At the end of last year, my colleagues and I published a paper in Scientific Study of Literature on a special kind of absorption experience: one that is focused on deviating text features. Some definitions of literary experience seem to imply that reading a literary text cannot be a particularly absorbing activity – and that if it is, it is probably not very good literature. Rather literary experiences, according to foregrounding theory, revolve around a readers’ response to deviating text features. Deviation from conventional ways of storytelling that is.
In our paper – Reconceptualizing Foregrounding. Identifying Response Strategies to Deviation in Absorbing Narratives – we argue that instead of simply assuming that foregrounding and absorption are mutually exclusive, they could also be considered as co-occurring. For example, when a reader or film viewer is absorbed as a result of an attention grabbing deviating aspect of a story. This is from the abstract of our paper:
In the present paper we examine the co-occurrence of different responses by means of a data-driven qualitative approach. The analysis of interviews about absorbed experiences with written and cinematic fictional narratives focused on occurrences of and responses to perceived deviation. We identified seven strategies in response to deviation that may be described through three underlying dimensions: absorption, agency, and valence. Findings suggest that perceived deviation is associated with intense and meaningful engagement with narratives, rather than obstructing this engagement.
Without giving too much away, our analysis resulted in seven distinct strategies that recipients adopt in response to deviating elements in either a text or a movie (i.e., striking/novelty response strategy; uncertainty/disambiguation response strategy; symbol/insight response strategy; blank/imagination response strategy; obstruction/adjustment strategy; forceful absorption response strategy; and forceful character engagement response strategy). In each of the seven strategies experienced deviations in a film or text lead to some form of absorption. Although we did see instances of dissociation, such as a sense of frustration, in general estranging devices do not necessarily estrange audiences. On the contrary, they may deepen their involvement.
In addition, the paper is full of beautiful illustrations of absorbing reading and viewing experiences, that, every time I read them, give me warm and fuzzy feelings about my research. These are the kinds of experiences that made me want to do empirical research on absorption in the first place and I am glad we have been able to give them a prominent place to showcase them.
In sum, this is a paper that I am really proud of. It was part of our absorption project and entailed an extensive qualitative study – my first big qualitative study. I enjoyed our working together on this project and I believe this paper really has something new to add,
both to the field of foregrounding research and to that of absorption research. So, everybody look out for the second issue of volume 6 of Scientific Study of Literature for a deviating story on absorption!