Speaker: Olivia Fialho @ofialho
Affiliation: Utrecht University; Huygens Institute, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Title: Reconceptualizing processes in transformative reading
Abstract (long version below): Drawing on the dehabituation theory of literature (Miall, 2006), transformative reading (Fialho, 2019) is grounded on a notion of literariness characterized by three key components of response to literary texts: foregrounded textual or narrative features, readers’ defamiliarizing responses to them, and the consequent modification of personal meanings. This study focuses on the third key component, exploring what forms of reading transform the reader’s self as well as his or her perceptions of others. A total of 78 thematic semi-structured in-depth interviews on a short story (Study 1, N=48) and on books that have changed readers’ lives (Study 2, N=30) were conducted with native speakers of English. Data analysis followed Lex-Nap methodology (Fialho, 2012). Preliminary findings indicate a replication of previous results. Types of transformative reading seem to be two-fold: “situation-centered” and “protagonist-centered”, providing a fuller description of how literary reading might impact and modify readers’ self-other constructs.
Drawing on the dehabituation theory of literature (Miall, 2006), transformative reading (Fialho, 2019) is grounded on a notion of literariness defined not solely as a characteristic set of text properties nor depending exclusively on readers but residing in the interaction between reader and text. Literariness is understood as resulting from a distinctive mode of reading that is identifiable through three key components of response to literary texts: (1) foregrounded textual or narrative features, (2) readers’ defamiliarizing responses to them, and (3) the consequent modification of personal meanings (see also Miall & Kuiken, 1999), or “refamiliarizing/reconceptualizing strategies” (Fialho, 2007). However, so far, it remains unclear what textual components or what it is exactly that causes defamiliarizing responses and the consequent modification of personal meanings (see also Hakemulder, Fialho, & Bal, 2016, p. 23; van Peer et al., 2021).
This presentation focuses on the third key component of the dehabituation theory: the consequent modification of personal meanings, or how readers perceive reading and how it changes the reader. In this sense transformative reading explores what forms of reading transform the reader’s self as well as his or her perceptions of others (Fialho, 2012; Schrijvers et al., 2019).
Here, it is assumed that a better understanding of the reading experience itself and the interplay between the second and the third components of the dehabituation theory, (readers’ reconceptualizing processes) (Fialho, 2007), may provide more insight into what kinds of narrative and emotional engagements are involved (see Polvinen & Sklar, 2019). Empirical studies (Hakemulder, 2000) have been rather illuminating here. Investigation of the experience of deviation conducted by Bálint et al. (2016) identified several strategies in response to deviation in absorbing narratives, both written and cinematic. Such response strategies may be described through three underlying dimensions: absorption, agency, and valence. Their findings suggest that perceived deviation, rather than obstructing absorption, is associated with intense and meaningful engagement with narratives. They also demonstrate that foregrounding and absorption are not mutually exclusive, but, in fact, can co-occur.
In another work, by offering a hybrid between qualitative and quantitative procedures, Miall and Kuiken (1995) have offered a system and a measurement to classify individual differences in readers’ orientation towards literary texts. The items they describe refer to shifts in self- understanding and to changes in the reader’s perceptions of less personal matters. A further study (Miall & Kuiken, 2002) attempted to describe the different forms of feelings in literary reading, which the authors categorized as evaluative, narrative, aesthetic, and self-modifying. Building on this initial distinction, Kuiken et al. (2004) showed how literary reading has the capacity to deepen self- understanding and one’s perception of everyday life, especially after a personal crisis, or what they called “expressive enactment.”
Drawing on these findings, the transformative reading project examines how literary narrative fiction may deepen readers’ self and social perceptions. The aim is to obtain a rich description of the phenomenon (i.e., what is transformative reading like? What are the components involved?). A second issue is how the different components are in a relationship with one another, which enabled us to design an theoretical-empirical model of transformative reading (Fialho, 2018; Fialho, Hakemulder, & Hoeken, in prep.)
The studies in this presentation aimed to gain access to how readers describe their subjective experiences of TR and to explore the moments in which changes in self and self-and-other constructs occur. To this purpose, in Study 1, 48 thematic semi-structured in-depth interviews have been conducted with native speakers of English reading a short story in one interview session, where they read a full short story and reported their experiences to five evocative passages. In Study 2, 30 thematic semi-structured in-depth interviews were also conducted with native speakers of English, this time invited to bring a set of three to five books that they considered to have changed their lives. Here, interviews were carried out in two sessions. In the first, participants reported their most memorable TR experiences. In the second, they selected a story that was reread with a focus on five evocative passages. Interview instructions were inspired by the self-probed retrospection technique and phenomenological strategies offered by Miall, Kuiken and colleagues (e.g., Miall, 2006; Miall & Kuiken, 1994), so readers were probed to respond to selected evocative passages, and by Petitmengin’s (2006) explicitation interview, so readers were probed to tune into their embodied cognition and to experience a lived reconstruction of the text.
Data analysis followed Lex-Nap methodology (Fialho, 2012), based on lexical repetition and theme modification. This methodology is demonstrably effective in allowing for dynamic descriptions of readers’ embodied repositionings as the reading unfolds. Since the thirty participants in Study 2 provided six commentaries each, a matrix of 180 reading commentaries by 236 constituents was yielded. Hierarchical cluster analysis (Ward’s method, Euclidean distances) was conducted to group interview protocols according to the similarities in their profiles of constituents. Preliminary findings indicate a replication of previous results (Study 1, Fialho, 2012). Types of transformative reading seem to be two-fold: “situation-centered” and “protagonist-centered”. In the former, transformation seems to occur through an empathetic engagement with the mood of the story imagery and results in self-perceptual depth. In the latter, readers reconsider their moral predicaments as a result of sympathizing with the protagonist of the story. This empirical model has proved to be a sound fundament to create a fuller understanding of how literary reading might impact and modify readers’ self-other constructs.