ART CogLit's Jan Alber und Sven Strasen organise a session on "Empirical Approaches to Narrative" at the 2019 MLA Conference in Chicago. Call for Papers


Guaranteed ISSN Session (MLA 2019, Chicago)

Empirical Approaches to Narrative

Sven Strasen (RWTH Aachen University)

Cognitive narratologists, reader-response theorists, and representatives of the rhetorical theory of narrative frequently address the question of how readers process fictional narratives. Lisa Zunshine, for instance, mentions "readers" in general; Wolfgang Iser talks about "the implied reader"; and James Phelan explains the reactions of what he calls "the real audience." The main problem with these three concepts is that they are theoretical abstractions which are exclusively based on the subjective intuitions, hypotheses, and speculations of the scholars who invoke them.

This panel proposes an alternative way of dealing with readerly reactions, namely empirical investigations of flesh-and-blood readers. In Psychonarratology, Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon state that "how readers process narrative is essentially an empirical question that can only be answered by systematic observation of actual readers reading actual texts; it cannot be answered solely on the basis of intuition, anecdotal evidence, or even sophisticated models of human experience" (2003: 13).

Empirical studies, which involve refutable research hypotheses about readerly activities, operationalizable concepts, the consideration of different text corpora and test subjects, questionnaires and other ways of measuring reader reactions, presumably tell us more about the reading process than subjective speculations about recipients in general, the implied reader, or the real audience. In the context of such empirical investigations, each reader's reactions are viewed as being valid and appropriate given the person's knowledge, background, interests, and psychological predispositions. At the same time, it is assumed that narrative processing is not completely idiosyncratic, and that the individual strategies used by recipients do not only overlap and depend on culturally shared knowledge – e.g. in the form of cultural models (Strauss/Quinn 1997; Strasen 2008; 2013) – but can also be scientifically investigated and described.

This panel will present recent empirical studies that concern the processing of fictional narratives. It will limit itself to the presentation and discussion of results of investigations that have already been carried out. These studies might concern (but are not limited to) the following areas of research:

  • the degree of identification with a narrator (depending on variables such as homo- and heterodiegetic narration and/or the uses of different types of focalization)
  • the degree of identification with a character (depending on whether the readers share, desire, or dread his or her character traits)
  • the conditions under which readers form narrator-character associations
  • the processing of unusual narratives (such as you-, we-, and they-narratives) compared to more common ones
  • the question of how readers process unnatural narratives
  • similarities and differences between high and popular literature
  • textual triggers of reader emotions
  • the relationship between immersion, identification, and the reader's experiential background
  • similarities and differences between professional and non-professional readers
  • the process of reception and the role of cultural models

Please send a 400-words abstract (including a short bio note and contact information) to .

The deadline for the submission of proposals is March 3, 2018.