Absorbed in stories

A Comparative Study of Responses to Literature and Film
Varieties of Absorption in Narrative, and Aesthetic Experiences

Nell’s Lost in a Book (1988) put absorbed reading of narrative fiction on the map of scholarly interests. Besides characterizing it as a trance-like state, Nell did leave absorption largely untheorized. Researchers within various disciplines from both the Humanities and the Social Sciences have stepped in and tried to describe absorption. Their separate endeavors have resulted in a terminology that is bewilderingly diverse. As a phenomenon absorption knows both proponents and opponents in the practical field of narrative creation and reception. Writers of political messages and advertisements have made good use of its persuasive effects. Societal concerns are raised about harmful impact of narratives created to confuse its audience as to what is real, lure them into adopting certain attitudes, or take particular ideological positions for granted (Appel 2008). In addition, concerns are expressed regarding a lack of the kinds of narratives that can make readers more critical and self-aware. Ronald Plasterk, a former Dutch Minister of Culture, signalled the endency of commercial media to offer only absorbing entertainment, and warned that media have the duty to dislodge audiences out of their comfort zone in order to open their mind to attend critically to what happens in the world.

So far, however, claims about societal effects of narrative absorption, whether positive or negative, cannot be scientifically evaluated. In part this is due to the absence of empirical research on the mechanisms that underlie absorption (Bilandzic and Kinnebrock 2009) Although some progress has been made in measuring ‘absorption-like states’ and in identifying textual factors relevant in this context (Green 2004), little is known about what varieties of absorption there are, what features of narrative play a role in its production, how these features may interact with recipient traits, and how absorption relates to responses perhaps less comfortable than superficial fun, such as aesthetic and moral reflections.

The research project proposed here will present a taxonomy of absorption-like experiential states. It will identify narrative features responsible for these states in 2 different media, film and literature. It will explore personality traits of viewers and readers that are relevant in bringing about absorption. And it will clarify relationships between narrative absorption and aesthetic experiences and their after effects. Accordingly our leading research question is: What is the role of absorption in aesthetic and other responses to literary and cinematic narratives?

To answer this question, the current project innovatively unites empirical research with methodologies that are typical in the Humanities (i.e., text-analytic approaches to narrative; theoretical concerns about aesthetic responses; comparative media studies). Through collaboration with creative partners (e.g., authors, film directors), we intend to shape our materials in order to precisely match our research goals. The design of the project allows for a media-comparative approach with one PhD-project focusing on absorption in literature, and another on absorption in film. Furthermore, the entire  research team is involved in a final experiment that targets a comparison between both media in their relations to absorption and to aesthetic experiences. Both PhD-projects consist of 4 experimental studies in which mediumspecific narrative features that result in absorption related experiential states are identified.

They will involve careful text-manipulation and take into account the contribution of reader/viewer characteristics (e.g., in terms of media literacy). To ultimately determine different experiential profiles, the Post-Doc project will conduct quantitative and qualitative empirical research to come to nuanced explicative characterizations of relationships between absorption profiles and aesthetic experiences, using the results of the two PhD- projects. The synthesis by the two applicants, relates the underlying mechanisms of narrative absorption to claims regarding positive or negative societal effects. Lastly, in the Post-Doc-articles as well as in the monograph, findings of all studies are considered in relation to games and virtual reality. 

How are particular forms of being absorbed related to feeling entertained, or enraptured, or inspired by its beauty?

The scholarly relevance of our research lies predominantly in providing the Humanities with an empirically founded understanding of narrative impact and the factors that influence it. Our studies are aimed at clarifying the relation between text factors, absorption, and aesthetic experience. These are all central concerns of scholars of literature, film, theatre, game studies (cf. Hakemulder 2008c). The project also offers essential contributions to the accumulating insights of social scientists concerning the role of absorption in narrative effects. Questions that require an answer prior to such (important) work are: what makes a narrative absorbing in the first place? How are particular forms of being absorbed related to feeling entertained, or enraptured, or inspired by its beauty? And finally, how do the answers to these questions inform the study of narrative effects? It seems plausible that these answers are fundamental to our understanding of narrative impact (e.g., on mood, escape, happiness, social interaction skills, critical thinking, openness to form and ideas, attitude and belief changes (Hakemulder 2000, Oatley 1999, 2002).

We envision two major practical applications of our results. One is to solidify the knowledge base of media literacy training, which in this increasingly mediated culture is now more important than ever. The other is that creative storytellers (e.g., involved in storytelling in marketing and management) are provided with directives regarding ways in which textual features relate to particular types of (aesthetic) responses, including finding stories captivating.

All of these are themes of interest to other absorbing media as well, most importantly perhaps games and other virtual reality media, as their user population is expanding so rapidly and pervasively. On a more general cultural note, a better understanding of the nature and origin of absorption and other related phenomena is crucial for deploying aesthetic antidotes to superficial entertainment. 

Universiteit Utrecht
Project Leader
Project leader