Table of Contents
I. Border-Crossing Fiction
II. Theoretical Introduction
1. Border Crossing and Reader Transportation
2. Reader-Response Criticism and Reception Theory
3. Cognitive Literary Studies: Theory of Mind & Narrative Empathy
4. The Empirical About Literary and Reception Studies
III. Methodological Introduction
1. General Findings
2. The Emperor’s Babe (2001)
a) Reader Profiles, Ratings and Reviews
3. Mr. Loverman (2013)
a) Reader Profiles, Ratings and Reviews
4. Girl, Woman, Other (2019)
a) Reader Profiles, Ratings and Reviews
VI. Conclusion & Outlook
I. Border-Crossing Fiction
The influence of fiction on a reader’s personal life and social cognition has been of interest to academia ever since the beginnings of reader-response criticism and the cognitive turn of the 1980s. Literature, after all, has the power to “serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures” (Cixous 879). Reader response and reception theorists, cognitive literary critics and empirical receptionists have thus been trying to empirically explain the transformative, subversive powers of literature.
In order to prove literature’s subversive, border-crossing powers, academia has turned to both quantitative and qualitative methods. Through distant reading and the empirical study of reader reception data, scholars empirically measure the effects of a literary work on the reader. Through close reading and the traditional hermeneutic study of literature, scholars look into the influence of a work’s narrative techniques on reader reception. To properly understand the subversive powers of literature, research needs to look at both textual and reader variables since neither textual devices nor reader attributes exclusively define a reader’s emotional engagement with and her1 transportation into a literary work (Fernandez-Quintanilla 142).
This paper uses both distant and close reading methods to analyse reader reception of Bernardine Evaristo’s works The Emperor’s Babe (2001), Mr. Loverman (2013) and her Booker Award winning publication Girl, Woman, Other (2019). Through experimental form and style, approachable characters and humorous style of writing, Evaristo successfully draws the contemporary reader into the story world and educates her on the constructedness of cognitive borders and social categorizations (i.e., sex, gender, age, race, class etc.). After the reader crosses the border into the story world, she follows the individual journeys of the fictional characters with the help of mind-reading and narrative empathy and leaves the story world with “differences in cognitive processing” followed by effects on “cognition, perception and action” (Nünning 120).
To empirically analyse the educational, border-crossing effect of a literary work that reaches beyond the reading experience, this paper uses reception data from Goodreads in the form of reader profile information and reviews on The Emperor’s Babe, Mr. Loverman and Girl, Woman, Other. After a theoretical introduction to the historic development of the academic interest in both border and (empirical) reception studies, the results section will outline the major findings of a descriptive statistical analysis of the retrieved data for the reception of all novels. Each novel’s reception will then be looked at individually through distant and close reading of the respective book’s narrative techniques. A discussion section will compare the findings of the distant and close readings of all three books under discussion. The paper will close with a critical summary of the findings in the conclusion and give an outlook on the advantages and opportunities provided by the study of the subversive, border-crossing effects of literature in general.
II. Theoretical Introduction
1. Border Crossing and Reader Transportation
Borders divide continents, nations, cities, and districts, but also cultures, times, values, and beliefs. Borders can be either geographical, cultural, symbolic, temporal or epistemological and they generally differentiate the normal from the abnormal, the known from the unknown (Rosello and Wolfe 14). The more complex the world becomes, the more borders arise, given that cognitive borders, in the form of social categorizations, provide people guidance. It is thus not surprising to observe an increased academic interest in “border studies” over recent years.
With 21st century academic research, the conception of borders slowly moved from the traditional, geographical idea to understanding borders as processes (Diener 59). This means, for example, that border research goes beyond the concrete understanding of a fence as a fence and asks for the conventional power behind the conception of the fence as border. This is because it is only through society’s preconceptions that the fence is seen and respected as a concrete border in real life. Border researchers “pursue the contours of the kind of pre-figurations and the pre-conditions that enable the creation of material borders in the first place” (Johannessen and Moi 50). As interdisciplinary approach uniting philosophical, social and cultural studies, border studies understand borders as “both formal and informal institutions of spatial and social practice, as well as physical and symbolic markers of difference” (Diener 121). In other words, border studies theorists want to understand how borders of any kind (geopolitical, cultural, epistemological, etc.) come into place and how they influence and determine human social interaction. Yet how is this relevant to literary studies?
In order to answer this question, one needs to look at a border’s central characteristic: its permeability. This means that all borders, whether of topographical or epistemological nature, can be crossed (Diener 57). By distinguishing between the known and the unknown, the normal and the unnormal, borders create “categories of difference and separation” between which communication is generated precisely because of their permeability (Newmann qtd. in Rosello and Wolfe 12). All borders are thus “imaginary constructions”, which facilitate transgression and communication (West-Pavlov 10f.). Literature, as imaginary construct itself, provides “fertile ground” for the analysis of borders and how they are crossed since it is literature’s natural purpose to facilitate communication between text and reader (Johannessen and Moi 50). Borders represented in literature can therefore be understood as “pre-figurative modes” challenging the reader, as much as the scholar, to think and rethink her cognitive borders and social categorizations. The way borders are presented in fiction (especially how they are crossed) can have a significant effect on a reader’s conception of borders in real life. While a border’s permeability allows for communication, it simultaneously describes a border’s second most important characteristic: its instability.
While a border’s permeability facilitates communication between two sides, it can also facilitate its own destruction. Since borders are “imaginary constructions” (West-Pavlov 10), they can easily be deconstructed and are never stable but always dynamic. Borders thus influence but do not determine the way people and readers think about the world and can change dramatically over time. Contemporary multicultural writers, for example, write border fiction to “interrogate otherness and ethical dilemmas in their own national histories” (Rosello and Wolfe 13), thereby working to deconstruct existing cognitive borders. Geographical, cultural and symbolic border crossing can educate the modern reader on a variety of topics like otherness, multiculturalism, and national identity. As will be outlined in greater detail in the forthcoming chapters, this can also be observed in the works of the Anglo-Nigerian author Bernardine Evaristo.
Evaristo crosses temporal, spatial, cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and formal borders in all of her works. With The Emperor’s Babe (2001), subsequently referred to as TEB in the in-text citations , Evaristo crosses both temporal and formal borders by placing the Black protagonist Zuleika in Roman London while incorporating contemporary 21st century colloquial English in the conventional form of the epic. With Mr. Loverman (2013), subsequently referred to as ML in the in-text citations , Evaristo crosses cultural and stylistic borders by narrating the story of 75-year-old Barry, who has been hiding his homosexuality from his wife all his life, from his first-person perspective and his wife’s second-person perspective. With her most recent, and also Booker-prize acclaimed work, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), subsequently referred to as GWO in the in-text citations , Evaristo crosses spatial, cultural, formal, and stylistic borders. In this work, a polyvocal chorus narrates the interconnected stories of twelve mostly Black British women from different generations, places, and cultures.
Much like Evaristo’s works, border-crossing narratives engage with “individuals and communities negotiating with placelessness, language, ethnicity and sexualized discourses of resistance and ambivalence” (Rosello and Wolfe 11f.). It is through literature, through culture, that the reader is presented with borders as “culturally constructed notions” capable of shifting (Fincham 215). This, however, can only have an educational effect on the reader and therewith on real life, if the reader is fully drawn into the story world. The reader herself needs to cross yet another border to profit from the border-crossing taking place inside the story world: the reader needs to cross the border into the story world. Only then can literature construct, but also deconstruct cognitive borders.
This paper thus understands the concepts of “border” and “border-crossing” in two ways. The first understanding, as presented above, understands borders in narratives as either of spatial, temporal, cultural, stylistic or formal nature. If either of those cognitive borders is crossed, either literally in the case of spatial and temporal borders, or figuratively in the case of cultural, stylistic and formal borders, border crossing is taking place. In other words: if a literary work breaks with cultural, stylistic or formal conventions, cognitive border-crossing is taking place. This understanding will be the point of reference for the textual analyses of the selected works by Evaristo in the forthcoming results chapter.
The second understanding regards “border-crossing” as reader transportation into the story world with a subsequent educational effect based on Hélène Cixous’ understanding of literature promoting “transformation of social and cultural structures” (879) as well as Vera Nünning and her 2014 Reading Fiction, Changing Minds: The Cognitive Value of Fiction. If the reader is cognitively transported into the story world and subsequently presented with content that troubles her cognitive preconceptions of the world, she experiences an educational effect and changes her beliefs and values in real life. Nünning writes:
The emotions evoked by literary fiction also have an influence on our cognitive processing after the reading experience has ended. Novels can act as a powerful emotional prime, and once an emotional state has been induced, we would expect to see differences in cognitive processing associated with this new emotional state. Effects on cognition, perception and action would be expected. (121)
Successful reader transportation would thus result in real-life “border-crossing”, understood as an educational effect after Nünning. Yet how exactly does a successful reader transportation into the narrative world take place and how can a work of fiction influence the reader’s cognition beyond the reading experience? A brief excursion to the beginnings of reader-response criticism and reception theory shall provide answers to these questions.
2. Reader-Response Criticism and Reception Theory
Reader-response criticism and reception theory emerged in the 1960s as a response to the New Criticism of the 1940s and were primarily driven by figures like Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss. Unlike the New Critics who viewed a text as “isolated aesthetic object with a single meaning” (Tyson 149), reader-response critics and reception theorists viewed the reader as a central meaning-giving element. The theoretical focus thus shifted from the text to the reader (170). Yet what is the difference between reader-response criticism and reception theory?
While reception theory focuses more on the development of meaning over different periods in time, reader-response criticism focuses more on the reader as an individual. Reception theory, on the one hand, relies on Gadamer’s conception of a fusion of horizons of the “Rezeptionsästhetik” and understands reader reception as a “fusion [that] takes place between the past experiences that are embodied in the text and the interests of its present-day readers” (Newton 219). Primarily influenced by Jauss, reception theory looks into the sum of a work’s interpretations over time. Reader response criticism, on the other hand, views readers as producers instead of consumers claiming that readers “actively make the meaning they find in literature” (Tyson 170). Naturally, the meaning readers make of a text can never be exactly the same: “different readers may read the same text quite differently” (170). This means that interpretations of texts differ from reader to reader, from time period to time period. Reader-response criticism and reception theory are thus both reception aesthetic and reception history (Mambrol).
As reader-response criticism developed further, different approaches progressed. While these approaches are by no means complete or selective, they can roughly be divided into three major groups: individualists, uniformists and experimenters. While individualists focus on the psychology and mind of an individual or small group in relation to their understanding and interpretation of a text, uniformists are more interested in the socio-cultural background of readers and communities. Much like Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities”, uniformists try to understand how a reader’s surroundings can influence and determine her interpretive strategies (Tyson 185). Experimenters, contrarily, try to understand the ways in which a text works to affect its readers through the close analysis of its stylistic devices and narrative strategies and the study of real-life reader reactions (Mambrol). One of the major contributions in the latter field was Stanley Fish’s 1970 essay “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”.
In “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”, Fish proclaims a shift in question. Instead of asking for a text’s meaning, he asks for a text’s effect. The text, according to Fish, is no longer an “object” but an “event” (Fish, “Literature in the Reader” 125) and needs to be treated as such. In his approach, Fish claims that certain stylistic devices can actively guide reader reception. Reader-response critics interested in affective stylistics analyse “the mental processes produced by specific elements in the text” (Tyson 175). The focus still lies with the individual reader yet is extended by close textual analyses. Fish believes that “the irreducible effects of a text’s language move readers to produce interpretations”, which carry a “normative force” as intended by the author (Goldstein & Machor xii). This “normative force” represents the educational effect triggered by border-crossing as outlined in the previous chapter. Through selected narrative strategies, literary border-crossing can influence and change a reader’s norms and values in real life.
Fish, however, already hinted at a possible fallacy of this conception in his 1970 work “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”: “the developing of those [reader] responses takes place within the regulating and organizing mechanism, pre-existing the actual verbal experience” (143). This means that textual stylistics are not the only variables influencing reader reception of a work of fiction. Instead, a reader’s background and prior experience, her interpretive communities and strategies, play a crucial role as well as outlined in his 1976 essay “Interpreting the Variorum”.
Readers read and perceive texts differently depending on their personal backgrounds and life experiences. If readers belong to the same “interpretive community”, they share “interpretive strategies” in making sense of the world. These strategies are then applied to fictional texts. A text’s meaning is not simply extracted “but made and made not by encoded forms but by interpretive strategies that call form into being” (Fish, “Interpreting the ‘Variorum’” 485). Whatever community a reader belongs to defines how she reads and interprets a text. Interpretive communities, however, are never stable. Since their strategies “are not natural or universal, but learned” (484, emphasis in original), they are subject to constant change. Fish defines this as the risk of “interpretive anarchy” (484) as one can never be sure whether one belongs to the same interpretive community. Interpretations can thus neither be objective nor fully subjective, because they are always determined by “sets of norms, systems of thought etc. which are intersubjective” (Newton 220).
Nonetheless, reader-response critics continued to look at how a text’s stylistic devices influence reader reception. Iser, for example, focused on the artistic intention of the author and the aesthetic perception through the reader, claiming that it was the dualism of the two making up a text’s meaning. With the “artistic intention”, Iser refers to “the text created by an author” while the “aesthetic perception” refers to “the realization accomplished by the reader”: It is “the interaction of [the two] which unfolds [a] work’s potential” (Iser, How to do Theory 68). This interaction is primarily guided by the reader filling in, what Iser famously coined, “gaps” or “blanks”. Gaps or blanks represent sudden changes in character, time or perspective and need to be mediated by the reader while reading: “[T]he text itself is punctured by blanks and gaps that have to be negotiated in the act of reading. Whenever the reader bridges a gap, communication begins” (Iser, How to do Theory 64). The border between text and reader does not separate the two but unites them in communication. It is through the transportation into the story world, through the reader’s constant effort to fill in the blanks, that she is influenced in her cognitive borders in real life beyond the reading experience. A text’s meaning is thus not entirely dependent on a reader’s interpretation but can also, to a certain extent, guide a reader’s interpretation with the help of stylistic devices and narrative strategies presenting gaps and blanks to the reader. It is the combination, the dualism, of the artistic intention and the aesthetic perception that “unfolds the work’s potential” (68) and creates meaning. While early reader-response criticism based its claims on theoretical assumptions alone, later reader-response criticism called for stronger empirical backup, which marked the “cognitive turn” in literary theory (Kukkonen et al. 1). After all, the reader is “an essential participant in the reading process, one who is informed by the experiences he/she brings to the moment of reading: present historical circumstances, world knowledge, gender, race, class, age, education, personal experiences, feelings” (Fialho 5).
3. Cognitive Literary Studies: Theory of Mind & Narrative Empathy
The 1980s cognitive turn of literary studies emerged out of the cognitive revolution of the 1950s, which resulted in the formation of the Cognitive Science Society in 1970s. Cognitive science primarily focused on “the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology” (Thagard). Within cognitive research, the primary goal was to study the human mind through objective, scientific methods. The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of neurophysiologists in 1990 did not only mark a milestone for cognitive science in general, but also, and in this context more importantly, a breakthrough for cognitive literary studies.
Rizzolatti and his team tested the neurophysiological brain activity of macaques during social behaviour and found that the primates did not differentiate between action and perception. Whatever they observed triggered the same neurophysiological areas, the mirror neurons, in their brains, which were also activated during the actual action. These ‘mirror neurons’ thus allow macaques and humans to experience emotions even though when the action is merely observed and not experienced (Lusin 12). Human neural circuits are thus “powerfully attuned to the presence, behaviour, and emotional display of other members of our species” (Zunshine, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies 118). This marked a breakthrough for cultural studies as it suggested that the mere observation of an experience or action from a distance, as is the case in any form of cultural consumption, could lead to an authentic experience of the observed action in the recipient herself.
Cognitive cultural studies thus focus on the “relationship between two immensely complex, historically situated systems – the human mind and cultural artefacts” (Zunshine, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies 3) and try to understand the workings of the human mind during cultural consumption. To understand the workings of the mind, cognitive cultural studies combine various methodologies. Next to the traditional cognitive sciences of “neuroscience, philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, linguistics, evolutionary anthropology, and cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychology”, cognitive cultural scientists also draw on modern subfields like “law, economics, music, engineering, and political science” (3). The methodological boundaries of cognitive cultural studies are fluid yet united by the common goal of understanding the workings of the human mind when consuming culture. The cognitive turn offered reader-response criticism a new direction by focusing on the cognitive processes during the reading process. The two major theories of thought exploring these processes are theory of mind (theory theory) and narrative empathy (simulation theory), as summarized by Blakely Vermeule in her Why Do We Care about Literary Characters (35).
While reading, the reader manages to make social sense of the presented fictional world through “mind reading” (theory of mind), which is the “rough-and-ready evolved folk psychology that we use to represent ourselves the beliefs, intentions, and desires of other people” (Vermeule 35). What blanks and gaps were to Iser are now the presented beliefs and desires of fictional characters which the reader needs to interpret according to her mind reading abilities. As a human being, the reader is naturally capable of interpreting a counterpart’s mental state based on the presented behaviour or actions since humans naturally engage with and make sense of each other simply by observing, as supported by Rizzolatti and the discovery of the mirror neurons. Contrary to real-life mind-reading, however, fictional mind-reading presents a welcomed opportunity for readers to engage in social interactions without the pressure of decoding social situations accurately: “one of the pleasures of reading novels is the enjoyment of being told what a variety of fictional people are thinking (…). This is a relief from the business of real life, much of which requires the ability to decode accurately the behaviour of others” (Palmer qtd. in Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction 19).
Theory of mind is thus the theoretical explanation for our innate ability to understand and attribute the correct mental states to characters in “scenarios that we know to be fictional” (Vermeule 38). With the help of mirror neurons, readers are capable of crossing the distance into a fictional story world and of making sense of the presented mental states: “Knowing what other people are thinking and being able to predict what they are going to do are two of the most important cognitive skills we humans possess” (34). The most important narrative device facilitating mind-reading revolves around the fictional character and the narrative empathy readers appoint them. Contrary to the theory of mind (theory theory), narrative empathy (simulation theory) “holds that people read others minds not by having a theory about what those minds are like but by running in their own minds the mental states experienced by the person who is the target of their mind reading” (39).
With the help of narrative empathy, humans “simulate other people’s states of mind” rather than simply make assumptions like they do with mind reading (Vermeule 35). Empathy, in its broadest sense, is the “sharing of the feelings of others”, the actual feeling of somebody else’s mental states and emotions (Nünning 21). A more detailed definition based on the academic workings of Keen, Coplan, Gallagher and Caracciolo, as summarized by Carolina Fernandez-Quintanilla, reads as follows:
Narrative empathy involves a character-oriented (emotional) response and perspective taking. The reader forms a mental representation of the character’s situation and mental state(s) while maintaining a self-other distinction. In this way, readers re-enact, simulate, or imaginatively experience in a first-person way what they perceive is the character’s mental state and mental activity. The resulting response is congruent with the reader’s perception and understanding of what the character’s experience must be like. (125)
Through empathy, readers are able to feel like the fictional characters and are able to take on their perspectives. Therefore, empathy means “taking the perspective of others, which involves both affective and abstract cognitive processes when people simulate the beliefs, emotions, and thoughts of others” (Nünning 94). Yet how is narrative empathy triggered through fiction?
Before answering this question, it needs to be noted that readers do not automatically feel empathy for any protagonist. Rather, readers are still aware of the distance between themselves and the character. Readers know of the borders which separate the protagonists from the real world: “Narrative storytelling often depends on the reader’s awareness that there is a difference between what the character experiences and what the reader herself knows” (Vermeule 42). Much like the workings of the mirror neurons, readerly empathy is dependent on the distance between one’s own situation and the protagonist’s, between real life and fiction. A text, however, can actively reduce this distance by bringing about narrative empathy within the reader.
Empathy towards fictional characters is evoked and actively guided through narrative strategies. Rhetorical narratologist Suzanne Keen, for example, brought forward major theoretical assumptions on the narrative strategies promoting reader empathy in her 2006 work A Theory of Narrative Empathy. In her theory, Keen defines narrative situation with point of view and perspective, mode of narration, and access to characters’ inner lives as major narrative empathy techniques (Keen 216f.). Depending on the perspective structure of a literary work, social information on fictional characters is given in varying degrees and from different perspectives. The social information available to the reader determines her opinion about a given character and therewith the degree of narrative empathy.
Social information on fictional characters can, for example, either be given through an omniscient narrator or a third-person perspective narrator. Through an “observer of fact” (Currie qtd. in Vermeule 43), the reader follows the story’s plot and empathises with the story’s characters: “[The narrator] empathizes with the characters and insofar as we empathize with him, we do too” (43). The narrator’s perspective, however, is not always the same as the character’s perspective. While a third-person narrator comments on the character’s behaviour and actions, a different focalization might transmit a character’s inner feelings and cognitive processes more accurately. This accurate reflection of a character’s beliefs and desires is “the object of readers’ simulation or mind-reading” in the theory of mind (Nünning 190). Focalization is an especially useful strategy in guiding reader empathy towards a certain character as it allows for a deeper and more authentic understanding of a character’s experiences and emotion (Vermeule 73). Next to the different narratological perspectives, readers also emotionally respond to a text’s stylistics, which are “affective responses to aesthetic features such as the rhythm or style of the language” (Nünning 120). If readers are presented with unconventional stylistics (stylistics which cross the borders of formal convention), they feel “emotional aesthetic pleasure” (123) and enjoy the cognitive challenge.
Even though these narrative strategies seem theoretically fit to guide and determine reader empathy, narrative empathy “has not yet been proven to exist” nor has one narrative technique been proven to facilitate reader empathy (Keen 208). Next to narrative strategies, other variables also need to be taken into account when analysing the cognitive potential of a literary work. A reader’s personal background, for example, also influences the emotional response of the reader. A reader might relive “former biographical emotions” when presented with similar situations or feelings in fiction or might simply understand one narrative better than another due to her background (Nünning 120). A reader’s background is her interpretive community after Fish, or her “interpretive domain” after Zunshine, and heavily influences her reception and interpretation of a literary work. It can therefore determine the degree of her transportation into the story world since a reader’s theory of mind, her mind-reading ability, only allows for interpretations within her frame of reference. It only allows for a “nuanced choice within that [interpretive] domain” (Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction 199, emphasis in original) or within the individual interpretive community. Readers are thus influenced by both the text but also by their personal “biographical, sociohistorical, [and] literary-historical” (200) background. Any (cognitive) reception of a text is first and foremost an interpretation, a “story reflecting the personal history, biases, and desires of the reader” (Fish qtd. in Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction 202).
Reader reception of a literary work can also change over the course of the narrative: “Since narrative strategies for reducing distance and encouraging perspective taking can be modified and even rendered ineffective by other narrative conventions, it is necessary to consider the particular combination of narrative techniques in the analysis of any given scene” (Nünning 207). Therefore, it is the sum of narrative strategies, the reader’s personal background and other, yet to be determined variables, which guide reader empathy and reception of fictional characters.
In summary, it is the combination of mind reading, which is the theoretical understanding of a character’s mental state, empathy, which is the emotional feeling like the character, and a reader’s personal background which transports readers into the story world. Through this transportation, readers cross the border into the story world and return to real life with “effects on cognition, perception and action” (Nünning 120). The cognitive engagement with fiction (as facilitated through narrative strategies, personal experience and other, individually determined variables) has a positive influence beyond the reading experience as it helps readers comprehend “the intentions, feelings and thought processes of others” while providing “orientation in a complex social world” (19). Nünning further states: “fiction can improve readers’ cognitive abilities by enriching and modifying beliefs about the way the human mind works, and by encouraging readers to take the characters’ perspectives” (19). This is then facilitated through theory of mind and narrative empathy. The educational effect a reader gains from a reading experience is increased with the degree of transportation into the story world. The deeper a reader is transported into a story world, the more emotionally affected she will be after the reading experience has ended (Gerrig 280). These effects can be considered as evidence of the cognitive value of literary border crossing, understood as cognitive transportation into a fictional story world. Yet how can the cognitive value of fiction be measured empirically?
While scholars agree on the cognitive potential of fiction in relation to the power of theory of mind and narrative empathy2, they also agree on the lack of empirical evidence proving literature’s cognitive potential or emotional effect on readers. While it has been suggested that “particular narrative techniques (…) have the potential to facilitate and/or block readers’ empathy with characters” (Fernandez-Quintanilla 126), empirical research into said narrative techniques still is relatively sparse: “we know relatively little about the textual strategies that can encourage recipients to empathise with a character” (Caracciolo qtd. in Fernandez-Quintanilla 126).
4. The Empirical About Literary and Reception Studies
Finding out more about the cognitive workings of a literary work and proving its effects on readers lies at the heart of the empirical study of literature and empirical reception studies. While the empirical study of literature looks into the demonstration of a work’s hermeneutic interpretation, empirical reception studies look into demonstrating the cognitive processes a reader experiences during and after the actual reading experience (Jonas 465). Both fields will now be briefly introduced.
In Germany, Siegfried Schmidt and Norbert Groeben developed their approach to ESL, the Empirical Study of Literature, as early as the 1960s. With the establishment of the Institute for Empirical Literature and Media Research (LUMIS) at the University of Siegen in 1984 (Schmidt 3ff.) and the international Society for Empirical Studies in Literature in 1987, the scholars created important platforms for international exchange and collaboration interested in empirically proving the underlying workings, “the laws” of literature (Rothman; Schmidt 5).
The most important contributions to the empirical study of literature stem from Italian academic Franco Moretti. Moretti applied quantitative methods on novels in his 1998 book Atlas of the European Novel, used “computer-generated visualizations to map (…) the emergence of new genres” (Rothman) in his Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005) and proclaimed an analysis of literature through software in his National Book Critics Circle Award acclaimed work Distant Reading (2013). With the foundation of the Stanford Literary Lab in 2010, together with Matthew Jockers, Moretti laid the groundworks for digital humanities. Like Schmidt and Groeben, Moretti is interested in the quantification of literature and its power to uncover underlying patterns representing the “laws of literature” (Rothman). Distant reading, as introduced by Moretti, focuses on the computational analysis of large text corpora allowing the critic to work out general patterns and models which traditional close reading would be unable to discover (Moretti 48). Distant reading can thus be viewed as a subfield of the empirical study of literature as it makes use of the basic idea of ESL: validating a literary interpretation with the help of empirical and quantitative methods. Empirical reception studies, on the other hand, are interested in the reader and how her understanding of a text and its cognitive potential can be empirically investigated.
While many scholars share the theoretical assumption that certain narrative strategies and stylistic devices enhance reader transportation into the story world and therewith their empathetic engagement with the fictional characters, scholars like Keen3, László and Smogyvári4, and Van Lissa5 agree that empirical evidence of reader engagement as guided by textual strategies needs to be collected in order to ultimately prove the cognitive potential of fiction (Fernandez-Quintanilla 126). Empirical evidence in empirical reception studies refers to “work that collects and analyses extra-textual data on readers’ responses” (126) like experimental reader responses or reviews. How this has been conducted in academia will be outlined by means of selected exemplary studies as brought forward by Fernandez-Quintanilla in her “Textual and reader factors in narrative empathy: An empirical reader response study using focus groups”.
In 2016, Van Lissa empirically analysed possible effects of different narrative perspectives on reader empathy. Contrary to their initial assumption, they found that “narrative perspective did not affect empathy for the protagonist” (Fernandez-Quintanilla 127), which they traced back to the “narrative (un)reliability” (127) of their stories’ protagonists. Kuzmičová followed in 2017 with an interesting study looking into a possible connection between literariness and reader empathy. Their expectations, however, were also not met when their findings revealed that “the non-literary version elicited more empathetic responses than the literary version” (127). Lastly, Laffer analysed the cognitive potential of metaphors as enablers of “empathy across social boundaries” in 2016. Laffer looked into Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand and tried to prove that metaphors helped readers understand the Other, enabling “both the connection between the Self and Other, but also the recognition of the separation in experience and understanding” (127). Laffer, just like this paper, tried to empirically prove how a stylistic device can help readers cross borders into the story world, but also cross social and societal borders by gaining an education on the Other beyond the reading experience. Yet how does a reader’s personal background influence narrative empathy and general reception and how can this influence be measured empirically?
In 2008, László and Smogyvári looked at national identification as an “extra-textual” reader attribute influencing narrative empathy. Contrary to their initial assumption, László and Smogyvári could not observe a difference between two different short story versions (Hungarian and Slovak) “regarding empathy with characters and readers’ national identification” (Fernandez-Quintanilla 127). In 2008, Nemesio et al looked at reader gender and asked readers for their responses to a text regarding the experienced pleasure, emotionality and empathy. They discovered differences in terms of gender and concluded that men reported a deeper emotional involvement with the narrative than women (Nemesio et al, 145). Odag also analysed reader reception in relation to gender and discovered “that women are more emotionally involved during reading then men, especially so when reading fiction and texts with a focus on the inner world of characters” (308). Odag found that men and women were equally emotionally involved with a story’s fictional characters. Both studies, however, admitted to a possibility of having selected “good and emotional male readers” as part of their study group within an academic environment (Odag 323; Nemesio 155). Generally, as pointed out by Kuzmičová et al. in their extensive research overview, personal relevance also plays a central role in influencing reader empathy towards fictional characters: “personal experience with story topic predicts empathy with the protagonist as well as insight and postreading reflection” (Kuzmičová 433).
The above-mentioned studies show that empirically proving the influence of a text’s narrative strategies (i.e., first-person vs. third-person perspective narration, use of metaphors) on a reader’s reception as well as her attributes (i.e., national identification, gender) can never account for all possible variables influencing reader reception. As emphasized by Fernandez-Quintanilla and much like traditional reader-response critics, “textual factors do not work in isolation” (Fernandez-Quintanilla 142) when it comes to reader reception, but are accompanied by numerous other, “extra-textual” factors. Instead, “both textual and reader factors play a relevant role in bringing about different perceptions of and responses to characters, and (…) claims about empathy effects should accommodate the role of context” (142). This means that other variables, objective factors like gender, age and demographics or even subjective factors like contextual knowledge of a literary work, as well as personal moral opinions determine the degree of empathy given to fictional characters.
In order for a successful reader transportation and narrative empathy to take place, a variety of different factors, on both textual but also reader side, need to come together. The cognitive potential of fiction is thus dependent on the successful collaboration of inter- but also extra-textual features. Green and Garst, for example, argue that the cognitive potential of fiction can only unfold when fictional characters are depicted as “plausible” according to the reader’s personal standards: “the plausibility of the characters, or the emotional truth of the story, influences belief change when those beliefs emerge out of the experiences of the characters” (Green and Garst 194). The educational effect after Nünning is therefore dependent on the successful interplay of inter-textual but also extra-textual factors determining the degree of reader transportation: “the more vividly a work of literature carries its readers off, the more they will be affected by the journey” (Gerrig and Rapp 280). While these theoretical assumptions assign a significant cognitive potential to fiction, the question remains how this effect can be measured empirically and what advantage it would bring.
Willie van Peer takes up this question in the introductory chapter to his 2008 book New Beginnings in Literary Studies in which he stresses the importance of empirical research by lamenting the “inhumanity of the humanities” (van Peer 1). Empirical research into the reception of literature, he claims, allows the “studying what literature (or art) does to the lives of individuals or groups” (1). The recipients lie at the heart of literary studies and create, in dependence and under guidance of certain textual strategies, the meaning of any literary text, just like proposed by early reader-response critics and reception theorists. Through literature, readers enter worlds unknown and return to real life with new perspectives. The empirical analysis of the cognitive processes is thus vital to future research. Yet next to neurophysiological experiments and literary questionnaires: how can empirical reception data be collected?
Readily accessible sources for the retrieval of empirical reader reception data are online reader platforms like Goodreads. The advantages of internet material are numerous: data is readily available and does not need to be collected through costly and time-consuming experiments; the material is produced without the often-distorting influence of a researcher; and the bias of an experimental environment is eliminated (Maryl 398). This is why this paper also uses reader reception data retrieved from Goodreads for the analysis of the reception of Bernardine Evaristo’s works The Emperor’s Babe (2001) , Mr. Loverman (2013) and Girl, Woman, Other (2019), as will be outlined in the upcoming methodological introduction.
III. Methodological Introduction
With over 90 million members, Goodreads is “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations”, dedicated to “help people find and share books they love” (“About Us”). Next to the recommendations from friends and family, Goodreads is the number one reason for readers to pick up a book (Nakamura 239). Goodreads is a social platform proclaiming “readerly sociality” through the social exchange on books (240). With growing digitization and sociality online, Goodreads turns literary texts into something livelier, something more interactive and thus more fruitful for the reader, scholar and author alike. For this social exchange on books, the amazon-owned platform offers a variety of features to its book-loving users. Amongst them are the possibilities to rate books on a star-scale from 1-5, share books with friends and other members, create individualised bookshelves and write reviews. Yet who are the 90 million Goodreads members?
In their 2017 analysis “Goodreads: A Social Network Site for Book Readers”, Thelwall and Kousha found that 75% of Goodreads members were female yet could not discover a difference in rating and reviewing patterns between female and male members (972). Taking into account the sociality of the platform, Thelwall and Kousha tested for possible correlations between “book-based and social usage statistics (e.g., numbers of friends, followers, books, reviews, and ratings)” (972). However, they found that readers individually chose the degree of social interaction and book rating activities and were not determined by one or the other (972). As both a book-based and social website, Goodreads provides objective empirical reception data in the form of members’ ratings and reviews.
Virtual reader communities like Goodreads offer readers the opportunity to freely articulate their opinions on books without the presence of real-life moderators. The available data thus represents the readers’ unreserved subjective and personal opinion on a work of fiction. Goodreads reader data is what Maciej Maryl calls “fresh”: “Fresh material can be found on various internet forums and websites where users express their personal views and react to statements submitted by others” (Maryl 394). Instead of generating data through experiments, the researcher collects data that is already available. The collected reader opinions are “more spontaneous and not biased by a research situation” (394). In summary, the advantages of online reader reception data are numerous. Next to the easy availability and retrievability, reader responses are also genuine and represent personal and unbiased opinions. Additionally, the data is produced in the reader’s preferred environment, through their own motivation, and is free of an experimental situation’s influence and request (398).
To retrieve reader reception data for the purpose of this paper, 714 reader reviews were extracted from Goodreads in a first step via web scraping on November 16, 2020. The extracted data include the text of the review, the associated rating from 1-5 as well as the reviewer’s name or alias on Goodreads. Collected data represent the status of 16 November 2020 and do not account for any reviews and ratings added afterwards. While almost 10.000 reviews were available for Girl, Woman, Other at the time , there were less than 500 reviews available for Mr. Loverman and only 114 for The Emperor’s Babe. Since Goodreads displays the 300 most-liked reviews on a book’s starting page per default and automatically archives the rest, 300 reviews could be retrieved for Girl, Woman, Other and Mr. Loverman each , yet only 114 for The Emperor’s Babe, adding up to the total of 714 reviews for all three novels . This also means that the 714 extracted reviews represent those reviews which were given the most likes by fellow readers online. The reviews thus exhibit the sociality of the platform and are representative of Goodreads data and reader reception in general.
To collect additional reader attributes influencing reader reception, reader gender and location were manually collected in a second step. For this, each reviewer’s profile was viewed to collect the indicated information on gender (female, male or n/a) and location. To account for comparability between the different reader profiles, a reader’s indicated location was translated into the respective continent. The reader attribute “location” thus indicates the continent on which they live.
While the collected data give hope for a fruitful analysis regarding the influence of reader attributes on reader reception, they are not free of flaws. First, one needs to critically reflect on the data’s representability. Next to the relatively small sample of 714 reviews, one needs to consider the general representability of the collected reader reviews. After all, readers active on Goodreads are affiliated with online platforms and with reading in general. This might not be representative of the population at large. Secondly, the phenomenon of online group-conformism possibly pressuring reviewers to show their “close ties with the group” (Maryl 396) also needs to be taken into account. This is particularly relevant on the social platform Goodreads as reviews can be liked by other members and, once published, can be read by anyone. Readers might therefore have read earlier reviews displayed on a book’s starting page and might be influenced by them. Thirdly, the manual allocation of gender and location is naturally prone to error. Pseudonyms or false indications on location or gender, for example, could compromise the data’s quality without the researcher knowing. Assumptions on reader identity thus need to be analysed with caution. Nonetheless, Goodreads reader data give the researcher the unique opportunity to “eavesdrop” on readerly discourse online. Maryl summarizes: “Despite some inconveniences, internet material proves to be useful in certain areas of study, especially concerning emotional reader reactions to fiction, reading behaviour, and self-implication in literary reading” (405). Even though the retrieved data are not without flaws, they still provide a unique opportunity to easily access authentic and genuine empirical reader responses online.
For the analysis of the collected data, a brief descriptive statistical analysis was conducted of all 714 reader profiles to determine reader backgrounds in relation to gender and location. The star-ratings given by Goodreads reviewers were then analysed on average in relation to “gender” and “location” to see whether readers of different backgrounds rated the novels differently. To thematically analyse the collected review texts, a word frequency analysis was conducted with the help of TagCrowd and AntConc (Anthony). The distant reading of the empirically collected reader reviews was then complemented by a close reading of the novels which analysed their stylistic-narratological workings regarding reader reception and empathy. Next to the fictional characters and the analysis of their perspectives and focalizations, stylistic devices like form, use of language and humour were looked at to find out how they influenced reader reception and narrative empathy. This was further complemented by close reading of the respective reader reviews.
The results of both distant and close reading of reader reviews and close reading of the narrative strategies of The Emperor’s Babe, Mr. Loverman and Girl, Woman, Other will be presented in four sections. The first section briefly introduces the findings of the descriptive analysis of all 714 collected reader reviews and profiles. The second section presents the statistical findings of the 114 retrieved reviews and reader profiles based on The Emperor’s Babe and is followed by a close reading of the verse-novel’s narrative strategies guiding reader reception and empathy. The third section presents the respective findings for Mr. Loverman, while the fourth and last presents distant and close reading findings for Girl, Woman, Other. The results section aims to show how the interplay between inter- and extra-textual factors transport readers into the story world and trigger a belief change or an educational effect beyond the reading experience through the depiction of border crossing.
1. General Findings
The descriptive statistical summary of the collected reader attributes (gender and location) showed that, much in line with Thelwall and Kousha, the majority (74%) of all 714 reviews were written by users who indicated their gender to be female. 19% of reviews were written by members whose profiles indicated a male gender and only 7% of reviewers’ gender could not be determined (n/a). Considering Evaristo’s European background, it did not come as a surprise that the majority of reviewers indicated their location to be within Europe (38%), while 20% indicated their location to be within North America. Only 5% of reviewers indicated their location to be within Oceania, 3% within Africa, 3% within Asia and less than 1% within South America. Overall, 41% of reader profiles’ locations were not indicated (n/a) and could therefore not be determined.
Overall, reviewers rated all three books with an average of 4.21 stars. On the verbal ranking system, this average lies between “it was amazing” (5) and “really liked it” (4). Reviewers thus generally enjoyed Evaristo’s works. While The Emperor’s Babe received 3.85 stars on average, Mr. Loverman and Girl, Woman, Other received 4.3 stars each. In relation to reader “gender” and “location”, reviewer ratings showed slight differences (see Figure 1). Men, for example, rated the novels higher than women, giving 4.24 stars on average compared to 4.17 stars given by women. Regarding reader location, Asian and South American readers also seem to be more generous with their positive ratings (4.39 and 4.33 on average) as compared to North American readers, for example, who gave 4.07 stars on average. European readers represent the overall average of 4.21 stars as they gave 4.25 stars on average.
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Figure 1: Average ratings depending on reader “location” and “gender”; ranked from 1-5 (5 being the highest)
For a thematic analysis, a word frequency analysis of all compiled 714 reviews showed that readers primarily focused on characters in their reviews, represented by 938 “character/s” mentions in total. Almost all protagonists of the novels (Zuleika for The Emperor’s Babe, Barry and Carmel for Mr. Loverman and Amma for Girl, Woman, Other) were mentioned. Further, major focus topics like “life” (352 mentions), “love” (219 mentions) and “difference” (213 mentions) were taken up and discussed by the reviewers (see Figure 2).
1 For practicability and simplification purposes, this paper will refer to the reader as female, which naturally also includes all genders.
2 Compare Coplan, Amy. “Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 62, no. 2, 2004, pp. 141-52.; Van Lissa, Caspar et al. “Difficult Empathy: The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator.” DIEGESIS, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016.; Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 3, 2006, pp. 207-36.; and Keen, Suzanne. Narrative Empathy. De Gruyter, 2013.
3 Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative, vol. 14, no. 3, 2006, pp. 207-36.
4 Lászlo, Janos and Ildiko Smogyvári. “Narrative Empathy and inter-group Relations. ” Directions in Empirical Literary Studies, edited by Sonia Zyngier et al, John Benjamins, 2008, pp. 113-25.
5 Van Lissa, Caspar et al. “Difficult Empathy: The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator.” DIEGESIS, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016.
- Quote paper
- Marnie Hensler (Author), 2021, Border Crossing and Reader Reception in "The Emperor’s Babe", "Mr. Loverman" and "Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1060169