Speaker : Lovro Škopljanac, PhD
Affiliation : University of Zagreb (assistant professor)
Title : “All my characters die”: Bibliotrauma in memories of literature
Works of literature occupy a myriad of affective and cognitive spaces in their readers’ memories. One possibility for learning more about such textual memories is by analyzing the diversity of affective and cognitive recollections which are most negative – i.e. bibliotraumatic content – and most positive – i.e. eudaimonic content. In order to address both of these opposites – and to study how opposite to each other they really are – the proposed research will be looking into an archive of about 200 interviews with contemporary non-professional readers, focusing on the most revealing examples of bibliotrauma and eudaimonia among them.
Works of literature occupy a myriad of affective and cognitive spaces in their readers’ memories. One possibility for learning more about such textual memories is by analyzing the diversity of affective and cognitive recollections which might be called most negative – i.e. bibliotraumatic content – and not just the most positive – i.e. eudaimonic content. This kind of research is needed especially if we agree, as it has recently been pointed out, that “negative experiences of reading (…) tend to be marginalized or overlooked in part at least because researchers of reading are themselves so heavily invested in the idea of reading as beneficial and transformative” (in Style and Reader Response, 2021: 190). In order to address the less examined of these opposites, the proposed research will be looking into an archive of hundreds of interviews with contemporary non-professional readers, focusing on the most revealing examples of bibliotrauma among them.
On the one hand, there are readers’ memories which exhibit broadly negative responses, such as fear, anxiety, and the desire to stop reading. On the other hand are those works that readers remembered mostly by how they provoked positive trains of thought, including contemplation, epiphany, and the desire to read more. Although the difference might seem clear-cut, it has been noted already that, for instance, although a literary character “may suffer immensely or die a horrible death, the responding reader experiences something like PTG [Personal Traumatic Growth] and is strengthened by the character’s trauma. This might account, at least in part, for why so many people take immense delight in sad songs and depictions of suffering” (in The Eudaimonic Turn: Well-Being in Literary Studies, 2012: 43). Several factors have been proposed as facilitators of such and other related occurrences, such as personal relevance (Kuzmičová and Bálint 2019), literary style (Koopman 2011), or empathy more broadly (Cognitive Literary Science, 2017, ed. by Michael Burke and Emily T. Troscianko).
Taking its cue from cognitive literary studies, this research will thus concentrate on ways of recognizing and systematizing such memorable kernels of reading within contemporary literary reception. Alongside the interview materials, its main methodological tool will be the concept of “bibliotrauma”, which is also a term newly minted by Thomas Beebee. According to his broader definition, the concept stems from the trifecta of a) inducement of psychic trauma through literature, b) the incitement/amplification of unexamined negative emotions by literary texts, and c) damage to social and political fabric wrought by a literary work. This research will particularly focus on b), as exemplified by the titular quote, given by a respondent when asked if she thinks that the works of literature she remembers the most have something in common.
While outlining his position, Beebee is also keenly aware of how most of “recorded interpretation has been provided by professional readers”, while the vast majority of reading in the present is conducted by non-professional readers. He goes on to note that „[t]hese inverse proportions should be concerning, as they imply a profound disconnect between what literary scholars study and teach and the life-worlds of the vast majority of readers”. This is precisely why the research will be sourced exclusively from qualitative, semi-structured interviews conducted by a team of researchers more broadly interested in issues of literary memory. This involves not just aspects of the text being remembered, but also the context, which Beebee wryly describes as “the circumstances under which the book was read, to distinguish between trauma that is intrinsic to the work, and trauma that is the equivalent of a food aversion. Teachers have a great talent for making the reading of literature into traumatic events, for example.” Indeed, special emphasis will be given to cases in which the context of required reading was perceived as traumatic by the readers.
Finally, the insights into bibliotraumatic memories will be examined in the light of another concept, this time Rita Felski’s “attachment” (Hooked, 2020). Similar to Beebee, Felski is aware of how approaches to literature and art in general are stymied by a sort of professional literary obsession about language and interpretation as the most – or indeed only – valuable points of interest in a literary work. Such an approach misses out on other ways in which readers attach themselves to books (both as an artifact and as their idea of a text), and this research aims to point out that a traumatic sort of attachment is what sometimes “really sticks”. In other words, what remains as the most salient mental representation of a work in the mind of a reader can often be something which left the most negative impression on the reader, and an attempt will be made to elucidate how often and in which ways this occurs in memories of contemporary literary subjects.