The Influence of Paratext on Readers’ Perception of Stories and Narrative Experiences

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Julia Schwerin @jschwerin

:classical_building: Affiliation: Julius-Maximilians-University Würzburg

Title: The Influence of Paratext on Readers’ Perception of Stories and Narrative Experiences

Abstract (long version below): We examined how paratextual information affects readers’ perception and experience of stories. In a within-subjects experiment, participants read three short stories that were described to be of low literary merit, high literary merit due to its brilliant character portrayals, or high literary merit due to its brilliant world building. In the high-merit conditions, stories were rated to be of higher literary quality, to be more influential on attitudes and reflection, and to elicit more transportation and identification. In contrast, emphasizing world building vs. character portrayals had no significant effects on any of the dependent variables.

Schwerin_Poster IGEL 2023.pdf (533.1 KB)

:newspaper: Long abstract

Literary reading may not only depend on textual features of a narrative, but also on paratextual information indicating literariness, such as the foreword of a novel or an interview with the author (Appel et al., 2021). Paratextual information can directly refer to the literary merit of a story or it can highlight specific aspects of a story which makes them worthwhile reading. The interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic literariness markers might, however, be complex, which gives rise to the question if and to what extent paratextual information alone can affect readers’ perception and experience of stories (Gavaler & Johnson, 2017, 2019).

Accordingly, the current study pursued three aims. First, we examined how paratextual information on the literary quality of a story influences readers’ perception and experience of stories. Second, we examined whether paratextual information about the quality of specific story elements (character portrayal vs. world building) influences readers’ processing of the story (theory of mind inference efforts vs. theory of world inference efforts; Gavaler & Johnson, 2017, 2019). Third, we examined whether readers’ processing of the stories in terms of their inference efforts mediate the effects of paratextual information on narrative experiences.

To address these research questions, we conducted an online experiment based on a within-subjects design. Two-hundred-and-twenty-five participants read three short stories that were randomly presented with one of three paratextual manipulations, which were designed to resemble information readers are typically given on the front and back cover of books. The paratexts referred to the supposedly high versus low literary merit of the stories by claiming that the following short story was either written by an internationally acclaimed author, who has won numerous literary awards, or that it was written by a hobby author, who published it on a personal blog for entertainment purposes. In addition, the “high literary merit” paratext either claimed that the story was particularly well written either concerning the description of the fictional world (theory of world) or concerning the portrayal of the inner workings of the characters and their relationships (theory of mind). After reading each story, participants’ perception of the stories was assessed (literary quality, influence on one’s own life, attitudes, and reflection), as well as transportation via the Transportation Scale – Short Form (TS-SF; Appel et al., 2015) and identification via the Identification with Characters Scale (EDI; Igartua & Páez, 1998). Finally, the inference efforts the participants made during story reading (theory-of-mind effort, theory-of-world effort; see also Gavaler & Johnson, 2017, 2019) were assessed.

We found that readers’ perception of and reaction to stories were affected by paratextual information. Stories framed to be of high literary merit not only received higher ratings on literary quality, but also stimulated more self-reflection and elicited more narrative transportation and identification than stories described as being of low literary merit. However, the paratextual manipulation had no effect on reading times. Paratextual emphasis on character portrayal or world building did not influence readers’ respective inference efforts. We also found no mediating role of theory-of-mind or theory-of-world effort on effects of paratextual information on narrative experiences (identification or transportation). Finally, we found significant differences between the three stories in all variables assessing story perception, narrative experiences and reported inference efforts, which demonstrates that intrinsic textual features contribute to literary reading.

The current study represents an avenue to study the mechanisms of paratextual influence on the perception and experience of stories. It also extends findings on the interplay between paratextual information and intrinsic textual features of literary stories, underlining the need for more research into the “intermediate states of literariness” (Hanauer, 2018) to further our understanding of literary reading processes and its outcomes.


Appel, M., Gnambs, T., Richter, T., & Green, M. C. (2015). The Transportation Scale – Short Form (TS–SF). Media Psychology, 18(2), 243-266,

Appel, M., Hanauer, D., Hoeken, H., van Krieken, K., Richter, T., & Sanders, J. (2021). The psychological and social effects of literariness: Formal features and paratextual information. In D. Kuiken & A. M. Jacobs (Eds.), Handbook of empirical literary studies (pp. 177–202). De Gruyter. The Psychological and Social Effects of Literariness: Formal Features and Paratextual Information

Gavaler, C., & Johnson, D. (2017). The genre effect: A science fiction (vs. realism) manipulation decreases inference effort, reading comprehension, and perceptions of literary merit. Scientific Study of Literature, 7(1), 79–108. The genre effect | John Benjamins

Gavaler, C., & Johnson, D. (2019). The literary genre effect: A one-word science fiction (vs. realism) manipulation reveals intrinsic text properties outweigh extrinsic expectations of literary quality. Scientific Study of Literature, 9(1), 34–52. The literary genre effect | John Benjamins

Hanauer, D. (2018). Intermediate states of literariness: Poetic lining, sociological positioning, and the activation of literariness. Scientific Study of Literature, 8, 114–134. Intermediate states of literariness | John Benjamins

Igartua, J. J., & Páez, D. (1998). Validity and reliability of an empathy and identification with characters scale. Psicothema, 10(2), 423–436.

That’s a cool study! Do you think it would be similar if we manipulate the author identity (men vs women, different cultural and educational backgrounds) or context of writing (e.g. drug rehabilitation)?

Thank you for your interest in my study!
To my knowledge, no research has been conducted so far that explicitly manipulated the variables you mentioned in relation to narrative experiences. Yet according to how Genette (1987) described paratext and its influence on readers’ perception of and reaction to stories, I would expect that manipulating author identity or the circumstances under which a text was written would induce different expectations in the readers and lead to different reading strategies and outcomes. We were not able to include paratext like that in this study but I would be curious about testing this assumption out in the future!

Hi Julia,

I have had an idea for such a project on the backburner for a few years. Let me know if you are interested in collaborating!

Hi Franziska,
I would be very much interested in hearing about your ideas and collaborating on a project in this field! Do feel free to contact me via my institutional email address :slight_smile: