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Henrietta Lacks, Reader-Response Theory, and the Limitations of Genre

tgarber's picture

          I am not a science person. I have never really enjoyed learning about scientific processes or methods,

and I do not gravitate to scientific writing when I am at a bookstore. But, I was assigned to read “The

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” which is considered science writing. Initially, I thought that I would have no

interest or connection to this book, seeing as I have a clear disconnect with science. To my surprise, I

connected to the story of Henrietta Lacks like no other novel I have read before. Henrietta Lacks was a poor

African-American woman, whose cells were taken from her during the Jim Crow era. Her cells were cloned and

used to create medicines that have saved millions of lives. Among the medicines and vaccines that her cells

helped produce, Tamoxifen, a drug used to treat cancer, is the drug that helped cure one of my family

members. Despite the clear connection that I have with the story of Henrietta Lacks, I would have never

known of her importance in my life. If I had the choice to buy the novel in a bookstore of my own volition, I

would not have chosen this book because it was categorized as science writing, which provided me the lens to

look at the novel. The scientific writing genre obstructed the many other perspectives that I could have

approached the book by its categorization.

         This experience with “Henrietta Lacks” makes me question the role of the author and audience in relation to the intentions of a novel. In traditional English classes, students are taught to examine the intention of the writer, but I would argue that the audience of the writing determines the value and significance of a book rather than its author. If the audience has no connection to a piece of writing then what is the purpose of writing if it has no audience?

A theory that coincides with the notion that the audience’s response to a novel is more important than the writer’s intention is called “reader-response theory” or “reader-response criticism”.  Professor Anne Dalke whose course required my reading of “Henrietta Lacks” wrote an essay detailing what reader-response theory is and how it is a new way of critiquing literature. In this essay, Professor Dalke explains that the reader determines the true meaning of a text, “Meaning comes into existence not when the text is written, but when it is read and responded to” (Dalke 66). The intention of the author is unimportant to the meaning of the text because the audience discovers true meaning from the text based on his/her personal experience. Readers relate their own experiences to the text. The reader will gain a deeper understanding of the text through personal connection rather than analyzing what the author intended for readers to realize. The Professor also explains that students of English classes should not only approach the text with the idea of “What was the author trying to say?” but rather “How does the text relate to my own experience and what do I think the story is saying?” She explains that  students bring a deeper dimension to the story when they disregard what the author intends and focus on their own connotation of the text, “…students should rely on their own sense of what is happening in –as well as what is missing from- a story” (Dalke 72). Alike Dalke, Jane Tompkins wrote a book on reader response criticism and the importance of the reader’s perception and reception of the text to the meaning of a work, “It’s “effects”, psychological and otherwise, are essential to any accurate description of its meaning, since that meaning has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of the reader” (Tompkins ix). According to both Dalke and Tompkins, the reader is the authority of the implications of the text.

With the idea of reader-response theory, I re-evaluate “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Henrietta Lacks’ story was not only connected to the story of science, but to culture, race, and other real world applications that are not embraced by the “science writing” genre. By limiting the book to this genre, other implications that can be made from this novel are censored. The reader should have precedence over the ideas of a novel rather than author-selected genres that limit the endless implications that a book can have thus limiting its audience. Genres seem to predetermine the lessons that a reader will learn from books, thus limiting the reader’s conclusions.

Books are meant to be read and are written for an audience. By using genre to categorize books, writers are limiting their audiences and are failing to remember that their writing is communicating with someone else. Communication allows for response, but placing a genre to a book limits a reader’s response to a text because the genre presets what a reader’s response to a text should be. Communication also allows for an exchange of ideas and thoughts and genre limits the communication between the writer, the text, and the reader by “creating a script” for that communication.


Dalke, Anne. “ Where Words Arise and Wherefore: Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration”. Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee, 2007.

Tompkins, Jane, Ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 1 Dec 2010. < &lr =&id =t472H ekz8JoC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=reader+ response +theory+jane+tompkins&ots=LKgxCp2Gaj&sig=2tioxX8AzN5eRhnpVENoJJbgNDI#v=onepage&q&f=false>.



Anne Dalke's picture

Power to the Reader!


be sure to look @ maht91's essay on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the light of the Reader's Response Theory.

In many ways, this paper makes a lot of sense as an extension of your last one, on the limitations of genre as a category for guiding our reading: generic typing predetermines "how" we should read and "what" we should read for, when really--according to RRT--our own experience should determine those things. And of course I'm very glad that the ability to draw on your own experience helped you overcome your dislike of the genre of "science writing"--@ least in the case of Henrietta Lacks.

And of course it won't surprise you that such claims lead me to further questions. When you come to your conference, let's talk about a couple of key terms embedded in your essay: "true meaning" and "authority." Also lets talk a little more about authorial intention, and its relation to reader response...what about the possibility of something more "conversational," less dismissive of what the author's put into the text....?