Readerly & Writerly Texts

The Readerly Text

Barthes argues that most texts are readerly texts. Such texts are associated with classic texts that are presented in a familiar, linear, traditional manner, adhering to the status quo in style and content. Meaning is fixed and pre-determined so that the reader is a site merely to receive information. These texts attempt, through the use of standard representations and dominant signifying practices, to hide any elements that would open up the text to multiple meaning. Readerly texts support the commercialized values of the literary establishment and uphold the view of texts as disposable commodities.

The Writerly Text

By contrast, writerly texts reveal those elements that the readerly attempts to conceal. The reader, now in a position of control, takes an active role in the construction of meaning. The stable meaning, or metanarratives, of readerly texts is replaced by a proliferation of meanings and a disregard of narrative structure. There is a multiplicity of cultural and other ideological indicators (codes) for the reader to uncover. What Barthes describes as “ourselves writing” is a self-conscious expression aware of the discrepancy between artifice and reality. The writerly text destabilizes the reader’s expectations. The reader approaches the text from an external position of subjectivity. By turning the reader into the writer, writerly texts defy the commercialization and commodification of literature.

Barthes & the Ideal Text

Barthes identifies the writerly text as the dominant mode in modern mythological culture in which forms of representation seek to continually blur the divisions between the real and the artificial. He proposes that the ideal text blurs the distinction between the reader and writer:

. . . the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable . . . ; the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language (S/Z 5).

Hypertext possesses many of the qualities Barthes identifies in the ideal text. In hypertext, the presentation of material is non-linear. It is text that branches, links, and connects, allowing information to be understood in random sequence. The nature or order of meaning is not pre-determined by the author, but is rather an interactive activity in which the reader is free to take any chosen direction. Hypertext is composed of lexias. Lexias are blocks of text connected via verbal and non-verbal links. It is a medium of information that connects words (language) with external commentaries, related or contrary texts — all towards determining the underlying conceptual and ideological structure of the text.