Until the 1970s, literary criticism was content to limit itself to romantic considerations of the writer and historical context. It regularly stretched to aesthetic valuations of the text but remained resolutely uninterested in what it might do for its readers or in the possibility that, without the reader’s intervention, the text remained no more than a latency. The idea of readership became central to structuralist and post-structuralist criticism as a consequence of the work of Roland Barthes, especially with regard to his notion of the writerly or productive text, and to phenomenological, reader-oriented theories of literature (see structuralism; post-structuralism). Reader-oriented theory proposes that the literary text can have no meaning, indeed no existence as literature, until it is read. Meaning materializes through the act of reading. It is a response by and to the reader, and hence any assessment of literary meaning must derive not from some hypothetical intention on the part of the writer, nor indeed from a typographic composition on the page, but on a potentially unlimited number of possible acts of reading. Readers actualize, and produce meaning from, literary works by applying a series of codes or conventions to them. That knowledge allows the reader to span the gaps and elisions of the text to produce an intelligible whole, and since those codes are the product of previous reading, each reader will necessarily arrive at a unique and inevitably provisional interpretation of the text with every reading. Every reader’s experience will be different and every reading will produce new nuances of meaning. There can be no definitive reading of any text.
   The idea of readership thus insists upon the possibility of gendered, class and ethnic inflections in the production of meaning. Interpretation depends on the disposition and competence not only of the individual reader but of their ‘reading community’. Reading is culturally and historically determined, and since it is so implicated in the social there will clearly exist common strategies to produce meaning. Reading is doubly transformational in that it not only actualizes the text but changes the position of the reader. Any reading of a given text can never be repeated. Subsequent readings and their precursors are inevitably differently informed. Readership thus seems to imply that its defining act narrativizes, structures, (re)frames or makes manifest a range of possibilities that are not located in, but are rather triggered by, the text. Reading achieves its end through a kind of writing.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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