David S. Miall, "Literary Discourse." Handbook of Discourse Processes. Eds. Art Graesser, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, and Susan R. Goldman. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. 321-355. Summary Although literary reading has attracted the attention of mainstream literary scholarship for over 70 years, most empirical studies of literary reading have been carried out over the last 20 years. In contrast to traditional literary criticism, which either centers on the literary text or on its social and cultural context (321), the empirical study of non-academic reading cannot limit itself to interpretation or, in this case, to the question of how the reader understands literary texts (322). As an alternative to this simplistic picture of the experience of literary reading, Miall, following the outcomes of empirical studies, suggests that the processing of literary discourse is characterized by a combination of cognitive, emotive, evaluative, and attitudinal factors that are all employed in readers' pursuit of the experience that is effected by literary reading (331). The very fact that literary texts, in comparison to non-literary texts, contain more foregrounded stylistic features may be an important explanation for the composite complexity of literary reading (326-27, 345-49). Foregrounding in the form of, for instance, phonetic variation and striking imagery brings about an extra level of meaning that defies existing interpretative schemas and asks for a kind of processing that goes beyond reading for comprehension (345-49). As a result, the way literary texts are processed differs from regular discourse processing. Literary reading appears, for instance, to lead to the development of multiple interpretive frames and hypotheses that are subject to change during the reading-process (322, 336-38). In creating schemas and interpretation, the influence of affect appears to be considerable (344-345). Also, literary reading evokes more personal meanings (i.e., current concerns, memories, and especially memories in which the reader takes on an active role) than reading non-literary texts (340-41). As such, literary reading may enhance or alter the reader's self-knowledge (342). Miall concludes the article by stating that the empirical study of literary reading may eventually lead to a new theory of processing literary discourse (349). For this to happen though, studies need to adopt less confined research-designs, so that more profound insight can be gained into the complex nature of literary reading. Also, to what extent literariness and literary processing are innate deserves some attention. Lastly, Miall emphasizes that the research into literary reading is timely because, due to the rise of digital media, the nature of literary reading may be about to change (350). Critique Miall indicates that "[t]he gulf between literary scholarship and empirical research remains wide" (322). The greatness of this distance, however, depends on the perspective taken: it is greater when viewed from the side of traditional literary scholars than from the side of empirical researchers. The former often ignore the empirical research of literature, peremptorily dismissing it as irrelevant, in order to come to a better understanding of the nature of the literary experience. A significant gauge is that critical works that map the study of literature in many cases invariably lack a chapter or section devoted to empirical research. What can we do to put the empirical research of literary reading on the agenda of literary studies? And why is it important to do so? To answer the second question first, literary studies in general will benefit from empirical evidence, because it legitimizes the complete research-area. If empirical studies can prove that there is something special to literary processing, that it has an exceptional nature in comparison to non-literary processing, the importance of literature and its study would be beyond dispute. Also, empirical approaches may enrich and systematize traditional, often exclusively hermeneutic, research-designs. The converse may be beneficial as well: when traditional scholars apply empirical methods and adapt them to their own needs the development and improvement of these methods will accelerate. A practical way to contribute to the visibility of the empirical research of reading is to go beyond the boundaries of specializations. For instance, empirical researchers should present papers at conferences that do not necessarily have to do with empiricism. The same holds true for publications. Thus, in that sense, an active, creative attitude of the empirical researcher is required. To transfer the empirical studies of literature from the margins to a position nearer to the center of literary studies, Miall proposes that empirical studies should be more comprehensive. As Miall very properly observes, and as becomes clear from the somewhat fragmentary nature of his article, up to now the lion's share of empirical studies is rather limited in design, that is, the number of both the participants and the variables studied is small. As a result, the studies yield fairly idiosyncratic results and lose much in persuasive force. Instead, wide-ranging and multivalent approaches (e.g., a research design in which interview-protocols of a significant number of participants of different ages and nationalities are studied according to content analytical methods that combine both bottom-up and top-down approaches) should be adopted that map a range of aspects of literary reading and lead to more encompassing results. However, caution should be exercised when implications are drawn that surpass the specific features under study: assertions that exceed empirical findings should always be presented as theoretical suggestions and/or hypotheses for future research, for if not, accuracy, one of the starting points of the empirical endeavor, is strained and the empirical project undermined. Perhaps the quickest road to recognition consists in following a non-empirical, that is, traditional pathway. A critical, theoretical, and methodological framework that, partly on the basis of previous empirical studies, outlines the convictions and approaches on which the empirical research of literary reading is based, and the means by which it operates, would give traditional scholars and dissidents a better idea of what the empirical discipline is all about. Furthermore, it should become clear in what way empirical studies is positioned in the traditional critical and theoretical domain and in what way it goes beyond it and contributes to it. Miall's article sets an example for such an enterprise.
Document created April 8th 2005