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.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.