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ELSEVIER Poetics 26 (1999) 439--454

Meetings of minds:
Dialogue, sympathy, and identification,
in reading fiction
Ke i t h Oa t l e y 2 .
Centre f or Applied Cognitive Science,
Ontario Institute f or Studies in Education of the University of Toronto,
252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, M5S 1V6, Canada
Any one work of literature reaches onl y a very few minds among the whole human popu-
lation, and yet when a real meeting occurs of reader with a book, or reader with an author (via
a book), it can be profound. I describe the phenomena of meeting, and their relation to per-
sonal reflection in theoretical terms, drawing on Bakht i n' s (1984 [1963]) proposals of the
novel as a place of dialogue. The intensity and type of such meetings varies with the degree
to which a reader takes a spectator role, or identifies with a protagonist. I present empirical
studies, which show how particular kinds of minds connect with particular kinds of short sto-
ries, and I discuss how in such places as reading groups, meetings among friends are affected
by reading novels. 1999 Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
Ge or ge El i ot sai d t hat : ' Th e gr eat est benef i t we o we t o t he artist, whet her pai nt er ,
poet or novel i s t is t he ext ens i on o f our s ympat hi es . . . ext endi ng our cont act wi t h our
f el l ow me n b e y o n d t he bounds o f our per s onal l ot ' ( Pi nney, 1963: 270). Fr o m El i ot
c o me s t he i dea t hat is t he subj ect o f t hi s paper : t he i nt ent i on o f art, and par t i cul ar l y
l i t er ar y art, is not so mu c h t o descr i be, or i nf or m, or i nst ruct , as t o al l ow meet i ngs o f
mi nds .
I n cont r as t t o ' ar t i s t ' one can cons i der ' s ci ent i s t ' , or per haps ' wr i t er o f non- f i c-
t i on' , whos e i nt ent i on is t o c ha nge t he r e a de r ' s bel i ef s i n a cer t ai n way. A bel i ef is
The author thanks the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for research sup-
* E-mail:
0304-422X/99/$ - see front matter 1999 Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S0304- 422X( 99) 00011- X
440 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439~154
something that can alter to correspond to something in the world. In the better kind
of non-fiction, the author has laboured over evidence to bring his or her beliefs into
correspondence with the world. Reading such an author's book, then, tends to allow
some of the reader's beliefs to come into correspondence with the author's and, via
this intermediary, to some aspect of the world.
This does not mean that the reader is without questions. One of the joys of read-
ing non-fiction is to have one' s own thoughts and ideas stimulated, to have questions
started up. Nonetheless the aim of this kind of writing is consensus of belief in rela-
tion to some aspect of the world, for instance the belief that vitamin C is necessary
to human health. To this end, the writings of scientists typically undergo peer-review
before being admitted to the scholarly literature - reviewers who are expert in the
field consent to publication only when conclusions on specific research questions are
warranted by the evidence presented.
So, although in the physical and social sciences there is always controversy, we
can say that consensus is the goal. By contrast art strives for something quite differ-
ent, which I call meetings of minds.
Although changes of beliefs that derive from non-fiction can be profound, for
instance the changes provoked by Darwin's evidence of evolution and his theory to
explain it, I concentrate here on works of literary art. Such works reach only a very
few minds among the whole human population. Yet, when a real meeting occurs of
a reader with an author or character (via a book), it can be as profound, perhaps even
more profound, than a change of scientific belief.
This meeting of minds that I discuss here has some characteristics of meeting
friends. But it also has characteristics that are unlike ordinary meetings. To explain
these I need first to say some things about the structure of fiction.
2. Nar r at ol ogy and t he s t ruct ure o f f i ct i on
For nearly a hundred years, narrative has been recognized as having the distinct
aspects of f a b u l a and s i u z h e t , often translated respectively as ' story' and ' plot' .
Roughly speaking, story is what happens and plot is how the story is told.
In English, the terms ' story' and ' plot' are too close in meaning, so I will adopt
the terms of Brewer and Lichtenstein (1981): 'event structure' (the structure and
events of the story world) and 'discourse structure' (the arrangement of the author's
discourse). In this paper I will consider mainly two forms of fictional narrative: tex-
tual fiction as in novels and short stories, and dramatic fiction as in plays and films.
In the event structure of most fictional worlds a day lasts 24 hours, and if A hap-
pens in 1997, and B in 1998, then A comes before B. But in the discourse structure
things can be different. So, James Joyce' s Ul y s s e s is supposed to take place in a day,
but it will typically occupy the reader for longer than 24 hours. And though in the
event structure A comes before B, in the discourse structure B may come before a
flashback to A.
Different manipulations of the discourse structure, then, give rise to different
kinds of psychological effects and genres. In the genre of the suspense story, for
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454 441
instance (Vorderer, 1996), t i me in the di scourse structure can move fast to begi n
with, so that a few pages cover several mont hs or years, but once a bel i evabl e threat
has been appl i ed to a likeable protagonist, di scourse t i me is sl owed down, so that
many pages of di scourse represent a f ew hours in the event structure. The effect is to
have the reader turning the pages fast to attain rel i ef f r om the suspenseful anxi et y
that the st ory has produced.
2.1. Mimesis as simulation
Si nce classical times there has been the idea that the structure of the story worl d
relates to that of the natural world, and Aristotle (c. 330 BC) used the t erm mimesis
to descri be this relation.
The t erm mimesis has become probl emat i c, however. Until the begi nni ng of the
ni net eent h cent ury a favouri t e met aphor was the mi rror (Abrams, 1953), as in Shake-
speare' s phrase ' t o hold, as ' t were, the mi rror up to nat ure' , (1600, Hamlet, 3, 2, 22).
Even nowadays the most frequent English translations of mimesis are: ' copy' , ' i mi -
t at i on' , ' represent at i on' . But now that we know what ext raordi nari l y el aborat e and
dedi cat ed procedures are needed f or scientists to bring beliefs and writings into cor-
r espondence with the world, and now that vi deo and film can copy and represent life
far mor e accurat el y than any writer, any easy correspondence bet ween fictional text
and the worl d is implausible.
To hel p solve this probl em, I have offered the idea (Oatley, 1992, 1994) that what
Aristotle real l y meant by mimesis was not any relation of direct correspondence
bet ween pi eces of text and pi eces of the world. Instead he meant somet hi ng cl oser to
what we now mean by simulation.
Whereas comput er simulations run on comput ers, literary simulations (drama,
short-stories, novel s) run on minds, in the imagination, or like a kind of gui ded
dream (Oat l ey and Ghol amai n, 1997). And whereas non-fi ct i on including science
rests fi rml y on a cor r espondence t heory of truth - that is why it includes the elabo-
rate social process of warrant ed evi dence, peer refereei ng, and so forth - simulation
rests on a coher ence t heory of truth.
A comput er simulation is a model of objects, t hei r attributes, and the interactions
among the objects. The whol e simulation is useful i f it runs successfully, within its
own limits and dependi ng onl y on its own mechani sm. I f it can do this, it demon-
strates that j ust these interactions of parts can be responsi bl e for the behavi our of the
whol e that it generates.
A literary simulation also model s objects, their attributes, and the interactions
among the obj ect s in the st ory world. Here, the obj ect s al most invariably include
human agents. The simulation works i f a reader or spect at or can get the whol e thing
to run - to i magi ne the story worl d with its peopl e, and to become absorbed in it.
2.2. Why narrative does not copy the worm
Why is it i nappropri at e to think that fi ct i on mi ght copy or imitate the wor l d? The
reason is that, i f in fi ct i on the el ement s of the story worl d were onl y those that cor-
442 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
responded to the observable natural world, then no-one woul d be able to understand
them. Here is a demonst rat i on of this slightly surprising truth.
Many writers agree that the aspect of the natural world that is most indigenous to
the novel or drama is human conversation. Here is an example, taken from Oatley
A compl ex new photocopier had been delivered to a Psychol ogy Depart ment so
Steve Draper, Charles But t on and I recorded some of the conversations that occurred
around it. Our onl y intervention was to give people (such as the one named Xavier
in this excerpt) the goal of finding someone (whom we call Yolande) to show hi m
how to use the new copier. Apart from this everyt hi ng fl owed naturally. Except for
numberi ng the utterances and nami ng the speakers this is an exact verbal transcript
of part of a natural conversation.
(1) Xavier:
(2) Yolande:
(3) Xavier:
(4) Yolande:
(5) Xavier:
(6) Yolande:
Coul d you show me how to do the phot ocopyi ng?
Doubl e si ded?
Eh. Yer. I want to do, to do double sided.
Uhm, I don' t know, some or ...
Sorry, what do you do here?
This one. But, eh, some turn the other way round. You must have it.
Aft er utterances (1) to (3), this conversation is incomprehensible to readers of the
transcript, t hough it was underst ood by the speakers. This is not unusual in human
conversation. When we are in ordi nary conversations our understandings of the
words are derived in part from the words themselves, but in part from our knowl edge
of the relationship wi t h the other person and our engagement in it, of our j oi nt con-
cerns and j oi nt history, of the furniture of the i mmedi at e envi ronment , and so forth.
A transcription omits all such things.
So what woul d we have to do to make copied conversation comprehensible from
a text? We woul d need to novel i ze it. In the fol l owi ng I have done this, preserving
as many of the uttered words as I could, and maki ng each paragraph correspond to
each utterance in the transcript.
(1' ) ' Coul d you show me how to do the phot ocopyi ng?' asked Xavier.
(2' ) Yol ande knew that Xavier must be able to do straightforward copyi ng, he must
want to do somet hi ng more, perhaps learn advanced features of this irritating
machine, recently delivered to the Psychol ogy Department, whi ch she had spent
a good deal of t i me learning how to operate. Xavier onl y had one piece of t yped
paper in his hand: maybe he want ed her to use it to show how the machi ne did
di fferent kinds of copying. ' You want to do doubl e-si ded?' she asked.
(3') ' Yes, I want to do double si ded' , said Xavier.
(4' ) ' I t ' s more complicated than you mi ght think. '
(5' ) ' Sorry. What do you do her e?' asked Xavier, pointing to a button. He want ed to
get started.
(6') ' You press this button, but usually you have to think about how many copies
you want, and whet her you have got single or double-sided originals, and some-
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439--454 443
t i mes you have to wor r y about whet her the copy on the second side will come
out the right way r ound. '
To novel i ze this incident, I had to of f er cont ext s, for i nst ance of the agent s' goal s
and plans, and of f er a di scourse st ruct ure to hel p you, the reader, const ruct the
worki ng model of event s so that your si mul at i on woul d run. We may forget that fi c-
tional t ext s that are sel f-sust ai ni ng in this way, and desi gned not to be per f or med
oral l y but to be read silently, are of rat her recent origin (Thomas, 1992). Such texts
suppl y bot h words that poi nt to the st ory worl d and di rect i ons to hel p i nt erpret these
2.3. Component s of a si mul at i on
Let me now reiterate the distinction bet ween f abul a and siuzhet, event structure
and di scourse structure. For a literary simulation to run, we need one set of el ement s
that cor r espond to event s and objects in the story world, and a second set that con-
sists of di rect i ons to the reader about how to run the simulation. Exact l y these t wo
t ypes of el ement are present in simulations that run on comput ers.
Look, f or instance, at this f r agment of a pr ogr am I wrote, fol l owi ng Sharples et
al. (1989) in t he l anguage Pop 11, as a pr ot ot ype f or students to augment in an arti-
ficial i nt el l i gence course. The pr ogr am simulates a conversat i on part ner who can
answer quest i ons about the shortest routes bet ween l ocat i ons in the down- t own
Tor ont o publ i c transit syst em. In this fragment , t wo vari abl es are decl ared by the
command ' var s' . Then t hese variables ( ' t r avel t i me' and ' changet i me' ) are gi ven val-
ues that cor r espond to the average number of mi nut es to travel bet ween stops, and
the average wai t i ng t i me for a train or streetcar. Then comes the start of the decl a-
rat i on of a pr ocedur e ' set up 0 ' , built as a list of lists, of subway and st reet car stops
in Tor ont o, each j oi ned by ' connect s' to indicate whi ch stop di rect l y connect s with
whi ch other.
vars t ravel t i me, changet i me;
2 ~ t ravel t i me; 5 ---) changet i me;
defi ne setup 0;
[ [ [ Bl oor Subway spadina] connect s [ Bl oor Subway st george]]
[ [ Bl oor Subway st george] connect s [ Bl oor Subway bay]]
[ [ Bl oor Subway bay] connect s [ Bl oor Subway bl oor yonge]] etc., etc.
One set of el ement s corresponds with the world, and can be seen in the list of lists
over whi ch the pr ogr am comput es. Ther e are names of lines (e.g. ' Bl oor Subway' )
and stations (e.g. ' st geor ge' ) that correspond to names of lines and stations in the
real Tor ont o. But ot her el ement s exi st onl y in the comput er-worl d. They activate
processes to make the si mul at i on run; t hey i ncl ude decl ari ng variables (e.g. ' vars
t ravel t i me' ), the operat or f or assi gnment '---~', the defi ni t i on of a procedure, the list
of lists, etc.
444 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
2.4. How the mind runs a simulation
On what part of the mi nd does the reader run the st ory-si mul at i on? Narrat i ve is
based on the actions of human agents, who have intentions that meet vicissitudes.
These vicissitudes pr ompt emot i ons. The human simulation of narrat i ve t herefore
runs on the human pl anni ng processor. In most of ordi nary life, this planning proces-
sor is i ndeed used for planning, for exampl e: 'I'11 send my fri end a bi rt hday card
(intention), but to do that, first I need to buy a card and then a st amp' . Al t hough, in
this mode, we run the planning processor forwards, arranging actions in planful
order f r om the current state t owards a goal, in order to accompl i sh intentions, we can
also run it backwards, taking an ordered set of actions and inferring someone' s plan
and intention. Thi s is what we do when, in affect i on or gossip, we discuss the actions
of our fri ends and acquaintances.
In readi ng narrat i ve we run the pl anni ng pr ocessor bot h ways. We read the
act i ons of a prot agoni st , runni ng the pl anner forwards, not so much predi ct i ng as
underst andi ng the range of possi bl e out comes that can resul t f r om actions. And we
run it backwards, i nferri ng f r om trains of act i on the coher ent set of goals and pat-
terns of habitual pl anni ng that compose what in the t heor y of fi ct i on is cal l ed ' char-
act er' .
Bot h narrat i ve fi ct i on and games allow human participants to take, as it were,
rides on goal -and-pl an structures that are not t hose of real life. When we take such
rides, we exper i ence the emot i ons consequent to adopting the goals and engagi ng in
the action sequences that are afforded.
3. Types of fictional meeting
Fi ct i on does not mean somet hi ng unt r ue; it means somet hi ng made. It has a
si mi l ar e t ymol ogy to poet r y ( whi ch al so means somet hi ng made) . So, accor di ng
to t he t heor y I am pr oposi ng, f i ct i on is l i t er ar y si mul at i on t hat has di st i nct i ve
met hods, char act er i st i cs, and ef f ect s, whi ch al l ow t he f i ct i onal si mul at i ons to
run. Al t hough in t he last t hi r t y year s some of t hese met hods have been appr opr i -
at ed in cer t ai n ki nds of non- f i ct i on j our nal i s m ( Wol f e, 1975), it has been wi t hi n
f i ct i on t hat t hey wer e devel oped, and it is wi t hi n f i ct i on t hat t hey are most at
It is wi t hi n t hese met hods also, that we can begi n to under st and what ki nds of
meet i ngs of mi nds can occur. Bakht i n (1984 [1963]) has suggest ed that the novel
is the ver y pl ace of di al ogue, bot h among charact ers and bet ween the r eader and
the charact ers, or bet ween t he r eader and aut hor. I f this is true, the novel , in its
deepest meani ngs, is about meet i ngs and t hei r emot i onal and i nt el l ect ual conse-
quences f or us. Such meet i ngs are in some ways like t hose that occur in ever yday
life. But in ot her ways t hey are unl i ke: some aspect s are sel ect ed and some exag-
gerat ed, whi l e ot hers are not i ncl uded or are at t enuat ed. It is a di f f er ent exper i ence
to meet James J oyce in Ulysses t han it woul d have been to meet Ji m J oyce in the
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454 445
3.1. Reader as spectator: Meeting by observing
The simplest t heor y of the reader is of reader as spectator. The reader becomes an
unobserved obser ver in scenes of the lives of characters in the st ory world. He or she
stands in t hei r bedrooms, hovers at t hei r dining tables, drives with t hem in their cars.
As compar ed with the novel , film tends to f avour the spectator role. In Al fred
Hi t chcock' s film Real" window, for instance, we members of the audi ence become
veri t abl e voyeurs. At the same time, in the genre of how-t o books on writing fiction,
of all the advi ce offered, the most frequent is ' show, don' t tell' . In the more expl i ci t
of such manuals, the aspiring writer is told that i f she or he does not write prose that
makes the reader seem to be watching a movi e, then onl y failure lies ahead. This
advi ce bears little relation to what many successful novelists do. Nonet hel ess it
implies a strong commi t ment to the idea of reader as spectator.
Fi l m is i ndeed the l onged-for t i me-machi ne, or rather the t i me-and-space-
machi ne. The ci nema lights go down, and there one is, an intimate observer, atten-
tive but invisible. Not e that in the di scourse structure of film - how di fferent from
our own real lives - the camera and mi cr ophone are always at exact l y the right spot,
at exact l y the right moment , with exact l y the right angle, so that we can observe j ust
the t ransact i on that is essential to the plot.
As compar ed with the meet i ngs of real life, then, in our meet i ngs in fi ct i on from
the spect at or stance we come to know somet hi ng of the characters but we do not
affect them. The meet i ngs are one- way affairs, in whi ch we have no influence. This
passi vi t y is perhaps part of the easy charm of movi e-goi ng: here is social life with-
out obligation, meet i ng wi t hout responsibility. But at the same time we cert ai nl y feel
emot i ons in our meet i ngs with characters of the story world, perhaps most especi al l y
the emot i ons of sympat hy.
3.2. Identification: Meeting as merging
A second ki nd of meet i ng is of a reader i dent i fyi ng with a protagonist, or with a
narrator, as descri bed by Oat l ey and Ghol amai n (1997). Whereas film tends to
f avour the role of spectator, novel s and short stories are equal l y hospitable bot h to
the spect at or role and to identification. In identification the reader takes on the pro-
t agoni st ' s goals and plans. The reader then also experi ences emot i ons when these
plans go well or badly.
Poi nt -of-vi ew in fictional t echni que is the most direct means of varyi ng the ext ent
of the spect at or rol e as compar ed with identification. For instance, the use of third-
person narrat i ve favours spectating; first-person narrat i ve favours identification.
St ream of consci ousness, as used f or instance by Virginia Wool f in Mrs Dalloway,
allows the reader into the ver y most intimate moment - by- moment sequences of a
char act er ' s thoughts, and is a furt her means of identification, although this mode is
also support ed in many ot her ways.
By contrast, film di rect ors have to work harder to simulate the vi ewer walking
t hrough the story worl d: but there are exampl es, f or instance the ei ght -mi nut e-l ong
tracking shot at the begi nni ng of Joseph Al t man' s film, The player. Thi s and ot her
446 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
identificatory techniques do occur and can be effective, but t hey are a lesser part of
the repertoire in compari son with spectator techniques.
The meet i ng of identification is a species of empat hy, in which we do not merel y
sympat hi ze wi t h a person, we become that person. But again there is a contrast with
ordinary life, in which we remain steadfastly ourselves, while the person we meet,
and with whom we empathize, remains hi msel f or herself.
3.3. Varying the degree of spectating and identifying
In spectator narratives there is usual l y a protagonist, with whom we can identify
to some extent. In addition, there are al ways possibilities to i dent i fy wi t h an actual
narrator, wi t h an implied narrator, with an author, or wi t h a director.
Similarly, even in the most ful l y identificatory novels, there are almost al ways
spectator opportunities as the protagonist interacts wi t h other people in the story
world. At the same time there is the additional opportunity to identify with the
author of a work, or with the aut hor' s representative within the discourse structure.
Properly, then, we mi ght say that there is a spectrum that runs from observation to
identification. Different narrative techniques can be used to favour one or the other,
in the work as a whole, or at particular moment s with a work.
This spectrum is comparable to the important scale of aesthetic distance proposed
by Scheff (1979). This scale runs from overdistanced (the reader with a spectator
stance keeps emot i onal issues of the story events from encroaching on the self) to
underdistanced (the i dent i fyi ng reader experiences emot i ons as happening directly to
the self, so that i f these emot i ons are intense t hey can feel overwhelming). At an aes-
thetic distance that is optimal, the reader both experiences emotions, and can reflect
upon them, in order to assimilate their meanings.
3.4. What psychological effects are afforded by fictional simulation ?
Among the products of the meetings in fiction are emotions, memories, and
thoughts. Emot i ons occur in a number of ways. In the spectator role t hey occur when
the reader is sympathetic towards characters in the story (Tan, 1996). In identifica-
tion wi t h a protagonist, emot i ons occur as the prot agoni st ' s plans meet vicissitudes
(Oatley, 1994). Autobiographical memori es are prompt ed by reading (Scheff, 1979)
and these too are associated with emotions. In addition, reading can prompt reflec-
tive t hought (Cupchi k and L~iszl6, 1994).
Insofar as a writer affords onl y one mode of experiencing a story - a relatively
pure spectator role or a total i mmersi on in identification - then correspondingly the
reader' s (or vi ewer' s) experience will be shallow. Most of our great writers encour-
age a movi ng back and forth along the spectrum of aesthetic distance, identification
wi t h different characters in turn (e.g. in Dost oyevsky' s The brothers Karamazov), or
identification wi t h a character and then a view from the exterior perspective of the
narrator (e.g. in George El i ot ' s Middlemarch). In more recent novels, modernist
techniques achieve similar effects, for instance, of first allowing the reader to
become i mmersed in the story, and then revealing some piece of the literary machin-
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454 447
ery of the text, or even havi ng the author confront the protagonist (e.g. John Fowles
in The French lieutenant's woman).
3.5. Associative structure: Third structural element in narrative and third point of
Al ongsi de the story structure and discourse structure is another, which spans both
text and reader. In the text it is represented by the set of metaphors, met onyms, and
other figures the writer uses. For the reader it is the set of associations - the emo-
tions, memori es and reflective thoughts, prompted by these figures. It takes place in
Wi nni cot t ' s (1971) space-in-between sel f and other, which starts of f as the space
which opens as we first become separate from our mot her (or other caregiver), and
which grows into the space of human culture that retains to some extent this primor-
dial connect i on to the loved other. It also represents Vygot sky' s idea that alongside
the causal line of devel opment of any plot there is a wavy and circuitous line like a
kind of mel ody that accompanies the reading (Kozulin, 1990). Indeed this musical
idea is i mpl ement ed in fi l m scores. Vygot sky thought that catharsis occurred when
the aesthetic experience of reading overcame the form of the plot, in the dialectical
relationship bet ween them. In comput at i on it may perhaps be indicated by the notion
' side effect s' which are effects that are important but not directly specified by state-
ments of the comput er language.
To explain this in a bit more detail, met aphor and met onymy stand, as Jakobson
(1988) argued, at the two poles of language. I use met onymy (strictly using the name
for a thing itself) to include synecdoche (using the part for the whole or vice versa)
and prosopopeia (taking an i magi nary agency or abstract concept as a person). The
two great literary tropes of met aphor and met onym, then correspond respectively to
miniature mimeses and to the juxtapositions and slidings of words across concepts,
or as Lacan has proposed (Lacan, 1966; Benvenut o and Kennedy, 1986), to the psy-
chical mechani sms that support them of condensat i on and displacement. At issue
here is the stream of effects that runs alongside any reading, and that works partly in
primary process, of associations, biases, priming, prefiguring.
Here is an exampl e from the famous opening of Leo Tol st oy' s Anna Karenina, the
first sentence, from the Gamet t translation, indicating the figures used.
Happy families I are all alike; 2 every unhappy fami l y 3 is unhappy in its own way 4.
1. ' Happy fami l i es' - met onym of the type prosopopeia. In European folk t heory
happiness inheres in the individual person; so there is a displacement of the emo-
tion to the families as such.
2. ' Al l al i ke' - hyperbole. Not all happy families are alike.
3. ' Every unhappy f ami l y' - antithesis, contrasting with happy families, and com-
bining with a further hyperbole in the term ' ever y' .
4. ' Own way' - own is a met onym (prosopopeia) since strictly onl y people can
own; way is a met aphor for type, the source of which is travelling, a road, a path
- specifically a path through life.
448 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
Correspondi ng to these fi gures are the side effect s in the reader, partly vi a t he uncon-
scious, prompt i ng associations and biasing interpretations. Her e is some of my asso-
ciative structure to this sentence.
Happy families all alike - unhappy each in its own way. My f ami l y not particu-
larly a happy one, unhappy in its own way, perhaps, but not so unhappy exact l y, a
bit t oo earnest really, fat her undemonst rat i ve, mot her apt to be di sapprovi ng, so I
woul d feel a ki nd of const rai nt fall over me when I woul d ent er the door. Then I
t ended to avoid, and that was sad. So this is to be about unhappy fami l i es? Will
ot her memor i es of my f ami l y be aroused?
So in the associ at i ve structure, not onl y does Wi nni cot t ' s (1971) space-i n-bet ween
open up, but a ground is pr ovi ded f or the most personal meet i ngs wi t h the t ext and
with onesel f, as well as literary foreshadowi ngs that reach f or war d to succeedi ng
To summari ze t hen we have t hree t ypes of structure, as exempl i f i ed in the open-
ing sent ence of Anna Kareni na:
1. St ory structure: ' Fami l i es' . Thi s is a book about families, and fami l y.
2. Di scourse structure: ' Happy fami l i es are all alike ... in its own way' . Assertion,
a speech act addressed di rect l y by the wri t er to the reader; the reader starts up a
si mul at i on that i nvol ves families, happy and unhappy.
3. Associ at i on structure: Met aphor, met onym, and hyperbol e, select and pr ompt in
an onl y partly consci ous way associations, such as memor i es of an onl y partly
happy f ami l y life, emot i ons such as a ki nd of sadness at not havi ng done mor e to
make my f ami l y happy, pri mi ng patterns to bias the interpretation of the next
pi ece of text.
4. Empi ri cal dat a on meet i ngs bet ween reader and t he t ext
Over the past seven years my research group and I have been col l ect i ng data about
how readers become connect ed to texts. One met hod, in whi ch we can begi n to t race
empi ri cal l y some of the associ at i ve structure, is used in most of our studies. It com-
bi nes a met hod of emot i on diaries that we have devel oped with a met hod devi sed by
Larsen and Sei l man (1988) who had readers mar k the t ext when memor i es were
elicited duri ng reading.
In our studies, each reader reads a short st ory and whi l e doi ng so j ot s in the mar-
gin an E when he or she exper i ences an emot i on, an M when an aut obi ographi cal
memor y comes to mi nd, and a T i f some train of t hought occurs that does not
di rect l y paraphrase the text. We take these Es, Ms, and Ts to be measures of readers'
engagement with the t ext - measures of the personal part of the associ at i ve structure
di scussed in the previ ous section.
Her e is a result f r om our first st udy using these met hods, done in col l aborat i on
wi t h Angel a Bi ason (Oatley, 1996). In this st udy 59 hi gh-school students read one of
t wo short stories about adol escent identity. One by Al i ce Munr o was called ' Red
dress' . It is about a girl who goes to a school dance, feari ng she l ooks dreadful in the
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454 449
dress her mot her has made for her, and feari ng t hat she will be a wal l fl ower. The
other, by Car son McCul l ers, cal l ed ' Sucker ' , is about a boy whose cousi n lives wi t h
hi m like a younger brot her. The prot agoni st , who has l argel y i gnored the younger
boy, starts to t reat hi m bet t er when a girl to whom the pr ot agoni st is at t ract ed starts
ret urni ng his attentions.
We r andoml y assi gned students to read one of the stories, and asked t hem to mar k
Es and Ms in the mar gi n as t hey di d so. Aft er readi ng we asked t hem to gi ve some
details of the emot i ons and memor i es t hey had indicated. All the students had bot h
emot i ons and memor i es duri ng t hei r readi ngs of the story. All, t herefore, connect ed
t hemsel ves to the t ext in a personal way - achi evi ng a meet i ng, not j ust anal yzi ng it.
The number s of emot i ons t hat the students exper i enced are shown in Tabl e 1. I f
we t ake the number of t hese emot i ons as a measur e of i dent i fi cat i on wi t h the pro-
t agoni st , the girls were si gni fi cant l y mor e i nvol ved t han the boys, and were equal l y
abl e to i dent i fy wi t h ei t her a f emal e or a mal e prot agoni st . Thi s rel at es to a wi del y
report ed fi ndi ng that mor e women t han men read fiction, part i cul arl y fi ct i on that
concerns rel at i onshi ps. Nar r at i ve f or ms that engage mor e men are the spect at or
Table 1
Mean numbers of emotions reported by male and female high-school students (numbers of students are
in parentheses) reading a story with a male protagonist ('Sucker') and a female protagonist ('Red dress')
Sucker Red dress Combining both stories
Males 4.88 (n = 17) 2.88 (n = 17) 3.88* (n = 34)
Females 6.77 (n = 13) 6.67 (n = 12) 6.72* (n = 25)
* Main effect of gender in analysis of variance at p < 0.02
In a mor e recent study, Ghol amai n and Oat l ey (in preparat i on) asked subj ect s who
were me mbe r s of readi ng groups, to read anot her st ory by Al i ce Munr o - ' Bar don
bus ' , whi ch is about a mi ddl e- aged woman who recount s the loss of a personal
r omant i c rel at i onshi p. In this study, we col l ect ed Es, Ms, and Ts, t hen cat egor i zed
the most si gni fi cant of the memor i es pr ompt ed by the st ory on a scale of aest het i c
di st ance der i ved f r om Scheff, (1979, di scussed above).
Here is an exampl e of an over di st anced me mor y f r om this st udy:
A di vorce: begi nni ng, mi ddl e, and end.
Now an opt i mal l y di st anced me mor y:
I r e me mbe r one day r ecei vi ng a l et t er f r om a young man whom I had known
bri efl y (and had quite liked). I had not hear d f r om hi m since we gr aduat ed f r om
hi gh school. The letter arri ved at a t i me when I was feel i ng quite al one and
unhappy and unsure of what I want ed to do wi t h my life. I had a f our mont h old
450 K. Oatley ! Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
baby and was living again wi t h my fami l y havi ng been away f r om home f or a
year. In the letter this young man expressed an interest in how and what I was
doi ng and professed a ' f ondness' that he had hel d f or me in school. The t one of
the letter made it quite cl ear that he want ed and hoped to become a part of my life.
I felt over j oyed, my hope renewed. I can r emember to this day the sensation of my
heart swelling and the feel i ng that all woul d turn out well in the end. And yet,
t hese feel i ngs were t emper ed by the real i t y of the changes that had occur r ed in my
life, namel y the addition of a child.
Now here is an underdi st anced memor y:
Painful, l ong drawn-out pain, feel i ng no self-worth, self-loathing, ext r eme loneli-
ness, desperat i on - breakup of a rel at i onshi p/ marri age - bei ng told you wer en' t
good enough, no l onger l oved despi t e what you did.
The overdi st anced memor y mi ght be called purel y intellectual; it is wi t hout emo-
tions or any substantial connect i on to the per son' s life. The underdi st anced memor y
is raw and unanal ysed - all emot i on and no refl ect i on. The opt i mal l y di st anced
memor y integrates t hought and emot i on, and it does so in a meani ngful way that
connect s the r emember ed event to the sel f and current life.
Aft er t hey had fi ni shed reading, we also asked each part i ci pant to gi ve a para-
graph of overal l response to the story. We cat egori zed these responses into t hree
t ypes fol l owi ng a syst em der i ved f r om literary criticism, accordi ng to Bogdan
(1992). A di st anced response was one in whi ch the readers onl y responded in an
over-i nt el l ect ual way maki ng remarks, f or instance, about the style of writing. An
Aut onomous response combi ned emot i onal implications for the readers' own lives
with some critical j udgment , or refl ect i on, on the story. A ki net i c response was one
in whi ch the reader r esponded l argel y emot i onal l y, liking or disliking the story, or
feel i ng what a charact er felt, but wi t hout much j udgment .
Table 2
Observed frequencies for categories of reader-response by category of memory (cells with equivalent
values on the both variables are emphasized)
Type of reader-response
Category of memory
Overdistanced Op t i ma l Underdistanced Totals
Distanced 17 3 2 22
Autonomous 5 14 3 22
Kinetic 0 3 8 11
Tabl e 2 shows a result f r om this study. Ther e was a cl ose association bet ween the
classifications of peopl e' s overal l responses to the st ory and t hei r most meani ngful
aut obi ographi cal memor i es that had been pr ompt ed by t hei r reading. Thi s associa-
K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454 451
tion was significant (Fisher exact test = 31.6, p < 0.0001). The result confirms Hol-
land's (1975) theory that when reading, people recreate in their response to literature
(as indicated in their overall responses) the structure of their own habitual attitudes
to the ordinary world (as indicated in their memories).
In this same study, we found that Main's (1995) three categories of adult attach-
ment, avoidant, secure, and preoccupied with relationships, were also strongly and sig-
nificantly related to the three styles of overall responses that subjects gave to the story.
Here again the implication is that the kind of meeting that one habitually has in adult
life, derived from early attachment patterns, is recreated in one's meetings in literature.
Our suggestion is that to derive insights from a story one should ideally both
experience an emotion and reflect on it thoughtfully. Here the meeting can be pro-
ductive. To be avoidant means that one has habitually distanced oneself from
involvement in personal meetings and tended to avoid emotions. For people who
have this distancing habit in life, and who recreate it in reading literature, perhaps
the ideal story should therefore be emotionally up-close, and underdistanced, so that
they can experience some of the emotions they avoid in ordinary life. To be preoc-
cupied with relationships means one experiences passionate relationships, and corre-
spondingly overwhelming disappointments with people do not live up to expecta-
tions. Since in stories there are typically more events that are intense than in most of
everyday life, this means an increased risk of being overwhelmed when reading. For
such people ideal narratives would perhaps be more distanced, so that the emotions
can be thought about, not just felt.
In addition to the above studies, we have asked people to read excerpts from short
stories by James Joyce (Vorderer et al., 1997; Cupchik, et al., 1998). We found that
descriptively dense (more distanced) excerpts and emotionally intense (less dis-
tanced) excerpts, as well as instructions to the readers to take either a spectator role
or to identify with story characters, resulted in distinctive effects on readers'
involvement, and meaningfulness. Taking a spectator role biased readers towards
emotional memories, whereas identification biased readers towards fresh emotions.
5. Cul t ur a l i mpl i c a t i o ns f or af f i l i at i ve r e l at i ons hi ps i n r e adi ng
Studies of narrative in the postmodem era have been much concerned with rela-
tionships of power and hegemony in writing and reading (e.g. Bal, 1997), and some
such analyses have been illuminating. But they neglect the fact that, starting with the
introduction of printing, new relationships have been made possible for many people
beyond their own worlds - relationships that are affiliative.
Writing is only half an act. The full act is writing and reading. Not only has nar-
rative fiction provided an artistic medium that is unique in its access for people of
many different origins, including women and members of minority groups, but the
process of reading, which is its complement, is one of interpretation.
The metaphors of reader response, and of reception theory, do indeed convey the
idea of a hegemonic relationship between a writer who is powerful and reader who
is passive. But contradicting this, we know from cognitive psychology that interpre-
452 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439--454
tation is active. Int erpret at i on of fi ct i on offers not j ust the possibility of choosi ng
how to read a text, and of creat i vi t y (Barthes, 1975), it also allows a choi ce of what
to read, and it enabl es an affi l i at i ve j oi ni ng of reader and author, or reader and char-
acters. Mor eover , as any t ext becomes a shared cultural obj ect it becomes sur-
r ounded by a penumbr a of interpretations, of so-cal l ed criticism. Her e again, in tex-
tual form, we have not j ust writing, but a plurality of writings-and-interpretations.
One of the exci t i ng devel opment s duri ng the last cent ury, whi ch seems, i f any-
thing to be gai ni ng pace, is t he format i on of readi ng groups - groups of peopl e who
meet ever y f ew weeks to discuss a book t hey have read. Her e t hen is anot her ki nd of
meet i ng, with friends, around a shared cultural obj ect whi ch, duri ng a reading, has
become personal. Long (1986, 1987) f ound that in readi ng groups, al t hough selec-
tion of books was part l y dependent on cultural aut hori t y and commer ci al promot i on,
it was also part l y resistant to such forces. Mor eover , in t hei r discussions of books,
member s of the groups t ypi cal l y of f er ed a wi de range of interpretations of what t hey
had read. They also oft en expl i ci t l y rej ect ed ideas of kinds that are dear to post -mod-
e m analysts. Long f ound that member s oft en descri bed t hei r discussions as ' pl ayf ul ' .
They act i vel y const ruct ed meani ngs t oget her, somet i mes in j oi nt st reams-of-con-
sciousness, based on such issues as character, identifications, and the moral qualities
of the books as t hey rel at ed to the member s' own lives.
In this post - moder n age too, meet i ngs of new kinds are spawned by el ect roni c
media. Not onl y do aut hors canvass fans over the i nt emet about drafts of t hei r next
novel , but peopl e take part in narrat i ve-l i ke games in whi ch t hey meet others inter-
acting in the same game space (Murray, 1997).
The traditional novel still has a pl ace because the ki nd of meet i ng it affords is dif-
ferent bot h f r om the ever yday ki nd and f r om t hose so far occurri ng in cyberspace. It
still i nvol ves the ot hemess of an i ndependent mi nd, of wri t er or story character. In
addition it i nvol ves that special ki nd of meet i ng, whi ch can be i nvol ved but not t oo
i nvol ved, pot ent i al l y t ransformi ng of sel f but not t oo much so. Occasi onal l y, when
st ory structure, di scourse structure, and associ at i ve structure occur in special confi g-
urations, meet i ngs of literature can occur at the fi ght aesthetic distance, so that we
exper i ence i mport ant emot i ons (our own, not those of the characters). On such occa-
sions, as wel l as experi enci ng intimate and specific emot i ons we can t hi nk about
t hem, perhaps even underst and t hem for the first time.
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454 K. Oatley / Poetics 26 (1999) 439-454
Kei t h Oat l ey is professor of Applied Psychology in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Uni-
versity of Toronto. His recent non-fictional publications include Best laid schemes: The psychology of
emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), and Understanding emotions (with Jennifer
M. Jenkins, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996). He is also the author of two novels, The case of Emily V., Lon-
don: London Secker, 1993), which was the winner of the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best
First Novel (translated into French and German); and most recently A natural history Toronto: Penguin
Canada, 1998), which is being translated into French.