Transactional Reader Response Theory

Often associated with the work of Louise Rosenblatt, who formulated many of its premises, transactional reader-response theory analyzes the transaction between text and reader. Rosenblatt doesn’t reject the importance of the text in favor of the reader; rather she claims that both are necessary in the production of meaning. She differentiates among the terms text, which refers to the printed words on the page; reader; and poem, which refers to the literary work produced by the text and the reader together.

How does this transaction take place? As we read a text, it acts as a stimulus to which we respond in our own personal way. Feelings, associations, and memories occur as we read, and these responses influence the way in which we make sense of the text as we move through it. Literature we’ve encountered prior to this reading, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge, and even our current physical condition and mood will influence us as well. At various points while we read, however, the text acts as a blueprint that we can use to correct our interpretation when we realize it has traveled too far afield of what is written on the page. This process of correcting our interpretation as we move through the text usually results in our going back to reread earlier sections in light of some new development in the text. Thus, the text guides our self-corrective process as we read and will continue to do so after the reading is finished if we go back and reread portions, or the entire text, in order to develop or complete our interpretation. Thus the creation of the poem, the literary work, is a product of the transaction between text and reader, both of which are equally important to the process.

In order for this transaction between text and reader to occur, however, our approach to the text must be, in Rosenblatt’s words, aesthetic rather than efferent. When we read in the efferent mode, we focus just on the information contained in the text, as if it were a storehouse of facts and ideas that we could carry away with us. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) is a play about a traveling salesman who kills himself so that his son will receive his life-insurance money is an example of an efferent stance toward the text. In contrast, when we read in the aesthetic mode, we experience a personal relationship to the text that focuses our attention on the emotional subtleties of its language and encourages us to make judgments. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s plight is powerfully evoked by the contrast between his small house, bathed in soft blue
light, and the large, orange-colored apartment buildings that surround it is an example of an aesthetic stance toward the text. Without the aesthetic approach, there could be no transaction between text and reader to analyze.

Followers of Wolfgang Iser might explain what Rosenblatt refers to as the blueprint and stimulus functions of the text in terms of two kinds of meaning every text offers: determinate and indeterminate meaning. Determinate meaning refers to what might be called the facts of the text, certain events in the plot or physical descriptions clearly provided by the words on the page. In contrast, indeterminate meaning, or indeterminacy, refers to “gaps” in the text—such as actions that are not clearly explained or that seem to have multiple explanations—which allow or even invite readers to create their own interpretations. (Thus, Rosenblatt’s efferent approach depends entirely on determinate meaning, while her aesthetic approach depends on both determinate and indeterminate meaning.) In Death of a Salesman we might say, for example, that the text’s determinate meaning includes the fact that Willy habitually lies to Linda about his success on the job, about how well liked he is, and about how important his role in the company has been. The play’s indeterminacy includes issues such as how much (or how little) of the truth Linda knows about her husband’s career, at what point she realizes the truth (if she ever does), and why she doesn’t let Willy tell her the truth about his shortcomings when he tries to do so. Of course, the burden is on us to support our claim that a given textual meaning is determinate or indeterminate.

The interplay between determinate and indeterminate meanings, as we read, results in a number of ongoing experiences for the reader: retrospection, or thinking back to what we’ve read earlier in the text; anticipation of what will come next; fulfillment or disappointment of our anticipation; revision of our understanding of characters and events; and so on. For what at one point in the work appears to be determinate meaning will often, at a later point in the work, appear to be indeterminate, as our point of view shifts among the various perspectives provided by, for example, the narrator, the characters, and the events of an unfolding plot. Thus, for Iser, though the reader projects meaning onto the text, the reading activities through which we construct that meaning are prestructured by, or built into, the text. In other words, Iser believes that the text itself guides us through the processes involved in interpreting (projecting meaning onto) it.

According to transactional theorists, different readers come up with different acceptable interpretations because the text allows for a range of acceptable meanings, that is, a range of meanings for which textual support is available. However, because there is a real text involved in this process to which we must refer to justify or modify our responses, not all readings are acceptable and some are more so than others. Even authors’ stated intentions in writing their texts, as well as any interpretations they may offer afterward, are but additional readings of the text, which must be submitted for evaluation to the text-as-blueprint just as all other readings are. Thus, transactional analysis relies a good deal on the authority of the text, insisted on by the New Critics, while also bringing the reader’s response into the limelight. In addition, transactional analysis accounts for the range of successful readings produced even by the New Critics themselves, despite their belief that every text authorizes a single best reading.

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