This article introduces the special issue. In it, we argue that research into reader response should be recognised as a vital aspect of contemporary stylistics, and we establish our focus on work which explicitly investigates such responses through the collection and analysis of extra-textual datasets. Reader response research in stylistics is characterised by a commitment to rigorous and evidence-based approaches to the study of readers’ interactions with and around texts, and the application of such datasets in the service of stylistic concerns, to contribute to stylistic textual analysis and/or wider discussion of stylistic theory and methods. We trace the influence of reader response criticism and reception theory on stylistics and discuss the productive dialogues which exist between stylistics and the related fields of the empirical study of literature and naturalistic study of reading. After offering an overview of methods available to reader response researchers and a contextualising survey of existing work, we argue that both experimental and naturalistic methods should be regarded as ‘empirical’, and that stylistics is uniquely positioned to embrace diverse approaches to readers and reading. We summarise contributions to the special issue and the valuable insights they offer into the historical context of reader response research and the way readers perceive and evaluate texts (either poetry or narrative prose). Stylistic reader response research enables both the testing and development of stylistic methods, in accordance with the progressive spirit of the discipline, and also the establishment of new and renewed connections between stylistic research and work in other fields.