The terms ‘readerly/writerly’ text are devised by Roland Barthes (1915-80), the French critic, to make a distinction between two basic kinds of text: the lisible (‘readerly’) and the scriptible (‘writerly’). He expounds on this in his book S/Z (1970).
By a ‘readerly’ text he means a book (a novel, say) to which a reader’s response is more or less passive. It refers to those types of texts that encourage us to remain (and enjoy) being readers – that is, to find pleasure in devouring a well-crafted to story. The emotions we are supposed to feel, the experiences we are supposed to go through, the secrets we are supposed to find, have all been designed and crafted by the masterful hand of the author. For
example, a ‘realistic’ novel (or any ‘classic text’ as Barthes terms them), presents to us a recognizable world with easily recognizable characters and events. The reader accepts the meaning without needing to make much effort.
On the other hand, a ‘writerly’ text, however, makes demands on the reader; he or she has to work things out, look for, and provide meaning. It refers to those types of texts in which we are actively encouraged to take part in the creation of the text – not just what it means, but the actual production – we are encouraged to become writers, an active participant, co-producers. Obvious examples of writerly texts are Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A writerly text tends to focus attention on how it is written, on the mechanics of it, the particular use of language. A writerly text tends to be self-conscious; it calls attention to itself as a work of art. It also makes the reader into a producer. Barthes makes the point that the writerly text is of value because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. However, as Barthes demonstrates in his analysis of Balzac’s short story Sarrasine (which is basically a readerly story but which Barthes discusses as a writerly one), a critic may, if he or she wishes, read any story as either writerly or readerly. A readerly or writerly reading is not inherent in the text but maybe a part of the reading.