A reception theory is a philosophy, usually applied to literature, that recognizes the audience as an essential element to understanding the work's larger meaning. According to this sort of theory, a book or article’s true purpose cannot be understood without considering the readers. It teaches that overarching purpose or meaning is a process of interaction and reaction between the reader and the text, and can change based on who is interpreting the words. It is believed to have developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and many scholars say that it peaked then. It still has an important place in many discussions of literary criticisms, but in most cases it’s considered alongside a number of other theories, traditional and more modern. Reception theory has also spread to many other art forms, including theater, film, painting, and sculpture, and is an important part of discussions and criticism of those genres as well.
Most scholars agree that critical reception theory was first formally introduced in the late 1960s, most likely in Germany, and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s as it spread across the intellectual circles of Europe and much of the Western world. It was at that time one of the most influential forms of literary criticism in academic circles, and was often also known as “reception aesthetics.” Some of the most profound pieces of literature to come out of that period were written with the assumption that audience interpretation would shape their meaning, which gave rise to a unique and identifiable literary genre of works. This is not to say that works written either earlier or later didn’t ascribe to this theory or don’t have many of the same characteristics, but rather that the identification with audience aesthetics is often most profound in works from this period.
Importance of Individual Experiences
In broad terms, the theory assumes that the reservoir of life experiences a reader brings to the reading process is crucial to how he or she interprets an author’s creation. Cultural background, education, and of course the reader's native language all play a role in his or her understanding and emotional response. The theory suggests, in other words, that the reading experience activates and engages pre-existing experiences and memories. Readers are also expected to approach a novel, poem or short story with certain expectations about these forms of literature and what they will entail, and will relate these expectations to their previous reading experiences.
Reception theory has been applied to many different art forms and has even been used in the analysis of landscape architecture and archeological studies. Many factors can shape the interpretation of a work of art, whether it be a painting, a novel or a film. With each of these particular art forms, the theory recognizes not just the validity of individual interpretation, but also cultural interpretations that shift as a result of changes in economics, lifestyle, religious beliefs and innovations in technology. On this understanding, the core meaning of a piece of work can and to some degree should be expected to change over time, with changing circumstances, readerships, and social constructs. This could potentially open up the field of societal application to almost constant interpretation and reinterpretation of any given work.
Compared with More Traditional Theories
Traditional literary theory, which dominated prior to 1960, did not place as much emphasis on the reader’s function in the creative process. Rather, the focus was almost entirely on the author as well as the form and construction of the literary piece. Literary form typically takes into account whether the piece is a novel, short story, poem, or play. In addition, the author’s style and choice of literary devices, such as character development, setting, imagery and point of view, are also important considerations.
Traditional literary criticism asks questions about what the author was trying to communicate, how the work fit into a particular genre, why the author chose a particular literary device, and how the author’s background and experience influenced the creative process. Considering the reader’s interpretation adds another layer of complexity. Most modern criticism and analysis takes something of a universal approach, looking at a given work from various angles.