Category Archives: Reception study

I may not have the answers, but neither does social psychology

One of the double-edged swords of working in the humanities is that the news media doesn’t often report on the findings we publish in journals. Double-edged because on the one hand, we don’t get much popular exposure for the work we do, and on the other hand, that work doesn’t get grossly mischaracterized as tends to happen when the media reports on the findings of a particular study. So it’s not often that I see sloppy reports about study findings that actually relate to my academic interests.

But a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about reading and identification (though that’s not how the authors phrase it) has been getting (typically hyperbolic) headlines: Do Your Favorite Book Characters Change Your Life?, You are what you read, study suggests, ‘Losing Yourself’ in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life, etc. Each of those articles was more unhelpful than the next in figuring out what this study was actually claiming about reading and (implicitly) fiction, so I had to take a look at the study itself.

The results summary in the abstract gives a nicely succinct synopsis of what the authors are claiming about their research:

“Results from Studies 1–3 showed that being in a reduced state of self-concept accessibility while reading a brief fictional work increased—and being in a heightened state of self-concept accessibility decreased—participants’ levels of experience-taking and subsequent incorporation of a character’s personality trait into their self-concepts. Study 4 revealed that a first-person narrative depicting an ingroup character elicited the highest levels of experience-taking and produced the greatest change in participants’ behavior, compared with versions of the narrative written in 3rd-person voice and/or depicting an outgroup protagonist. The final 2 studies demonstrated that whereas revealing a character’s outgroup membership as a homosexual or African American early in a narrative inhibited experience- taking, delaying the revelation of the character’s outgroup identity until later in the story produced higher levels of experience-taking, lower levels of stereotype application in participants’ evaluation of the character, and more favorable attitudes toward the character’s group.”

There are a couple of things about this study I find interesting and potentially useful, and a great many more I have reservations about. First of all, this being social psychology, the terminology is significantly different than what I would tend to use. The authors focus on “experience-taking,” which they define as follows: “We propose that when experience-taking occurs, readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character.” That definition has some implicit genre-limitations, since any number of fictional modes attempt to intentionally disrupt the reader’s ability to adopt a character’s mindset. But that aside, “experience-taking” seems to be very similar to Kenneth Burke’s idea of identification or consubstantiality, a definition I lean heavily on when I talk about fiction, identification, and reading here and here. According to Burke, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, and individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.”

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A few thoughts on Amazon reviews

My work on turn-0f-the-century novels and their reviews stems from an interest in how novels got talked about in public, at a time when public discussion of novels was much more frequent and took place in a much wider range of periodicals than today. These days, book reviews have considerably less influence on the discourse surrounding a given novel, making them not all that interesting to me personally.

Amazon reviews, on the other hand, are absolutely fascinating. Not just the book reviews, although that’s primarily what I want to talk about. I bought a set of espresso cups from Amazon a couple of years ago and came across the following review: “Maybe it’s just me but I think the cups are just too small. It’s hard to judge how much they will hold by the pictures and description but after receiving them, they seem more appropriate for a child’s tea set. They are a good quality, but I don’t think that many ‘men’ will drink out of these…..they are very tiny. Only hold about 1.5 ounces. ”

For the record, the cups hold 3 ounces, and none of the ‘men’ who’ve used them have had any complaints (at least to my knowledge).

But what does one do with the vast potential of Amazon reviews? Paul Gutjahr’s work on reviewers of the Left Behind books, which I’ve talked a bit about here, provides one example. Gutjahr’s study, though, was conducted in 1999 and published in 2002, and Amazon, as well as the web in general, has changed a lot since then.

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Reading race in The Hunger Games and The Help

This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.

There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.

So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.

That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.

In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.

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Why I study reception: methodology(ish) edition

Still blocked on this chapter. I’ve resolved not to fight it too much, but to get some other things done, too, while I wait for things to work themselves out. In the meantime, what it is I’m doing when I study reception:

As I noted earlier, I want to know what people said about novels when they were first published, and what sort of strategies they had available for reading them. To be honest, that’s often enough for me—if my committee would let me stop at description, I’d read a whole bunch of reviews and describe away. But that generally falls a bit short of an actual argument, so the most important part of my job (and what’s been holding me up for a while on the new chapter, just like it did on the last one) is showing what it is about the reviews that’s significant to our understanding of the novel, the criticism, or some other broader issue.

In order to do that, the first thing I do is find every review I can of the book and read them all, labeling each one with the major themes that I see recurring. Scrivener is particularly good at handling the practical side of this, but that’s a different post. Then I read them again, and again, paying attention to the different strands running through them, and then I keep reading them until I have some sense of the story they tell. Then I try to tell it.

Not very systematic, right? It generally takes a whole lot of re-reading and writing a bunch of crappy notes before I figure out what it is about the reviews that’s interesting and significant. Once I see the seeds of the argument, it gets a bit easier. Then I’m putting together a case and providing evidence to support my claims that we should interpret the reviews in the way I’m proposing.
The evidence I provide is textual—direct quotation, paraphrase, and analysis of the reviews. And this is where it starts to get sticky, because how much evidence is enough evidence? None of the patterns I point out are going to be present in all the reviews. The impulse then is to count—tally up how many review deal with x theme and offer some percentages. But there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics. What would the numbers actually show? That 36% of the reviews that I have available evidence this trend? My data set is “reviews I am able to find.” I’m able to find enough reviews that I can make some fairly confident arguments about the patterns and trends I see across them, but that doesn’t make them a statistically significant sample size of all the reviews of the book that were published. In this case, statistics would be damn lies, provided to give a sense of significance that mostly just takes advantage of our cognitive biases about certain types of data.

And that’s why the “so what” part of my argument is so important. I need to find compelling connections between the reviews, the novel itself, the historical context, and the criticism. If I can do that, then I don’t have to rely on some false sense of quantitative significance to justify my argument. Unfortunately, finding those connections takes a lot longer than crunching the numbers.

All of this puts me on the fringes of DH work and debates about quantitative analysis in literary study. I don’t do quantitative analysis, and despite the hypotheticals above, I’ve never attempted it, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what data mining actually adds to the conversation, but in the face of curmudgeonly responses like Stanley Fish’s, I sometimes want to try it out just to be ornery. I’ve got some more thoughts on data mining that I want to work through at some point, but until then, Ted Underwood has a pretty thorough response to Fish’s grumpy rant.

Why I study reception: teaching edition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work I do and what it has to offer—partly because the isolation and hyper-focus of trying to work on the dissertation all day, every day may be getting to me, partly because it’s a question I need to have a compelling answer for as I get closer to the job market, and partly because what I do is in many ways so removed from the sort of work most other graduate students in the department do that I sometimes feel as if I must be going about things all wrong.

That last part makes it sound like I’m some sort of iconoclast or innovator, which could not be farther from the truth. But I work on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century reception, and I spend a lot more time looking at what people had to say about books when they were first published than I do putting forth new or challenging readings of a novel. To some people, that looks very little like literary study.

My interest in reception is two-fold. The first and most important reason is that I want to know what readers and reviewers had to say about books, particularly novels. It gives me a better sense of how novels fit into nineteenth-century American culture (plus, people had some crazy and hilarious things to say). Novels and book reviewing had a different status at the turn of the century than they do today. In 1902 Frank Norris declared (with more than a little self-interest, of course), “The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel—these indisputably are the great moulders of Public opinion and Public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is wastepaper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay. It is read word for word, is talked about, discussed; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family.” It seems worth knowing, then, what kind of public opinion novels were molding.

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