Tag Archives: reading

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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Readers and religious publishing

Following up somewhat tangentially on my last post: As I mentioned, I was initially drawn to Slacktivist because of the eminently satisfying chapter-by-chapter readings of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels. Fred does a brilliant job skewering the writing, plotting, and internal logic, as well as the political and religious ideology put forth in the novel. For anyone who’s read even part of one of the series, it can be great fun to read someone else throughly catalogue every frustrating element of the novels.

But the impetus for that sort of reading isn’t just that these are bad (poorly-written, inconsistent, politically suspect, etc.) novels—there’s no shortage of bad novels to make fun of. The implicit reason for undertaking a sustained criticism of the novels is that they are popular, alarmingly and maybe dangerously so. Fred’s latest post speculates about the ways Left Behind impacts readers political views and suggests some ways criticizing the novel’s internal consistency might weaken its persuasive power, a practical argument for those whose friends and family may be convinced by the novels’ ideologies.

While evangelicals and those who pay attention to the American evangelical movement may be well aware of Left Behind’s immense popularity, the academy, particularly literary scholars, hasn’t had much to say about the books. On one level this might seem reasonable, to the extent that we tend to associate literary study with canonical works that meet certain aesthetic criteria. But literary historians work with a wide variety of texts of all levels of literary and cultural value or status—one can write an entire book about nineteenth century advice manuals or children’s adventure novels. It’s been accepted that bad novels can be just as helpful, if not more so, in understanding cultural and historical forces at a given moment.

In “From Edwards to Baldwin: Heterodoxy, Discontinuity, and New Narratives of American Religious-Literary History” (American Literary History 22:2), Joanna Brooks challenges the dominant narrative of religion’s role in American literary history that traces Protestant ideology from the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards to its secularization in the philosophy of Emerson. This narrative, Brooks claims, gives the impression that religion’s influence on American literature ends with Emerson, with the occasional exception like Flannery O’Connor. Brooks calls for a re-engagement with religion and literature, and for scholars to trace other religious trajectories that tell different stories (Brooks models this by tracing a genealogy of religious thought from Edwards through a line of female preachers to James Baldwin).

Brooks’s point is well-taken, but, as Susan Griffin argues in “Threshing Floors: A Response to Joanna Brooks” (American Literary History 22:2), engaging with religion after Emerson means engaging with evangelical Protestantism and fundamental Christianity. Griffin looks to the work of Juanita Bynum, an evangelist who, Griffin argues, is in many ways an heir to Edwards, despite her questionable personal life and fund-raising practices. Griffin’s point seems to be, “Be careful what you wish for,” in this case because engaging with contemporary religion means dealing with Juanita Bynum and Joel Osteen. Griffin’s tone, which at times borders on snarky, implies that there may be reasons to leave Juanita Bynum well enough alone.

Which brings us back to Left Behind. Brooks’s argument about religion and American literary history provides a helpful, if imperfect, explanation for the academy’s blind spot when it comes to the hugely-popular franchise—Left Behind doesn’t fit the Edwards to Emerson’s narrative. Griffin’s response adds another explanation—to account for Left Behind, one has to read the books, which are admittedly pretty painful (and I happily read some pretty terrible nineteenth-century novels). Further, one also has to engage with the cultural and ideological forces that produced the Left Behind books. This, even more than reading them, can be painful. In addition, it requires a familiarity with American evangelicalism that many academics lack.

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