David Miall and Don Kuikin

(Departments of English and Psychology, University of Alberta)

Update on Reader Response Research

[research program 2000-2003]

We have proposed that the key to literary reading is found in feeling. While feeling is shaped by the local culture and the reader's current concerns, feeling also initiates and constructively directs response to literature in ways that have, so far, gone largely unexamined. In particular, we have proposed that response to the formal features of literary texts, described by theorists such as Coleridge and the Russian Formalists, is mediated principally by feeling: feeling appears to be implicated, for example, in directing the construal of figurative expressions, in shaping response to discourse styles in narrative, and in evoking readers' personal concerns and memories while reading. While cognitive mechanisms, such as those studied in discourse processing, provide a grammar for showing how readers understand temporal, spatial, and propositional aspects of texts, literary reading appears to depend upon feeling processes that control the dynamics of text interpretation. Thus we believe that the transformations of understanding that we typically experience during literary reading are guided by feeling.

We plan to study these transformations in three ways. First, by detailed analysis of a set of literary short stories (which will be the stories used in each of the proposed studies), we will analyse the role of phonetic and figurative features in directing readers' attention to their major themes, and we will identify narrative focalization, that is, the devices that focus attention, and hence readers' feelings, on a principal character. Second, in a series of empirical studies, we will use think-aloud methods and repertory grid techniques to track readers' experiences of defamiliarization and transformation of meaning. Third, since specific defamiliarizing moments carry implications for the further unfolding of the story in which they occur, we will employ a priming paradigm to study the resonance of such moments: readers will pause during reading to make judgements about the congruence of words or phrases that echo (or not) the tone of phonetic, figurative, or focalized passages they have recently encountered. In these ways we expect to gain a better understanding of how transformations of meaning are initiated and sustained during literary reading.