The role of the reader

At the end of this Part on Creative Reading I am invited to briefly consider the role of the reader according to the reader-response theory and how this theory or critical movement links with the concepts of the arbitrariness of sign and postmodernism which were hinted at at the beginning.

My first line of thought: Author – text – reader

There would be so many areas to investigate in this respect, but the first thing that comes to my mind in examining creative forms of expression – be it a written piece like a poem or a fiction, or a work of art – is how the attention of critics has shifted through time from the author and the surrounding historical and social context to the text itself considered as a system having its own laws – the sign being arbitrary – as in the New Criticism theory and Structuralism,  and finally to the reader or the viewer that takes on an active role (reader-response theory) and without whom the text is like dead and cannot have meaning. And based on this, my first personal thought is that creative writing or creative art in general can perhaps be the result of a common work or a dynamic relationship among all these three elements, author, text and reader, and from what I have read I would say it in this way:

The author will ‘transmute the passions which are its material’ (Eliot, 1921) into a text, and since ‘no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’ (Eliot, 1921) this text ‘consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other’ (Barthes, 1967), and ‘there is one place where this multiplicity [the text] is collected, united, and this place is not the author but the reader‘ (Barthes, 1967).

My second line of thought: Ancient story telling – Performance – Performativity

Furthermore, I find that what I said in my post on ‘Creative Writing and New Media’ by Hazel Smith speaking about the new forms of media writing, may apply also to the contemporary dynamic relationship connecting author, text and reader in the creative process. I think that this process has several elements in common with ancient oral storytelling: the reader or audience is directly involved and participating in the creation of meaning and the reading, viewing or listening experience may be more accessible to people who are offered the possibility to explore the text in personal innovative ways. As Stanley Fish says: ‘Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them’. (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008).

I’m thinking of ancient oral storytelling also in connection with the concept of performativity which was new to me and that I heard it mentioned for the first time by my tutor (thank you Michael Belshaw!).  Storytelling may be considered as an early form of performance in the contemporary sense, a creative process that produces effects, makes a text evolve, has an influence on people, makes them think and change. ‘Our utterances can be performative: words do something in the world, something that is not just a matter of generating consequences … They are ‘performed’, like other actions, or take place, like other worldly events, and thus make a difference in the world’ (Loxley, 2007), they are according to this theory speech acts that produce real effects.

My third line of thought: the arbitrariness of sign – postmodernism

How does the reader-response theory links with the arbitrariness of sign and postmodernism?

Just some notes at this point: provided that the writer and the reader both contribute to ‘make’ the text according to their own systems of signs, this creates a very complex and open network of relationships among author, text and readers, where the author ‘is born simultaneously with his text’ (Barthes, 1967) every time the text is ‘constructed’ by a reader, and ‘every text is eternally written here and now’ (Barthes, 1967). So a text is never really fixed and settled and can be relived and remade an infinite number of times and every time it will be somehow excitingly different. And the author, in the act of writing a text, also separates her- or himself from it giving it over to the readers almost as a living, self-developing thing. This process looks very ‘postmodern’ and also a bit unsettling in its lack of rules and established criteria but I think that this is perhaps a fair price to pay for freedom and in any case it does not seem that there is any way back.

My fourth line of thought: De Saussure – C. S. Peirce

This is very sketchy for the time being and I shall deepen these complex subjects in the third part of the course. Influenced by the ideas of De Saussure about the separation of language from nature and the existence of language as a system of arbitrary signs which create as many independent systems as there are languages, structuralism focuses its attention on literary structures and forms as against their social and historical contexts. One direct consequence of the arbitrariness of sign is that language is not founded on reality anymore and so becomes so to say unreliable and uncertain, and hence can be questioned in its capacity to establish a workable system of communication and there is a danger of communication becoming self-referential

—> poststructuralim, deconstruction of language (Derrida)

From what I understand so far, C.S. Peirce introduces a third open and dynamic element of innovation in the structuralist line of thinking, which was based on a closed relationship between signifier and signified: the so called ‘interpretamen’, a rather obscure term to indicate – if I’m not misinterpreting – the effect, reaction or answer of somebody or something to the sign and so the possibility of a progressive chain of development and change —> reader response theory.

I am not sure that I have gotten all these difficult concepts right but what I am trying to do at this point is to connect these theories together and draw a first tentative mapping for my own use.

Key concepts and names to consider and investigate for further study

Structuralism and post-structuralism / Postmodernism / Performativity / Semiology and Semiotics

Ferdinand De Saussure (arbitrariness of sign, sign = signifier/signified, langue/parole, diachronic/synchronic, syntagmatic/paradigmatic)

C. S. Peirce (sign as triadic system = representamen/object/interpretamen)

Roland Barthes (death of the author/”birth” of the reader, “myths”)

Michel Foucault

Jacques Derrida (deconstruction, logocentrism)

Stanley Fish



Eliot, T.S. (1921) The Sacred Wood In:, 1996 [online] At: (Accessed 21.12.2016)

Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Translated by Richard Howard. In: [online] At:  (Accessed 21.12.2016)

Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008, November 11). Stanley Fish Quotes. In: [online] At: (Accessed 20.12.2016)

Loxley, J. (2007) Performativity [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 18.12.2016)