In stark contrast to the New Criticism discussed in the previous post, the Reader Response theory is a very basic approach that relies on the reader's active interpretation of literary texts. This seems rather straightforward, but it is important to remember that Matthew Arnold thought that the reader should be eliminated from the equation when it comes to understanding individual texts. Lois Tyson argues that a text cannot be separated from what it does, meaning that interpretations cannot be ignored.
This is both exciting and horrifying. I have clung to such a theory when it comes to art for most of my life. A piece of art, whether it be a literary text, a painting, a song, a film, is eternally renewed by new generations of interpretations. That one specific work can have an infinite number of meanings is exciting. It will live on eternally as younger people with different cultural experiences and outlooks understand and evaluate it. On the other hand, if this were an a misinterpretation of the author's true intentions it can sometimes develop a negative or opposite meaning or connotation that will continue to haunt the work.
Wolfgang Iser, in his article "The Reading Process" supports this theory when he claims that literature has two poles: artistic (created by the author) and aesthetic (created by the reader). And these cannot be separated when evaluating and understanding a text. This concept, as well as the guidelines set down by Hans Robert Jauss help in understanding how important active readers are to literature, especially in Old Norse studies. As has been discussed in earlier posts, the written sagas were once oral stories dependent upon the audience knowing and anticipating certain things. Although, Jauss's horizon of expectation more than likely works differently in today's literature than with thirteenth or fourteenth-century literature. Today, we like to be surprised. Good literature is often valued on its ability to be simultaneously familiar and surprising. In the case of the sagas, these stories were often familiar and very well known and the importance was often placed upon how it was retold. The best example was Professor Kenneth Harl's metaphor as "free jazz": a familiar structure left to the creativity of the story teller. It seems evident that the story teller would adapt his story to his audience, much like I as a musician did. If the venue was small, or the audience older and not very lively, a chill set with some more relaxed numbers would be more appropriate. A loud club with exciting young fans will call for a more rocking and engaging setlist. The result is the same: the audience gets a taste of what the band is, but hopefully more in tune with their expectations.
This type of active audience is all fine and well when the setting is live. But what about literature put down years ago? Well Jauss explains that in order to fully understand it, we have to be not only familiar with literature but also attempt to understand how the readers of the day would have understood it, as well as set it within its place in the successive literary historical context. These efforts are self-evident in the field of Old Norse studies. Much work has been done in attempting to understand the mindset of medieval Icelanders who would have been reading these texts. Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland comes to mind. Other scholars, such as Torfi Tulinius, have attempted to place Old Icelandic literature within the broader scope of European literature at the time. Some people believe that the sagas were miraculously born out of Icelandic ingenuity, but in reality, many correlations and influences can be parsed out when inspected. This does not by any means remove their importance or uniqueness as a literary genre. But without putting them in this context, we are getting dangerously close to isolating the texts. That's New Criticism, you dope!
This is partially my gripe with the Evangelical Church and the understanding of the Bible. Born-again Christians are often given this ancient text and told to read it on their own and retrieve meaning from it without really understanding these two essential points mentioned by Jauss. And without these two points, the Bible can be developed into that dangerous other side of reader response theory and be used in a way that it was never intended to be, which of course, spells out a large part of human history.