Literary Reading and Emotion Symposium

Literary Reading and Emotion
David S. Miall and Willie van Peer
July 13-14 2008
Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts

The Literary Reading and Emotion symposium is designed to bring scholars together in an informal environment to discuss the role of emotional response in literary reading and explore avenues for further research. Some issues for consideration are indicated below.

Modern theories of cognition and emotion and increasing knowledge about the workings of the human mind provide possibilities for more systematic approaches to the role of feeling in literary response than have been the case in literary scholarship in the past. Among literary scholars the feelings of readers have so far received little attention (exceptions include Opdahl, Robinson) and they have largely been overlooked by the new discipline of cognitive poetics (but see Tsur). Yet a number of important features of literary response appear to depend on feeling. Empirical studies have shown that it correlates reliably with stylistic and other foregrounded features in texts (Miall & Kuiken, 1994); it increases the “depth of response” to literary texts (Eva-Wood); it is reflected in the absorption or “transport” that enables readers to imagine themselves in a scene or as a given character (Gerrig, Green), with consequent influence on some readers’ ethical understanding (Hakemulder); and feeling for some readers can be self-modifying, a wider concept than catharsis, bringing renewed understanding of the self and its social context (Miall & Kuiken, 2002). In addition, feeling presents us with some puzzling paradoxes that point to its independence from cognitive functions: we feel real feelings for characters in narrative or poetry that we know to be fictional (Carroll); we often feel as vividly on second or subsequent readings of a narrative when we know the outcome; and we appear to seek out and take pleasure in experiencing negative emotions, as in tragic drama (Nussbaum).

This proposal to study feeling is also timely. Given that literary studies is now “after theory,” it provides an opportunity to renew our understanding of how literary reading influences the ordinary reader, and to re-engage with questions of what it means to experience literature rather than interpret it. In a time of declining readership in North America (NEA report, Reading at Risk, June 2004), the study of feeling may also lead to a better understanding of literature in the classroom, and help retrieve the literary experience for readers of the future. The colloquium will include literary scholars working in poetics or empirical studies of literary reading, as well as scholars from other fields interested in questions about feeling and literature: philosophers, psychologists, linguists, and neuropsychologists.

Some specific issues:

1. Does feeling have precedence in the early phases of literary response?

What is the nature and scope of feeling in the first seconds of response, especially in the first 300 msec prior to conscious awareness? What do event-related potentials (ERPs) show about early language processing, and how far is this relevant to our understanding of the response to foregrounding, the array of unusual textual features (sound effects, metre, figurative expressions, etc.) that readers often find striking? Is there evidence of “pre-categorical processing” of foregrounding, as proposed by Tsur (1992)? Does foregrounding, in Barfield’s (1964) words, create “the strangeness” that has “an interior significance,” that is “felt as arising from a different plane or mode of consciousness” (pp. 170-1)?

2. Does literary reading have a creative, self-modifying power?

Does literature have a role in creating novel feelings, and if so what are their implications? There is evidence from historical documents of readers appearing to experience new feelings (Rose, 2001; Long, 2003). Among contemporary empirical studies, Cupchik and his colleagues (1998) reported that readers experienced “fresh” feelings in response to certain passages in Joyce’s short stories; compared with emotion memories, such feelings were more frequent both in response to descriptive passages and when readers were identifying with a character; and they also tended to occur in response to passages later in the text. Frijda (2007) suggests that emotions generate fresh feelings: “Emotion experience provides novel motivations and new knowledge that lead to novel emotions and actions” (p. 221).

3. What role does empathy play in literary reading?

Empathy is often cited as a benefit of literary reading. This raises the paradox that we feel real emotions for fictional characters, i.e., it conflicts with the Law of Apparent Reality proposed by Frijda (2007). Can empathy be characterized by Oatley’s (1994) proposal that readers are simulating, “taking on the character’s goals, and experiencing emotions as these plans meet vicissitudes”(66)? Are Theory of Mind approaches relevant here, and if so does simulation (which seems supported by the finding of mirror neurons) or the theory-theory approach provide the better account of empathy? How far is empathy to be distinguished from sympathy, compassion, or emotional contagion (Keen, 2006: pp. 208-9)?

References and further reading

Barfield, O. 1964. Poetic diction: A study in meaning. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.
Carroll, N. 1997. Art, narrative, and emotion. In M. Hjort & S. Laver Eds., Emotion and the arts, 190-211. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cupchik, G. C., Oatley, K., & Vorderer, P. 1998. Emotional effects of reading excerpts from short stories by James Joyce. Poetics, 25, 363-377.
Damasio, A. R. 1999. The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt.
Dissanayake, E. 2000. Art and intimacy: How the arts began. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Ellis, Ralph D. 2005. Curious emotions: Experiencing and the creation of meaning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Eva-Wood, A. 2004. How think-and-feel-aloud instruction influences poetry readers. Discourse Processes, 38, 173-92.
Frijda, N. 2007. The laws of emotion. Mahwah, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gerrig, R. J. 1993. Experiencing narrative worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Green, M. C. 2004. Transportation into narrative worlds: the role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes, 38, 247-266.
Hakemulder, J. 2000. The moral laboratory: Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Keen, S. 2006. A theory of narrative empathy. Narrative, 14, 207-236.
Long, E. 2003. Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Miall, D. S. 2006. Literary reading: Empirical and theoretical studies. New York: Peter Lang.
Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. 1994. Foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affect: Response to literary stories. Poetics, 22, 389-407.
Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. 2002. A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2001. Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oatley, K. 1994. A taxonomy of the emotions of literary response and a theory of identification in fictional narrative. Poetics 23, 53-74.
Opdahl, K. M. 2002. Emotion as meaning: The literary case for how we imagine. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America 2004. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.
Robinson, J. 2005. Deeper than reason: Emotion and its role in literature, music, and art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rose, J. 2001. The intellectual life of the British working classes. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Tsur, R. 1992. What makes sound patterns expressive? The poetic mode of speech perception. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

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