Reader Response Theory

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At a recent writers group meeting one member read a short story and then we started the discussion about what we thought it meant. And it was somewhat of a surprise for some members that we each interpreted the story quite differently. One member actually felt he had not been paying attention or had misunderstood something.

But as readers (or listeners in this case) we all bring something very different to the experience. Those differences will influence how we interpret the writing. It is not a deficiency on the writer’s part (certainly not in this case) or in the reader themselves. It is just difference.

These differences can include, amongst other things:

  • Culture
  • Experience/History
  • Emotions
  • Knowledge

The short story read to the group was only 500 words and that is not a lot of words to tell a story in. My interpretation was that the character telling the story was grieving a lover. Part of the reason I considered that was because of a song playing in the background while the group member was reading. The song is a direct link to my past and an emotional tug that relates to a boy from long ago. Listening to the song in conjunction with the story affected my emotional state. Given my history and experience with the boy from long ago there appeared a connection between the lovers in the story (which it turned out the author intended).

I grew up with fairy tales and still read a lot of them and so the shimmering scales I immediately saw as mermaids, another member saw them as fish and a satiation of hunger (maybe he was hungry during our meeting).

The idea of reader response theory is that a writer only gives so much to the reading experience. That each reader will take something different from it and that there is no single meaning for a text.

At the same meeting we discussed romance novels (the steamy variety). Both men in the group could not understand the appeal at all. They labelled the unrealistic relationships as dull with no substance. I, on the other hand, love a steamy romance from time to time, for a variety of reasons. I enjoy the point of view of the other, as most alternate between the male and female point of view. Generally I think this is the female author’s idea of a perfect male partner (most of them are buff) but it is an interesting concept none-the-less; and something I have tried (in a non-romantic way) to give male and female points of view in my Raven Crown series.

I have an interest in this area because I want to create a more immersive reading experience, one in which the reader loses themselves in the story, unaware of the outside world and even the words on the page.

My aim is to create the links and provide as immersive story as I can so that no matter the background, culture, history and emotion of the reader they will find it an immersive experience. To provide that I need to be aware that each reader will take something different from my stories, and not necessarily what I intend.

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