charles Altieri, we should try to cultivate a certain readerly passivity with respect to the text, since at the heart of what makes literature and other art forms valuable and worthwhile for their audiences is the experience of being moved.77

Reading may, however, also involve failing—or refusing—to be moved. Walter Gibson, in an early essay on the implied reader (Gibson calls her “the mock reader”), says that a “bad book” is one “in whose mock reader we discover a person we refuse to become, a mask we refuse to put on, a role we will not play.”78 This refusal to move into the position set out by a text is politicized in early second-wave feminist literary criticism—for example, by Judith Fetterley in her 1978 book The Resisting Reader.79 Fetterley argues that there are times when one should not be willing to “have one’s purposes reshaped” by literary texts, and says that, for female readers of canonical English and American literature—overwhelmingly written by and addressed to men—the repeated experience of inhabiting a masculine position has an “immasculating” effect. “Women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view;” this alienates female readers from their own subject positions, in a way which has no parallel for male readers.80 For Fetterley, “the first act of the feminist critic must be to become a resisting rather than an assenting reader,” in order “to begin the process of exorcising the male mind that has been implanted in us.”81

Hermeneutics, Language and Meaning

The meanings of texts are, then, co-constructed by readers in specific circumstances and in negotiation with socially and historically specific norms of interpretation, but in ways that may be highly idiosyncratic. Different readers may make very different things of the same text—or, to put it the other way round, the same text may produce very different affective, cognitive, and hermeneutic outcomes in different readers or in different contexts.

Even when literary critics accept the existence and legitimacy of multiple different interpretations—and, more radically, multiple different systems of interpretation and evaluation—they often seek to differentiate the level of interpretation or reception from “the text itself.” As Stanley Fish writes, they “assume that on some (perhaps molecular) level what is in the text is independent of and prior to whatever people have said about it, and that therefore the text is stable, even though interpretations of it may vary.”82

However, the literary text as read is not only the basis for interpretations, but also the product of them. This is true on the level of the text as an arrangement of words on a page (or screen): the “words on the page” are not an invariant core existing in a pre-hermeneutic domain, awaiting interpretation by a reader.83 Rather, the arrangement of words on the page, as we receive it, is the outcome of a number of interpretative decisions taken by various agents, including but certainly not limited to an author.84 As Jerome McGann says, “All editing is an act of interpretation.”85 All editorial decisions proceed on the basis of the editor’s holistic interpretation of the text being edited, as well as on the basis of assumptions about the audience for whom the text is intended, as we saw in the discussion of the German edition of Anne Frank’s diary above.

It is thus not a simple matter to define or consider a text as such, abstracted and detached from any interpretative activity, for which it serves as the stable and invariant raw material. The same holds for the meaning of words or phrases within a text.

This may at first seem counter-intuitive, because of the conventional nature of language and other sign systems. Words mean what they mean because of broadly shared social/semiotic conventions or rules, which, as such, cannot be overruled on the say-so of individual language users: recognizing a sign as a sign (or a text as a text), and thus as meaningful, entails recognizing and abiding by the rules which assign it a particular meaning within a given system.

The fact that signs acquire meanings by virtue of their place within a system of conventions does not, however, mean that this system of conventions provides signs with a stable layer of meaning which pre-exists their reception within a specific context of communication and use, and/or which remains invariant across multiple contexts. We sometimes think of the “literal” meaning of a word, phrase, or text, as just such an invariant base on which interpretations are built, but in fact most words in any language—as any dictionary shows—have multiple “literal” meanings, and it is contextual factors which determine which of these possible literal meanings is the most likely or pertinent in any given situation. “Most of the words listed” in a dictionary, write Mark Gaipa and Robert Scholes,

come not with a single literal meaning but with a range of probable or potential meanings. In any given situation, a reader or listener must sift through those possibilities, using the appropriate codes and contextual information to select the “literal” meaning for that particular case . . . Because different codes and contexts generate different significations out of the same signifiers, understanding always depends upon these factors.86

Jacques Derrida summarizes a similar point: “there are only contexts without any centre of absolute anchoring.”87

The inaccessibility of an abstract, invariant level of meaning outside of contextual use extends even beyond the level of words or signs in a system to the level of the alphabet in which those words or signs are inscribed. Penny Van Toorn’s groundbreaking historical analysis of “early Aboriginal cultures of writing” in post-invasion Australia has drawn attention to the ways in which Aboriginal people appropriated the Roman alphabet in unexpected ways. For example, a Wiradjuri club-maker in the 1860s incorporated letters with strong vertical and diagonal lines—V, M, W, X, and N—into the traditional cross-hatching patterns used to decorate the club. These Roman letters are not being used phonographically, according to their proper function in phonographic script, and they are not always correctly oriented (a “V” appears upside-down, like an “A” without the cross-line)—but, as Van Toorn also points out, this is not something which only happens in Aboriginal appropriations of the alphabet. Aboriginal people would have first encountered writing on material objects, such as flour sacks, coins, watches, and so on: letters running around the edges of coins are sometimes “upside-down,” while the Vs and Xs on a clock face do not signify phonographically, but ideographically (V = 5, X = 10). Thus, Van Toorn argues, “the defining characteristic of any script—its capacity to ‘be’ phonographic, ideographic, or pictographic—is not intrinsic to it, but held in place by culturally and historically specific conventions of reading.”88 “At no level,” then, as Stanley Fish writes, is the text “independent of and prior to interpretation.”89 Instead, as Tony Bennett argues, “what is constructed as the ‘text itself’ is the product of a particular bid for the terms of intertextual, ideological, and cultural reference that are to prevail in organizing reading practices.”90 The literary text is necessarily an object with an “unstable ontology,” since it changes as it travels through time and as it is received in new contexts.91

Meaning is always in motion, always to be found in specific contexts of interpretation and use; as communicative objects, texts and their meanings are always dynamically co-constructed by readers, in complex negotiation with a range of systems—linguistic, semiotic, social, technological—which position texts and readers in relation to one another in the first place. It is less easy than it might seem to draw a line between the text itself and its reception; as Brennan Breed puts it, it is “reception all the way down.”92

Implications for Literary Studies

Reception is paradoxically both central and peripheral to literary studies in general. Because the study of reception entails attending to many factors external to what we think of as the “text itself,” it can be seen as operating at the margin of literary studies, supplementing or complementing the core business of literary criticism (attention to texts) by investigating what readers make of or do with those texts—more properly the domain of sociology, ethnography, history, publishing studies, or cultural studies. Certainly, reception history and reception studies draw on different methodologies and different datasets and archives from those of formalist literary criticism, in order to carry out empirical ethnographic or historical investigations into the activities of real-life readers, past or present.

On the other hand, though, reception can be seen not as peripheral to, but instead coextensive with, the domain of literary criticism.93 The very notion that literary critics could consider the question of textual meaning and aesthetic form separately from the question of a text’s effect on its audience is a relatively recent historical phenomenon in the West.94 Ancient, medieval and early modern literary theories all define the “nature and value” of literature in terms of its effects on readers and audiences, and contemporary reception studies/theory similarly take seriously the notion of the text as a communicative object, one that is designed to be read.

Finally, attending to reception helps us to define and address questions which are central to literary theory and literary criticism in general—for example, questions about interpretation and validity, questions about the relation between texts and contexts, and questions about the ontological status and nature of the text as object of study.95

Discussion of the Literature

Reception-oriented scholarship in the present day draws from four main critical traditions of the mid-20th century. Firstly, the interrelated fields of book history, media history and media archaeology. In the 1960s, Eisenstein’s work on print culture, as well as Ong’s and McCluhan’s work on orality, literacy, and “the making of typographic man,” set up a framework for investigating the relationship between the history of information technologies and the modes of organizing society and subjectivity associated with those technologies; contemporary work on digital reading cultures continues to build on and transform those frameworks. Secondly, reader-response criticism (associated most of all with Stanley Fish) and the Konstanz School of “reception theory” (Wolfgang Iser and Robert Jauss): these interrelated (though not identical) critical movements reacted against the New Critics’ ban on considering the reader, as likely to introduce “a confusion between the poem and its results,” and brought her back to critical prominence.96 Thirdly, feminist, black, postcolonial, and Marxist literary criticism, in different ways, all demonstrated that literary interpretation was not a neutral activity requiring only technical expertise, but was necessarily entangled with questions of value and legitimacy which were essentially social and political. All of these approaches developed politicized practices of reading texts in relation to dominant ideologies, and required literary critics to adopt a degree of self-awareness and reflexivity about their interpretative practices. Fourthly and finally, the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s saw an explosion in theories of language, semiotics, and meaning, as it came to be seen that more and more aspects of human life and experience could be subsumed under the notion of “symbolic communication,” so that one could “read” not only literary texts but also, for example, the clothing styles of punks and Teddy boys.97

Contemporary work in reception continues to investigate questions of meaning in a social, ethical, and political mode by attending to real-life reading practices as well as linguistic, technological, and semiotic systems. Empirical and ethnographic work on audiences and readers continues, with special interest being taken in cross-cultural reception and in questions of value.98 More sophisticated understandings of human cognition and the architecture of the brain have enabled theorization of the neurocognitive aspects of reading.99 The 21st-century rise of digital technologies of reading and writing has produced a large amount of cognitively and neuroscientifically oriented work on the difference between paper and screen reading, often roughly mapped onto “deep” and “hyper” reading.100 Digital literary studies also includes the “distant reading” of large digital archives, as well as investigations of the dynamics of the “digital literary sphere” and the new institutions of tastemaking and gatekeeping.101 Meanwhile, text-to-text reception is increasingly a core part of research and teaching in the disciplines of Classics and Biblical studies, with an ongoing critical mass of scholarship in this area.102 And finally, interest in different regimes or modes of reading—including those often seen as beyond the scholarly pale, such as the middlebrow—has led to an explosion of work on “uncritical” reading, “surface” reading, or even “the making of bad readers,” as well as interest in understanding or reconciling the difference between “lay” and “professional” readers.103

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Altieri, Charles. The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
  • Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Translated by Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Eggert, Paul. The Work and the Reader in Literary Studies: Scholarly Editing and Book History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Felski, Rita. The Uses of Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
  • Gavins, Joanna. Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  • Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Translated by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–1979. Edited by Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis, 128–139. London: Hutchinson, 1980.
  • Lefevere, Andre. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Littau, Karin. Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies and Bibliomania. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006.
  • Machor, James, and Philip Goldstein, eds. Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Martindale, Charles. Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Mowitt, John. Text: The Genealogy of An Antidisciplinary Object. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.
  • Pearce, Lynne. Feminism and the Politics of Reading. London: Arnold, 1997.
  • Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.
  • Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
  • Towheed, Shafqat, Rosalind Crone, and Katie Halsey, eds. The History of Reading: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2011.
  • Van Toorn, Penny. Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006.
  • Willis, Ika. Reception. London: Routledge, 2018.


  • 1. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Continuum, 2002); Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982); Hans Robert Jauss, “The Identity of the Poetic Text in the Changing Horizon of Understanding,” in Identity of the Literary Text, ed. Mario J. Valdes and Owen Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 146–174; Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Wolfgang Iser, “Interaction between Text and Reader,” in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 106–119; and Robert Holub, Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction (London: Methuen, 1984).

  • 2. Barbara Goff, “Introduction,” in Classics and Colonialism, by Barbara Goff (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 1–24, 13; Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 115–120; and Jane Tompkins, “Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation,” American Quarterly 36, no. 5 (1984): 617–642.

  • 3. Karin Littau, Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies and Bibliomania (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), 10; and Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, by Susan Sontag (New York: Dell, 1966), 3–14.

  • 4. Charles Saunders Peirce, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, ed. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur W. Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–1958), 172.

  • 5. Ursula Le Guin, “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” in The Compass Rose, by Ursula Le Guin (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 3–11.

  • 6. Le Guin, “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” 3, 9, and 11.

  • 7. Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1994), 67–68, 99.

  • 8. Jonathan Roberts, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook to the Reception of the Bible, ed. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1–8, 1.

  • 9. Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947); and Wai Chee Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA 112, no. 5 (1997): 1061.

  • 10. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 49–55, 52–53.

  • 11. John Fiske, “Moments of Television: Neither the Text nor the Audience,” in Remote Control: Television, Audiences and Cultural Power, ed. Ellen Seiter, Hans Borchers, Gabriele Kreutzner, and Eva-Maria Warth (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 56–75, 57.

  • 12. Janice Radway, “What’s the Matter with Reception Study? Some Thoughts on the Disciplinary Origins, Conceptual Constraints and Persistent Visibility of a Paradigm,” in New Directions in American Reception Study, ed. James Machor and Philip Goldstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 327–353, 339.

  • 13. John Frow, Genre, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2014).

  • 14. Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–1979, ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128–139.

  • 15. Umberto Eco, “Introduction: The Role of the Reader,” in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, by Umberto Eco (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 47–66, 49.

  • 16. Roland Barthes “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, ed. Barthes, 60.

  • 17. John Frow, “Afterlives: Texts as Usage,” Reception 1 (2008): 26.

  • 18. Frow, “Afterlives,” 26.

  • 19. Gian Biagio Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation, ed. Charles Segal (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 133.

  • 20. Gerard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 1.

  • 21. Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.

  • 22. Richard Jenkyns, “Virgil and Arcadia,” Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989): 26.

  • 23. Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006), 19; Genette, Palimpsests, 212; Salman Rushdie, “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance,” Times, July 3, 1982; Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989); Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1975); and Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin, or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), 113–117.

  • 24. Ika Willis, “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (for Mary-Sue) at Hogwarts,” in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 153–170.

  • 25. Gayatri Spivak, “Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality, and Value,” in Literary Theory Today, ed. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (London: Polity Press, 1990), 219–244, 228.

  • 26. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re Vision,” College English 34, no. 1 (1972): 18.

  • 27. Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, 19.

  • 28. Andre Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 7.

  • 29. Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting, 61.

  • 30. Claudia L. Johnson, “The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies,” Boundary 2, no. 23 (Fall 1996): 143–163.

  • 31. Roland Barthes, “Writing Reading,” in Barthes, The Rustle of Language, 31.

  • 32. Lynne Pearce, Feminism and the Politics of Reading (London: Arnold, 1997), 81.

  • 33. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art, trans. George G. Grabowicz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974); and Tzetvan Todorov, “Reading as Construction,” in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 67–82.

  • 34. Iser, The Act of Reading, 25.

  • 35. Peter Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 38.

  • 36. Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).

  • 37. Russ, How to Suppress, 136.

  • 38. James L. Machor, Reading Fiction in Antebellum America: Informed Response and Reception Histories 1820–1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 7.

  • 39. Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 50.

  • 40. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 33.

  • 41. Tony Bennett, “Texts, Readers, Reading Formations,” in The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 16, no. 1 (1983): 8.

  • 42. Shannon Burns, “The Writers We Deserve: Their Brilliant Careers and Wood Green,” Sydney Review of Books, October 19, 2016.

  • 43. Gary Saul Morson, Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 48.

  • 44. Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History 3, no. 2 (1972): 287.

  • 45. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30.

  • 46. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (London and New York: Verso, 1987).

  • 47. William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12.

  • 48. Leah Price, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

  • 49. Johnson, Readers and Reading, 31.

  • 50. Paul Saenger, Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

  • 51. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 1; and Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982), 76.

  • 52. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, An Introduction to Book History, 2nd ed. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 75–78.

  • 53. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

  • 54. Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), xii, xiii, 211.

  • 55. Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 83; cf. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

  • 56. Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008), 7–8.

  • 57. D. F. McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand,” The Library 6, no. 4 (1984): 333–365.

  • 58. McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text,” 336–338.

  • 59. McKenzie, “The Sociology of a Text,” 359.

  • 60. Steven Mailloux, Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 149.

  • 61. John Brewer, “Reconstructing the Reader: Prescriptions, Texts and Strategies in Anna Larpent’s Reading,” in The Practice and Representation of Reading in England, ed. James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 226–245.

  • 62. Wolf Schmid, “Implied Reader,” in The Living Handbook of Narratology, ed. Peter Hühn, John Pier, Wolf Schmid, and Jörg Schönert (Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2013).

  • 63. Iser, The Implied Reader; and Iser, The Act of Reading, 34.

  • 64. Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2013), 1.

  • 65. Leah Price, “Reading: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 7 (2004): 303–320, citing Kate Flint, The Woman Reader: 1837–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

  • 66. Venetia Laura Delano Robertson, “Of Ponies and Men: My Little Pony; Friendship is Magic and the Brony Fandom,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 1 (2014): 75–91.

  • 67. Bethan Benwell, James Procter, and Gemma Robinson, “Not Reading Brick Lane,” New Formations 73 (2011): 90–116; and Umberto Eco, “Overinterpreting Texts,” in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, by Umberto Eco (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 45–66.

  • 68. Françoise Waquet, Latin, or the Empire of the Sign, trans. John Howe (London: Penguin, 2001), 104–105; and James Thurber, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” in The Thurber Carnival (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), 60–63; and Pierre Jakez Hélias, Le cheval d’orgeuil: mémoires d’un Breton du pays bigouden (Paris: Plon, 1975).

  • 69. Pearce, Feminism, 98.

  • 70. Cheryl Dobinson and Kevin Young, “Popular Cinema and Lesbian Interpretative Strategies,” Journal of Homosexuality 40, no. 2 (2000): 116.

  • 71. Jacqueline Bobo, Black Women as Cultural Readers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 106; and Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

  • 72. Ruvani Ranasinha, “The Fatwa and Its Aftermath,” in The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, ed. Abdulrasak Gurnah (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 45–60; and Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (London: Granta, 2008).

  • 73. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 4.

  • 74. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 31.

  • 75. Iser, The Act of Reading, 34–35.

  • 76. Virginia Woolf, “The Love of Reading,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1929–1932, ed. Stuart N. Clarke (London: Hogarth, 2010), 271–274, 272; and Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 83.

  • 77. Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 130.

  • 78. Walter Gibson, “Authors, Speakers, Readers and Mock Readers,” in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 1–6, 5.

  • 79. Fetterley, The Resisting Reader.

  • 80. Fetterley, The Resisting Reader, xx.

  • 81. Fetterley, The Resisting Reader, xxii.

  • 82. Stanley E. Fish, “Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases,” Critical Inquiry 4, no. 4 (1978): 627.

  • 83. David Greetham, “What Is Textual Scholarship?,” in A Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 21–32, 23.

  • 84. Paul Eggert, The Work and the Reader in Literary Studies: Scholarly Editing and Book History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

  • 85. Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 22.

  • 86. Mark Gaipa and Robert Scholes, “On the Very Idea of a Literal Meaning,” in Literary Theory after Davidson, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 160–179, 168.

  • 87. Jacques Derrida, “Signature—Event—Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1982), 307–330, 231.

  • 88. Penny Van Toorn, Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006), 73.

  • 89. Fish, “Normal Circumstances,” 627.

  • 90. Tony Bennett, “Texts in History: The Determination of Readings and their Texts,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 18, no. 1 (1985): 11.

  • 91. Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” 1061.

  • 92. Brennan Breed, “What Can a Text Do? Reception History as an Ethology of the Bible Text,” in Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice, ed. Emma England and William John Lyons (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 95–111, 97.

  • 93. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001 [1929]), 174.

  • 94. Jane Tompkins, ed., Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 207; and David H. Richter, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed. (Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

  • 95. John Mowitt, Text: The Genealogy of An Antidisciplinary Object (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).

  • 96. W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington, KT: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 21.

  • 97. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979).

  • 98. For cross-cultural reception, see James Procter and Bethan Benwell, Reading across Worlds: Transnational Book Groups and the Reception of Difference (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); and Robert Clarke and Marguerite Nolan, “Book Clubs and Reconciliation: A Pilot Study on Book Clubs Reading the Fictions of Reconciliation,” Australian Humanities Review 56 (2014): 121–140. For questions of value, see Tully Barnett, Julian Meyrick, and Robert Phiddian, What Matters? Talking Value in Australian Culture (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2018); and David Carter and Michelle Kelly, “Australian Stories: Books and Reading in the Nation,” in Publishing Means Business: Australian Perspectives, ed. Aaron Mannion and Millicent Weber (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2017), 147–181.

  • 99. Joanna Gavins, Text World Theory: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); and Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

  • 100. N. Katherine Hayles, “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62–79; Baron, Words Onscreen; and Maryanne Wolf, Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century: The Literary Agenda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • 101. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London and New York: Verso, 2005); Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2012); Simone Murray, The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing and Selling Books in the Internet Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018); and Mark Davis, “Who Are the New Gatekeepers? Literary Mediation and Post-Digital Publishing,” in Publishing Means Business: Australian Perspectives, ed. Aaron Mannion and Millicent Weber (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2017), 129–151.

  • 102. David Hopkins and Charles Martindale, eds., The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Vol. 3: 1660–1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Shane Butler, ed., Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016); Postclassicisms Collective, Postclassicisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019); Emma England and William John Lyons, eds., Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); Jo Carruthers, Mark Knight, and Andrew Tate, eds., Literature and the Bible: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2013); and Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts, eds., The Oxford Handbook to the Reception History of the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 103. For the middlebrow, see Gayle S. Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); and Beth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); for “uncritical” reading, see Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical?, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 11–38; and Ashley Barnwell, Critical Affect: The Politics of Method (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); for “surface” reading, see Emily Apter and Elaine Freedgood, “Afterword,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 139–146; and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21; for “the making of bad readers,” see Merve Emre, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); and for the difference between “lay” and “professional” readers, see John Guillory, “The Ethical Practice of Modernity: The Example of Reading,” in The Turn to Ethics, ed. Marjorie B. Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Abingdon, UK: Psychology Press, 2000), 29–47; and Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).