Writer and Researcher Anderson Smith explains the reader response theory that comes alive in book clubs.
One of the reasons why I love creative writing is that it allows my imagination to run free and engage with possible outcomes of real events. My imagination, while shrouded in fantasy, is still grounded by my understanding of reality. Still, it allows me to vicariously play out a possible line of reasoning before actual action is taken. It is within my imagination that I explore the limits of my understanding. As Maxine Greene (1995) puts it, “Of all the cognitivecapacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities. It allows us to break with the taken for granted, to set aside familiar distinctions and definitions” (p. 8). I enjoy interpreting information and coding it with my lens.
Imagination is why I love to read; the characters do all the work, get into all the trouble, and make all the mistakes, while I sit back and take note of the outcomes of each decision while evaluating the probability of the result against my reality. Moreover, according to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996), imagination is “central to all forms of agency, and is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order” (p. 31). As an English educator, who is bothresearcher and literary citizen, in my research, I acknowledge and promote the agency of all those within my investigation. This approach helped me to understand how literature, culture, community, and technology interwove with each other, to promote self-reflection and resilience among the members of my asynchronous digital book club.
Rosenblatt’s (1938) transactional theory, often referred to as the reader response literary theory focuses on the active participation of the reader in the text. This relationship is unavoidable. As they engage with a text, the reader brings along what I call reader DNA; that is to say, the reader’s past and present, and their age, race, religion, and culture. Thus, the reader’s comprehension of a text is understood in the context of their life (Freire, 1970; Bakhtin, 1981; Huey, 1908, 1968). This transactional theory, in the context of reading, can be either efferent or aesthetic, or both efferent and aesthetic.
Efferent. In efferent reading, Rosenblatt (1978) explains, “The reader’s attention is primarily focused on what will remain as a residue after the reading—the information to be acquired, the logical solution to a problem, the actions to be carried out” (p. 23). In other words, the reader is coming for information, gathering bits and pieces of facts, figures, residue, or“takeaways” with little interest in prose style. A relevant example would be reading a New York City guidebook to decide what sights to see, or turning to a textbook to learn about pollution and the causes of global warming. In both these cases, reading is used to gather information.
Aesthetic. According to Rosenblatt (1978), “In aesthetic reading, the reader’s attention is centered directly on what he is living through during his relationship with that particular text” (p. 25). This type of reading, in other words, is an exploration of oneself. An example would be reading Lee Child’s Gone Tomorrow to live through a New York City adventure, or Annie Proulx’s Barkskins to learn about pollution and the causes of global warming.
In a recapitulation of her transactional theory, Rosenblatt (1988) suggests that there can be no learning from any text unless the reader reads with what amounts to an aesthetic stance. As she explains: “The ‘meaning’ does not reside ready-made in the text or in the reader, but happens during the transaction between reader and text” (p. 6). An aesthetic reading, in other words, is only possible when the reader is actively engaged with a text, and they are able to make a real- world connection, using their “designer luggage” as a guide. This type of reading becomes essential in expanding human empathy, awareness, and emotional maturity.
In essence, both efferent and aesthetic reading involve an inherently interchangeable relationship for the reader. This makes sense to me, because I believe that even if someone is reading a text for the sole purpose of information and understanding, the information consumed could, in fact, become beneficial to that reader’s personal life, thereby leading to an aesthetic interpretation. Likewise, while a person is reading aesthetically, they might find information applicable to other situations without an aesthetic appreciation. What we as book club facilitators should be concerned with is the act of reading itself, and the process of meaning.
According to Rosenblatt, “In the linguistic event, any process will be affected also by the physical and emotional state of the individual, e.g., by fatigue or stress. Attention may be controlled or wandering, intense or superficial” (1978, p. 6). The process of meaning making does not happen from the text, but rather in the mind of the reader. Hence, only the reader could determine if they are reading aesthetically or efferently (not that I believe that one would necessarily know in which style they were reading). Nonetheless, the key question of transactional theory is this: What’s in it for the reader? I believe that a reluctant reader may first approach the selected fiction from an efferent standpoint until they can trace a direct connection to the protagonist, and tie the events happening in the story to memories or events in their own life. As a facilitator, I could encourage an aesthetic reading during open discussion, prompting participants with open-ended questions such as what does x remind your of in your daily life? or my all-time favorite what does your shoes say about you? to make connections between moments from the text and their lives. Once a connection is established, a participant’s efferent reading will become aesthetic. But of course... there is no guarantee.