Virtual dimension is a term used by literary theorist and scholar Wolfgang Iser, (mainly in his writings, The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach (1972), The Implied Reader (1974), and The Act of Reading (1978), to describe the ‘text’ produced by the reader while reading and to signify the convergence of text and imagination.
The term was born within the world of the reader-response theory; a theory that came to light and gained attention in the 1970’s and that viewed literature through a phenomenological lens, focusing on the interaction between text and reader (Mambrol, 2016). Before the reader-response theory was developed, the classical forms of literary interpretation followed the notion that every text holds an esoteric message, a true meaning that could be revealed through interpretation and analysis (Iser, 1978). In the 1940s and 1950’s a new movement of literary criticism, ‘New Criticism’, rejected the values of the classical forms of interpretation and turned its focus on the interaction among the different elements within a text, still denying, though, the importance of the role of the reader (Iser, 1978). Opposing the prevailing theories that preceded, reader-response theory altered the course of literary interpretation by placing reader and text together, in equal measure, and by suggesting that the role of the reader lies in ‘actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them’ (Reader-response theory | Poetry Foundation, 2022)
There are many different approaches within the reader-response theory, but, despite their differentiations, they all suggest that the role of the reader is vital to the understanding of literary texts, that one cannot separate what literature is and what it does, and that the meaning of the text is formulated through the act of reading and thus, reader and text have equally important parts in the production of meaning (Mambrol, 2016). Iser, one of the key reader-response theorists, proposes that instead of separating reader and text, as subject and object one should rather focus upon the ways reader and text merge through the act of reading (Mambrol, 2018). A literary work is, then, not just the text, but also the actions of responding to it, performed by its recipient and its ‘message is transmitted in two ways, in that the reader ‘receives’ it by composing it’ (Iser, 21). The virtual dimension is what reader and text construct together while setting off this process of receiving and composing, and ultimately, what activates the literary work (Iser, 1978).
The work is more than the text, for the text only takes life when it is realized [...] The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as it is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the disposition of the reader. It is the virtuality of the work that gives rise to its dynamic nature, and this in turn is the precondition for the effects that the work calls forth. As the reader uses various perspectives offered him[/her/them] by the text in order to relate the patterns and the “schematized views” to one another, he[/she/they] sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself[/herself/themselves]
(Iser, 1978, p.280).