Speaker: Edsel Parke @ehtp979
Affiliation: University of Wollongong
Title: Narrative identity and the empirical reader: A qualitative study of reading and mental health in Australia
Abstract (long version below): My project draws on insights from both reception theory and narrative identity theory to address a gap in reception studies scholarship which considers the relationship between reading fiction and the experience of psychopathologies. It uses an innovative ‘life narrative of reading’ qualitative methodology that emerges from the call for more empirical work within reception. Participants are viewed as co-creators of knowledge, eminently suitable within a field inherently interested in the subjectivities of the reading experience. The project’s theoretical triangulation and novel methodology offer new avenues forward within reception itself, and further interdisciplinary encounter with both sociology and psychology.
This work-in-progress proposal is built on my ongoing PhD project, which is situated within the domain of literary reception studies—in particular, in its empirical consideration of qualitative, sociological approaches to lay reader experience.
Scholarly conversation on the relationship between reading and mental health has remained largely restricted to psychology, and understandably so. However, it is equally justifiable for literary theorists (particularly those within reception studies) to also make their unique contributions to this conversation. The predominance of the psychological perspective, particularly in the form of applied bibliotherapy, has resulted in reading becoming tied up with experimental psychology, and with an instrumentalist understanding of literature which flows from that. Literary theorists are in a position to challenge and complement such a perspective by shifting the focus back towards readers qua readers, and towards reading as hermeneutic and aesthetic-cultural practice rather than pure cognitive act.
This issue at stake may be thus formulated: Research in psychology and in sociology suggests that individuals construe themselves as ‘narrative’ beings (McAdams, 1995; Ricoeur, 2008a/1990). Anxiety and affective conditions have been shown to disrupt the narrative sense of self (Austin, 2011). Furthermore, the reading of fiction may aid the development and reconstitution of the reader’s sense of personal narrative (Hakemulder, 2000; Felski, 2008; Burke, 2011). Noting the shortcomings of inherently instrumentalist bibliotherapeutic perspectives, the current project instead explores these connections qualitatively, adopting theoretical insight from reception and narrative identity theory.
Through its interdisciplinary lens, this project aims to explore the relationship between the leisure reading of fiction and Australian readers who experience anxiety or affective conditions. It takes a qualitative ‘life narrative of reading’ methodological approach, wherein the lived experience of real readers remains fundamental. In doing so, the project challenges a predominating bibliotherapeutic conception of literature and mental health, and endeavours to respond to the call, oft-repeated in reception scholarship, for more empirical research into real readers beyond theoretical constructions.
Furthermore, the project considers the underexplored yet potentially rich relationship between reception and narrative identity theory. The methodology of this study provides a platform for everyday Australian readers to confidently share their passion for reading, as it relates to their experience of psychopathology: participants are able to make their own contribution to interdisciplinary discussions surrounding Australian literary culture and mental well-being.
Thus, the outcomes of this project not only serve to augment reception scholarship, but could also help inform readers, writers, literary agencies, health providers, and government bodies as to the importance of reading to the mental health of Australians.
This project takes a methodological approach here called a ‘life narrative of reading’, which is one form of the empirical study of reception. In essence, such an approach would use qualitative methods borrowed from sociology (i.e. the in-depth interview, combined with elements of life history) to empirically consider questions arising from reception studies regarding reader identity, the value of reading, and what it means to be a reader—both in terms of individual readers, and for theories of the reader. The idea of participants as a co-creators of research and knowledge is a significant aspect of this methodology (Mishler, 1986).
The proposed ‘life narrative of reading’ emerges as a response to various prompts towards renewal in reception methodology, most particularly arising out of Nolan-Stinson’s (2011) ‘life history of reading’, Boyarin’s (1993) ‘ethnography of reading’, Thumala Olave’s (2018) ‘cultural sociology of reading’, and the recent phenomenon of ‘bibliomemoir’. The slightly altered term used here seeks to distinguish itself from that of Nolan-Stinson, whose approach, whilst emphasising the primacy of sociocultural context (p. 35), disavows categorisation of readers at all (p. 52). Such an approach suggests a solipsism which actually inhibits efforts towards understanding readers or reading. Using this new term ‘life narrative of reading’ both avoids confusion with the established sociological method of ‘life history’ and better reflects the project’s interest in the ongoing stories of readers’ selves, given its grounding in narrative identity theory. This approach especially draws from the narrative methodologies advocated by Mishler (1986, 1999), Freeman (1993), and Lieblich et al. (1998).
The project’s theoretical triangulation and novel methodology offer new avenues forward within empirical studies of literature and within the theoretical reader response, while furthering interdisciplinary encounter with both sociology and psychology.