What Is a Reception Theory?

Reception theory emphasizes the importance of reader interpretation of works of literature.
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  • Written By: Debra Barnhart
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 10 April 2014
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Reception theory is a philosophy about the arts that recognizes the audience as an essential element in the creative process. Originally developed as a method of literary criticism, it posits that meaning does not lie in the work of art itself; rather meaning is part of a process of interaction between the audience and the artwork. This theory has been applied to many art forms, including drama, film, painting and sculpture.

Emphasizing reader interpretation of works of literature, reception theory developed in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s as an influential form of literary criticism in academic circles. Reception theory posited 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 to a work of literature. According to reception theory, the reading experience activates pre-existing experiences and memories. Readers also approach a novel, poem or short story with certain expectations about these forms of literature and 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, novel or film. With each of these particular art forms, reception 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.

Traditional literary theory, which dominated prior to 1960, did not place as much emphasis on the reader’s function in the creative process. The emphasis in traditional literary theory was on the author as well as the form and construction of the literary piece. Literary form 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 considerations in literary form. Traditional literary criticism asked 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.


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Post 4

@hamje32 - I would say that with literature you could make a fair case for traditional literary criticism, where you take a decent stab at author’s intention to come up with what is a reasonable sense of his meaning.

In other disciplines, it’s a different story. Take archaeology, for example. One archaeologist may dig up a piece of super sharp, finely honed and precise flint – perhaps shaped into a hexagon or something like that.

He asks what purpose it could serve. Another archaeologist might ask, Could such precision be the work of the ancients, or did they get help from UFOs?

That sounds crazy, but I’ve heard it (at least on television). So your worldview does shape your interpretation of art, in my opinion.

Post 3

@MrMoody - What do you think of interactive theater? Here the audience is actively involved in the drama presentation.

They may hold props or shout back things or stuff like that. I think this is reception theory taken to the hilt. No two theater performances will ever be the same.

The audience will, in the end, define the ultimate meaning for the art work. I’ve never seen these performances but I find the concept intriguing.

Personally, I would just be the fly on the wall. So I don’t think that I would alter the final meaning in any way whatsoever. But still it would be fun to watch.

Post 2

@Mammmood - I don’t know; you can’t deny the influence of your own experience in determining real meaning in a piece of art. Are you suggesting that ten different people, armed with the same historical and contextual information about a literary novel, are going to come up with the same interpretation? I think not.

That’s because even history requires interpretation. Sure you have bare facts but there is some subjectivity in how you understand history. For example, did we steal America from the Native Americans or did we help them in the end? That’s a value loaded question and you will find historians on either end of the spectrum.

So while I don’t think literary works should be subject to wild flights of fancy in interpretation, you have to give some leeway to the critic’s point of view.

Post 1

This sounds like a very subjective approach to literary interpretation. Sorry, I never bought into it when I was in college and I still don’t to this day.

In college the students would read a literary text and read into it whatever they wanted, in many cases quite oblivious to what I thought were clear contextual clues that signaled the author’s meaning.

When I tried to engage in traditional literary interpretation, I was told by the professor, “You can’t really know what the author meant.” Okay, maybe we can’t know with total certitude, but can we at least make a fair approximation?

My point was that if you were going to look outside the text for clues to meaning, look at the author’s life, his upbringing, and the times in which he lived. Look there, not in your own experiences as a reader.

Alas, I found myself in the minority in my convictions. To my classmates, every piece of art was a Rorschach test: read into it what you will.

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