Last week I have had the pleasure to meet 6 authors and creative writing teachers at a Creative Writing Workshop I organised together with my colleague Maria Kraxenberger at the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics where I currently work. We invited them to this workshop because we were curious how they would address some of the issues we are dealing with as researchers of text effects.

Basically as researcher in the field of empirical literary studies you are concerned with questions like: what kind of effects does this text inspire in readers and how does it elicit those effects? Obviously it doesn’t stop there. For example, I am curious to know whether there are specific text features in stories that are able to absorb readers. To obtain a comprehensive view on this matter though, I would also need to take into account readers’ character traits, their preferences in terms of text genres, where they read, etc. Apart from that, I am interested in this question, because I think that we should learn more about the experience of absorption, because it is able to foster enjoyment, a state of relaxation that is close to mindfulness or meditation and a sense of accomplishment. All of these outcomes are positive goals that people strive for and that could motivate them, and that is why I think that knowing how to generate absorption in certain audiences could be very beneficial to, for example, literary (and literacy) education.

Now, the purpose of this example was to show that the experiments that we do zoom in on very specific parts of our overall research questions and goals. This diving into the text, taking it apart and figuring out how it works, is not all there is to empirical literary studies. But it is the core of what we do and the main way of arriving at solutions to answer the bigger questions.

One way in which researchers have studied text effects is by manipulating certain aspects of literary texts to see how that changes our participant’s responses to those texts. For example, I have done a study on the structure in which stories are told to readers, not the chronologically order of events, but rather they order in which the events are relayed to the reader. What I did in that study was letting one group of participants read an original short story, another group read a version of that same story in which I switched the order of the events to make it like a typical mystery story: beginning with the outcome event and ending in the initiating event (instead of the other way around). I compared the scores of the 2 groups on absorption to each other and found that readers thought that the manipulated version invoked more curiosity and more attention. I was unable to find effects on absorption though. One reason for that, I believe, could be that I adapted the story, and I am not a professional author. I can analyse texts and investigate their effects on readers, but I don’t think I am capable of writing an absorbing story.

The creative writing professionals we invited to our workshop made me realise that I approached the texts in my experiments all wrong. I didn’t look at them like literary works anymore, like whole artworks, like something that is more than the sum of its parts! One of the metaphors that was used during the workshop was the literary text as a house of cards: essentially what we try to do in our experiments is taking just one card from the house of cards, changing it and trying to put it back in to investigate its effects, while the whole time we do that we expect the house of cards to still be standing when we remove that one card. All of the cards together are the literary work: perhaps we should not start with an one particular feature that we want to modify (and thus try to pick out one card in the house of cards), but with an analysis of a text as a whole (lay out all of the cards on the table) and then build it back up slightly different.

I really enjoyed those two days of exchanging ideas, learning more about the creative writing process of authors and indirectly about my own research. A thank you to everyone involved: it was a really inspiring two days!

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