Friday, May 11, 2012

Immersive Reading

Glen Thomas has argued that
the [romance] genre's defenders share the underlying assumption of the genre's harshest critics that books should do something, whether that "something" entails enabling readers to better understand the vicissitudes of Life (the Leavisite great tradition), stripping away readers' false consciousness (a Marxist defense of more radical art), or soothing readers with promises of happiness and sensual "joy" (a Marxist critique of popular culture which the genre's defenders reframe as a badge of honor). (210)
In Thomas's opinion, the debates between these defenders and critics of romance are "enervating" (210). All the same, recent studies (see, for example, OnFiction's posts about the effects of fiction), suggest that reading often does seem to do things. Rather than abandon the debate altogether, perhaps we just need to postpone it until we have the results of some more studies?

Today Suzanne Brockmann tweeted about Geoff F. Kaufman and Lisa K. Libby's "Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking." They don't discuss romances or come up with any findings which would put an end to the debate outlined by Thomas, but they do observe that:
Without question, our encounters with characters in fiction present us with a diverse array of personalities, perspectives, events, outcomes, and realizations. In transporting us to another place and time, literature allows us to imagine ourselves as characters who possess personality traits that are distinct from our own (such as the intellectual prowess of Sherlock Holmes or the gregariousness and pluck of the titular heroine in Anne of Green Gables) or who engage in actions or hold ideals that we often aspire to achieve (e.g., Tom Sawyer or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird). Moreover, works of fiction often let us experience the life journeys of people from backgrounds and identity groups quite different from our own, opening our eyes and minds to the unique struggles and triumphs of individuals we may not otherwise have the opportunity or inclination to encounter in our daily lives. For example, The Color Purple offered Caucasian readers the chance to see and experience the world through the eyes of its African American characters, and Brokeback Mountain allowed many heterosexual readers to step into the shoes—or rather, boots—of a pair of conflicted homosexual cowboys.
This immersive phenomenon of simulating the mindset and persona of a protagonist is what we refer to as experience-taking. Through experience-taking, readers lose themselves and assume the identity of the character, adopting the character’s thoughts, emotions, goals, traits, and actions and experiencing the narrative as though they were that character [...]. As powerful and transformative as experience-taking might be, however, it is by no means an inevitable occurrence when reading a narrative. To live different lives and to experience novel personas through narratives require that we go beyond positioning ourselves as mere spectators of the events and connect to characters to such an extent that we instead step into their proverbial shoes and experience the story from their perspective, in essence imagining ourselves becoming those characters while we remain immersed in the world of the narrative.
Science Daily has a summary of Kaufman and Libby's findings about the real-life effects of this type of reading.

  • Kaufman, Geoff F. and Lisa K. Libby. "Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 26 March 2012. Advance online publication. [Abstract]
  • Thomas, Glen. "Happy Readers or Sad Ones? Romance Fiction and the Problems of the Media Effects Model." New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
The image was download under a Creative Commons license from Flikr and was created by Kristian Bjornard (bjornmeansbear).


  1. Laura, I'm glad you posted about this. I saw that tweet and went and read the Science Daily article. I haven't read the journal article, but the Science Daily piece suggests the opposite of what Brockmann tweeted. The researchers found that experience-taking occurs when the reader learns about the character's orientation (in the gay character experiment) LATE in the story, not near the beginning. The immersive experience and the positive benefits associated with hit don't occur when the orientation is presented early in the story.

    Apparently the same effect was found for race, but there's just a quick sentence or two on that.

    Since we learn these types of character traits at the beginning of books in romance (whether m/f or m/m), the study predicts readers will not have that immersive experience, but instead will have the "perspective-taking" experience, where they see things from a different POV but don't lose sight of their own identity, as the article puts it.

    That's still a good outcome, but it's a different one.

  2. the Science Daily piece suggests the opposite of what Brockmann tweeted

    Just in case the tweet eventually vanishes, I'd better copy it all out for posterity:

    Fascinating article on how we can be positively influenced by fictional characters like my own Jules Cassidy.

    I haven't read the novels in which Jules appears, so I wasn't sure about his immersive potential. However, it occurs to me that perhaps the research does after all back up Brockmann's claim if we look at the experiment about how being immersed in a character who makes an effort to vote made readers more likely to vote:

    the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

    "Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways," said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
    (Science Daily)

    If Jules first appears as a secondary character (and I have a feeling that he does), then the reader may well be immersed in one of the primary characters and if those primary characters express acceptance of Jules, his homosexuality and his relationship with Robin, then perhaps that would make readers more likely to think favourably about gay people and gay relationships.

    Kaufmann and Libby felt that the experiment outlined above

    suggests that experience-taking has the potential to create durable changes in behavior. These findings suggest that the knowledge gained from these studies regarding the factors that increase experience-taking could effectively be channeled and harnessed (by authors, psychologists, parents, policymakers, etc.) toward creating desirable long-term changes in individuals’ attitudes and behaviors (see also Dal Cin, Zanna, & Fong, 2004).

    At the same time, it would be just as important to investigate
    whether experience-taking might also have the potential to lead individuals to adopt more negative or harmful beliefs, goals, traits, and behaviors.

    So, unfortunately, if characters like Jules have an effect, then so might other, negatively-depicted gay characters in romance and as Kathleen Therrien observes in "Straight to the Edges: Gay and Lesbian Characters and Cultural Conflict in Popular Romance Fiction" (pages 164-177 of New Approaches), in heterosexual romances as a whole, there are both positively and negatively depicted homosexual characters:

    some romances use despicable gay and lesbian characters to create margins - to place limits upon the extent or acceptability of resistance and cultural change - and that the sexuality of these characters is seen as problematic, threatening, and unacceptable. [...] Other romances, however, such as Amanda Quick's Deception, Susan Wiggs' Lord of the Night and Emma Holly's Beyond Innocence and Beyond Seduction, do something very different: they use sympathetic gay and lesbian characters as signposts to mark how much change must occur and how far it must extend. (167-68)

  3. And thinking about this some more, I wonder how much of this is applicable to romances anyway, because romances tend to be written in the third person. Here's Kaufman and Libby again:

    The voice of a narrative—that is, the perspective from which the narrative is relayed to readers—is perhaps the most fundamental feature of a short story or novel, with most narratives utilizing either first-person voice, in which a central character narrates the story from his or her point of view, or third-person voice, in which an observer of the characters and events serves as the narrator. We expected that first-person narratives, by virtue of creating a more
    immediate sense of closeness and familiarity to the main character, would be more conducive to experience-taking than would third-person narratives, which explicitly position protagonists as separate entities (and, in our view, are more likely to position readers as spectators). (3)

    So they tested this hypothesis via Study 4:

    Study 4 manipulated two key variables: the use of first-person versus third-person narrative voice and the ingroup versus outgroup membership of a character. It is important to note that the narratives in the first three studies were all written in first-person voice and depicted a day (or night) in the life of a college student (whose specific university affiliation was unspecified); as such, the reason why these narratives might have invited particularly high experience-taking levels is because participants found it easy to step into the shoes of a character who shared their general “college student” group identity. Thus, in the present study, we directly manipulated both the voice of the narrative (first-person versus third-person) as well as the university affiliation of the character (ingroup affiliation versus outgroup affiliation). (8)

    The results showed that "neither the main effect of narrative voice, [...] nor the main effect of character university affiliation, [...] was significant. However, the Voice x Character University Affiliation interaction was significant" (9).

    I'm not sure what that means for third-person narratives about Regency aristocrats etc or how the findings would relate to the various ideas about place-holder heroines in romance, or Laura Kinsale's idea that readers sometimes become the hero.

    Since I always feel positioned as someone separate from the protagonists, I'm not the kind of reader Kaufman and Libby were studying, but I think I find first-person is more likely to keep me aware of myself and my positioning relative to the speaker because it feels as though I'm being directly addressed by someone. With third-person, I'm less aware of myself, because I'm not being addressed directly, so I can focus on the action taking place outside myself rather than reflecting in quite the same way on my relationship with the narrator, whether or not he/she is trustworthy, what he/she might not know etc.

    I also wonder about the nature of the texts read by the participants in these tests. Were they written by skilled authors who're experienced at story-telling and engaging the interest of readers? Perhaps that would make a big difference in terms of creating an immersive experience?

  4. Oh, good points. I was thinking about the book in which Robin and Jules were the main characters. If someone read in order, they might well have the experience-taking reading experience.

    It would be interesting to see the treatments and see if that kind of presentation would work in romance novels. As for negative portrayals, the lesbian couple in Mary Baloghs Slightly series comes to mind. You don't know the characters' orientation until you've been told all negative things about them.