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The word reader refers to anyone who reads. (For example, in discusussing a written text, one might speak of the intended emotion to be instilled in "the reader.") In general, one can distinguish three theories as to what the reader is and how the reader relates to the text.

For lessons on the related topic of Reading, follow this link.

The Reader as a Receiver of Meaning

The text is considered an independent object which the reader reads. In this case, the reader is nothing more than one who absorbs the meanings of the text; one who “[decodes] what has by various means been encoded in the text.” All meaning exists exclusively in the words on the pages; the text is what it is. Under this understanding of the text, there arises the need for terms such as “implied reader” and “mock reader.” These names imply that such readers do not really exist. They are, in fact, creations of the text itself. They are “the work’s ideal interpreter.” The actual reader should attempt to embody the work’s implied reader, in order to read the work exactly as it was meant to be read; to “decode,” if you will, precisely the meaning of the words. There has even been further distinction from the implied reader and actual reader, naming three readers of a text: “the real reader (the person who holds the book in hand), the virtual reader (the kind of reader the author thinks he is writing for, for whom he endows with certain qualities, capacities, and tastes), and the ideal reader (one who understands the work perfectly and approves of its every nuance).” This theory of the reader suggests that all meaning in a text is implanted within the words of that text, and the actual reader is merely trying to receive the work’s intended meaning by reading how the implied or ideal reader would.

The Reader as a Co-Creator of Meaning

This next school of thought ascribes more function to the reader, focusing especially on the reader’s personal experiences. In this model, the text is a structure that guides the reader to its meaning, but to ultimately arrive at that meaning the reader must relate the text to his personal experiences. The text creates an impression upon the reader, but that impression varies from reader to reader depending on differing personal experience. This “convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence.” The reader has some creative function in the work. Different readers with different experiences will approach a text a variety of ways and “fill in,” if you will, the less concrete areas of the work. Still, “it is ultimately the text itself which directs the reader’s realization of it.” With this understanding, the reader is empowered by having a creative function in the work; the work itself, though, still directs that creativity.

The Reader as the Sole Creator of Meaning

The last model assigns complete autonomy to the reader. The text is nothing other than what the reader makes it into. The reader gives the text all of its meaning. Readers “do not decode [texts]; they make them.” “The text is an object only insofar as it has a physical existence; its meaning depends entirely on the process of symbolization that takes place in the mind of the reader.” Therefore, a work’s meaning is that which the reader conceives it to be. The reader creates meaning internally; accordingly, that personal, internal meaning becomes the actual meaning of the work itself. The text itself has no creative function; it is solely the reader’s understanding of the text that holds any significance.


  • Suleiman, Susan R., The Reader in the Text (Princeton, 1980), p. 6,8,23 [1]
  • Booth, Wayne, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), p.138 [2]
  • Tompkins, Jane P., Reader-Response Criticism (Baltimore, 1980), p. x, xii, xx [3]
  • Donoghue, Denis, The Practice of Reading (New Haven, 1998), p. 41 [4]
  • “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in Iser, Wolfgang, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore, 1974), p.274-75 [5]
  • “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” from Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (1980)