Reception Theory and Reader-response Criticism

RELATED TERMS: Audience; Filmmaking; Narratology

The role of the reader is crucial for reception theory and reader-response criticism. Reception theory has had its greatest impact in Germany while reader-response criticism is associated mainly with American criticism. There is some continuity between the two. This is particularly the case with the work of Wolfgang Iser, who is frequently included in both camps (Newton, 1988).

As Akimoto and Ogata (2012) explain, reception theory is one standpoint in modern literary theories and narratology. This approach focuses on the reception or reading process of literary works and has been extended to the reception of works in other media, such as film, television and works of art. In this theory, readers, viewers or spectators contribute strongly to the production process of literary and other works as a whole.

One representative theorist of reception theory is Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997), who does not fit well into a reader-response framework. Jauss characterises literary history using a concept of “horizon of expectation”, which means a kind of previous knowledge for positioning a new work on the context of readers’ experiences of reading. The artistic character of a new work is grasped through the disparity between the given horizon and the work. The appearance of a new work may result in the change of an old horizon. In this theory, literary works and other works are continuously changing through the interaction between authors and readers.

As Newton explains it, Jauss uses Gadamer’s concept of a fusion of horizons, a fusion that takes place between the past experiences that are embodied in the text and the interests of its present-day readers, to discuss the relation between the original reception of a literary text and how it is perceived at different stages in history up to a current moment.

Rather than Gadamer, Iser takes his lead from the phenomenology of Roman Ingarden. Iser differs from reader-response critics in his belief that the text has an objective structure, even if that structure must be completed by the reader. Iser argues that all texts have lacunae that the reader must fill by using their imagination. In this interaction between text and reader, the aesthetic response is created.

Theorists who analyse media through reception studies are concerned with the experience, for example, of reading a book or watching a cinema film or a television programme, and how meaning is created through that experience.

In reception theory, it is important to understand that the media text, that is, the individual movie or television programme, has no inherent meaning in and of itself. Rather, meaning is created in the interaction between reader/spectator and textual structures and media. In other words, meaning is created as the viewer watches and processes the film.

Reception theory argues that contextual factors, as much as textual ones, influence the way the spectator views the film or television program. Contextual factors include elements of the viewer’s identity as well as the circumstances of exhibition, the spectator’s preconceived notions concerning the film or television programme’s genre and production, and even broad social, historical, and political issues.

In short, reception theory places the viewer in context, taking into account all of the various factors that might influence how she or he will read and create meaning from the text.


Akimoto, T. and Ogata, T. (2012). A Narratological approach for narrative discourse: implementation and evaluation of the system based on Genette and Jauss. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 34 1272–1277. Available from [Accessed 10 October 2015].

Newton, K.M. (1988). Reception theory and reader-response criticism. In: Newton, K.M., ed. Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader. London: Macmillan Education UK, 219–240.