Miall and Kuiken, 1999

Miall, David S., and Don Kuiken. "What is Literariness? Three Components of Literary Reading." Discourse Processes 28 (1999): 121-138.
Neither discourse-process oriented nor postmodern conceptions of literature accord literary texts their distinctiveness ("What is Literariness" 121). Against these understandings, this article by Miall and Kuiken aims to demonstrate that literariness is, as the authors state, "the product of a distinctive mode of reading that is identifiable through three key components of response to literary texts" (122). Miall and Kuiken assert that literariness is constituted by: 1) stylistic foregrounding and/or striking narrative features or variations which standout from ordinary language use, 2) a resultant defamiliarization or dehabituation in the reader, and 3) a reinterpretive transformation that is affective and personal/individual in character. The authors' formulation of these three necessary conditions of literariness is based in the empirical study of literary reading, and it is an understanding that is elaborated against postmodern claims for the historical contingency of literariness and discourse-process oriented studies which fail to account for the distinctive function of foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affective transformation in literary reading.  
Miall and Kuiken agree with the critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith when, in Contingencies of Value (1988), she states "literary value is not the property of an object or subject but, rather the product of the dynamics of a system," but the authors assert that critics such as Smith misinterpret the dynamics of the system, failing to understand the ways in which literary reading is as much a product of literary texts as it is a frame for interpreting them 'as such' (qtd in Miall and Kuiken). In a comparative study of the history of critical response and contemporary reader responses to Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Miall and Kuiken specifically demonstrate that the importance and effect of foregrounded passages is trans-historical, with critics and non-expert contemporary readers alike drawn to the foregrounded features of the poem regardless of experience and perspective (126). Following the Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky's well-known formulation in "Art as Technique," Miall and Kuiken advocate the literary dynamic as a critically enlivening one in which a reader's culturally acquired perspectives, attitudes, and habits of thought are troubled.  
Miall and Kuiken's empirical analysis of the process of dehabituation departs significantly from the traditional formalist account, however, in that the role of affect and feeling in actual readers is given significant attention. Yet, this affective aspect of literary reading is not one that has been recognized in many empirical studies. Turning to two important studies of narrative comprehension based on the situation model of discourse processing, Miall and Kiuken, reanalyzed the responses by coding the text for foregrounded (i.e., dehabitualizing or defamiliarizing) features. Using a regression model, the authors found that literary foregrounding provided a much surer index or predictor of reading time than the discourse processing variables. Moreover, when conducting 'think-aloud' studies using a 'bottom-up' rather than 'top-down' theoretical method, Miall and Kuiken found that, regardless of its technical sophistication, the strict methodological focus of discourse processing models elided the large number of reader comments which didn't fit into their preset (non-literary) theoretical schema. These reader comments were of a particularly literary nature, highlighting such aspects as style and literary reference and, critically, emotion and self-awareness. In a further comparative analysis of two studies (Miall and Kruiken [1994] and Trabasso and Magliano [1996]) the authors demonstrate that, based on reading time, readers' "associations, comments on style, and queries" are more constituent of literary reading than explanation (133). The evidence produced by Miall and Kuiken indicates, contra the discourse processing models, that uncertainty rather than explanation is the hallmark of literary reading.  
While Miall and Kuiken are quick to affirm that the situation model of discourse processing "represents aspects of comprehension that are obligatory" for readers of all texts, literary or otherwise, the aspects which the model doesn't capture are precisely those that make literary reading unique (134). Miall and Kuiken's recognition that the distinctiveness of uncertainty in literary reading is concomitant with an affective response in individual readers presents a crucial development in the empirical study of literature (and suggests a dialogic approach to literariness in which the relation between actual reader and text defines literary dynamics). The reinterpretive transformation that occurs as an individual reader processes disorienting or evocative material is integral to the notion of 'thematizing' and completes Miall and Kuiken's three-level analysis of literariness. In conclusion the authors state that this third affective aspect of reading is the least well-understood of the three (with numerous studies having addressed foregrounding and defamiliarization), and that once further studies address this aspect, the three distinctive levels of literary reading may be studied in interaction, perhaps revealing the "unique configuration of psychological and somatic responses" which account for the function and endurance of literary response in the evolution of human culture.  
A broad consensus emerged instantly from reading Miall and Kuiken's 1999 article, "What is Literariness? Three Components of Literary Reading." Firstly, it was agreed that Miall and Kuiken's comparative study of the history of critical response and contemporary reader responses to Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" provides us with compelling evidence against popular (but unsubstantiated) claims which posit the radical historical contingency of the category of literature. Similarly, the careful and methodical empirical work done by Miall and Kuiken in critiquing the situation model of discourse processing was deemed persuasive. That is, the evidence provided by Miall and Kuiken's reanalysis of Zwaan, Magliano, and Graesser's 1995 study is sufficient to verify claims for the distinctiveness of literary reading from other forms of reading. The fundamental inadequacy of the temporal-spatial-causal situation model of discourse processesing as a tool for the empirical study of literary reading is incontestable following Miall and Kuiken's work.  
As the empirical work advanced in this paper was persuasive to all readers and participants, our discussion quickly turned to the questions I provided with my overview of Miall and Kuiken's article. These questions were more exploratory than critical and, accepting Miall and Kuiken's three-component conception of literary reading as a compelling one (i.e., foregrounding, defamiliarizaition, and refamiliarization; see summary above for further explanation), my questions focused on the implications of this understanding of literariness -- with particular focus on the final element of refamiliarization/personal transformation. I have singled out the three most generative questions of the original six for elaboration here.  

In the first, I asked:

Given the highly personal and individual nature of the third component of Miall and Kuiken's concept of literariness, what does it mean when a literary text does not modify or transform my conventional feelings or concepts? If Milton's poetry 'leaves me cold,' so to speak, what does this suggest?

One participant, with what I took to be the tacit agreement of others, noted that a statistical assessment could in fact settle the status of the literariness of any text that does not seem to fulfill this third and necessary element of Miall and Kuiken's model. That is, if a significant number of readers of a given text respond by moving through all three of the model's necessary components, we can be reasonably assured of its literary status. Another participant, appealing to his considerable experience as a high school English teacher, noted that, as in the examples of Milton and Beckett, a distinctly literary education may be a requisite for a literary reading of certain literary texts. This observation was mitigated by the notion that it was simply literary experience rather than a literary education that is necessary for a literary reading of Milton.


The next question was a lengthy one:

Miall and Kuiken argue that literary texts produce effects of "defamiliarization and the modification or transformation of conventional feelings or concepts" (124). If conventional feelings and concepts change over time, does this suggest that texts are likely to be read very differently in different periods (when different conventions of feeling and conceptualization are present)? Or, are our habituated and/or conventional feelings and concepts the same in every period of history, such that the same text affects readers in a similar way across all cultures and periods?

After lengthy discussion, it was suggested that specific feelings inspired by formal elements of a literary text might be historically and culturally contingent, but the basic structure of literary response would remain uniform across history. As implied in the question, my own view is that if feelings and conceptual operations are acknowledged to be largely conventional, than the process of reading must significantly differ in content, if not in basic structure, depending on prevailing historical and cultural norms.

The final question I will revisit was primarily pedagogical in focus. Namely, do we endanger literary culture and the importance of literature in human life by severing the affective dimension of literary reading from our scholarship and teaching -- essentially dismissing it with one swipe of the 'affective fallacy'? In light of Miall and Kuiken's three components of literary reading, contemporary trends in scholarship and teaching seem to do a disservice to literature by subsuming it in a maze of unsubstantiated theoretical paradigms, many of which tacitly denigrate the transformative aspect of literary reading, while some reject the category of literature outright. From these broad reaching concerns our discussion concluded (perhaps to the relief of some) with a return to the immediate problematics of empirical study. Emotions are of the slipperiest human categories to capture. How might we better design future studies in order to understand and analyze the hitherto undervalued process of refamiliarization in literary reading?  

Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1994). Foregrounding, defamiliarization, and affect: Response to literary stories. Poetics, 22, 389-407.

Shklovsky, V. (1965). Art as technique. In L. T. Lemon & M. J. Reis (Eds. and Trans.), Russian formalist criticism: Four essays. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. (Original work published 1917.)

Smith, B. H. (1988). Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Trabasso, T., & Magliano, J. P. (1996). Conscious understanding during comprehension. Discourse Processes, 21, 255-287.

Zwaan, R. A., Magliano, J. P., & Graesser, A. C. (1995). Dimensions of situation model construction in narrative comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 386-397.

Document created November 17th 2005