Literature and readers' empathy: A qualitative text manipulation study

Language and Literature 26 (forthcoming)
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Several quantitative studies (e.g. Kidd & Castano, 2013a; Djikic et al., 2013) have shown a positive correlation between literary reading and empathy. However, the literary nature of the stimuli used in these studies has not been defined at a more detailed, stylistic level. In order to explore the stylistic underpinnings of the hypothesized link between literariness and empathy, we conducted a qualitative experiment in which the degree of stylistic foregrounding was manipulated. Subjects (N = 37) read versions of Katherine Mansfield's 'The Fly', a short story rich in foregrounding, while marking striking and evocative passages of their choosing. Afterwards, they were asked to select three markings and elaborate on their experiences in writing. One group read the original story, while the other read a 'non-literary' version, produced by an established author of suspense fiction for young adults, where stylistic foregrounding was reduced. We found that the non-literary version elicited significantly more (p < 0.05) explicitly empathic responses than the original story. This finding stands in contradiction to widely accepted assumptions in recent research, but can be assimilated in alternative models of literariness and affect in literary reading (e.g. Cupchik et al., 1998). We present an analysis of the data with a view to offering more than one interpretation of the observed effects of stylistic foregrounding.
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Archival date: 2016-11-07
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