Feeling for others and understanding them through literature

Emy Koopman (Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Reading suffering. An empirical inquiry into affective and reflective responses to narratives about mental pain. (NWO-funded project)

Stories about suffering, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, enjoy an enduring popularity in the Western world. This popularity begs the question, or rather two questions, what the attraction of these types of narratives is, and what their effects are on the reader. These two questions have fascinated scholars within the Humanities at least as early as Aristotle, but in the last two decades they have acquired renewed relevance within the larger debate about the importance of literary reading. Literature, particularly literature about suffering, Nussbaum and others have claimed, has the potential to evoke empathy and reflection (e.g., Booth, 1988; Hunt, 2007; Nussbaum, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2010; Pinker, 2011; Sontag, 2007). These affective and reflective responses triggered by literary reading would even lead to more pro-social behaviour.

We can thus see that the hopes for literature are high. Empirical evidence, however, has been lagging behind (cf. Keen, 2007). Previous reader response studies have found modest positive effects, signalling, among other things, that stories can make readers more attuned to taking another person’s perspective (e.g., Hakemulder, 2000), can lead to better self-understanding (e.g., Miall & Kuiken, 2002), and can change readers’ attitudes (e.g., Green & Brock, 2000). Reading stories has also been associated with better empathy skills (Kidd & Castano, 2013; Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, Delapaz, & Peterson, 2006; Mar, Oatley, & Peterson, 2009). Yet, it is still unclear to what extent empathic and reflective effects can be attributed to a text being “narrative” (presenting related events happening to characters), “fiction” (depicting what could or should be instead of what actually was, cf. Aristotle’s mimesis) or “literary” (containing aesthetic and unconventional features). Moreover, little attention has been paid to the interaction between reader and text characteristics. 

To engage with the claims made by Nussbaum and others and to generally further our understanding of how readers relate to (literary) narratives about suffering, this PhD-project tried to answer the following research questions:

(I)           What are readers’ main motives for reading about suffering?

(II)          To what extent does reading literary narrative texts about suffering evoke empathic and reflective responses (compared to non-literary texts)?

(III)        Which text and reader characteristics influence affective responses (narrative and aesthetic feelings) during reading, reflection, empathy towards others and pro-social behaviour?

(IV)        What are the roles of narrative and aesthetic feelings in triggering responses of reflection, empathy towards others and pro-social behaviour?

(V)         How do empathic and reflective reactions of readers evolve during reading about suffering and what is the role of style?

The project concentrated on depression and grief as forms of mental suffering that are regularly described in contemporary literature. Question (I) was investigated through a case study into readers’ motives to read A.F.Th. Van der Heijden’s “requiem novel” Tonio as well as

What the attraction of these types of narratives is, and what their effects are on the reader.

through a larger survey study into readers’ general motives to read sad novels. A large-scale quasi-experimental study comparing reader reactions to three different genres (literary, life narrative, expository) and a slightly smaller experimental study comparing reactions to three texts with different levels of literary devices (“foregrounding”) tried to provide answers to questions (II), (III) and (IV). Finally, two qualitative studies using reading diaries (one “pilot” and one “full study”) have been conducted to answer question (V).

All empirical studies in this project have been completed, the project is now in its final stage (comparing and contrasting the various findings). Therefore, we can already provide the conclusions of the project, although they need to be thought through further. 

If you want to know the findings, please follow the link “More information”.

This project is supervised by prof. dr. Susanne Janssen (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and co-supervised by dr. Els Andringa and dr. Frank Hakemulder (Utrecht University). It is a NWO-funded project within “Duurzame Geesteswetenschappen”.