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How Should We Talk About Reading Experiences? Arguments and Empirical Evidence



Aesthetic illusion is one of many terms available for describing the experience of engaging with fiction. This chapter argues that aesthetic illusion has important qualities lacking in alternative terms – above all, it reminds us that reading experiences are more complex than just ‘immersion’, ‘absorption’, or ‘transportation’. Despite this potential, however, aesthetic illusion is flawed in ways that, taken together, prove fatal: in the core concepts of illusion and the aesthetic; in associated notions like quasi-experience and rational distance; and in questions of its typicality and its relation to phenomena like immersion. After a theoretical critique, the chapter presents empirical evidence, from a survey on fiction-reading and mental health (specifically eating disorders), to help adjudicate between aesthetic illusion and its competitors, and to explore both the therapeutic relevance of aesthetic illusion and the cases where its basic structure (emotional engagement versus rational distance) proves not only conceptually but ethically inadequate.
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... Linking back to research outlined earlier on interpersonal benefits of reading, another recurring theme was the value of the fictional world as a social world: reading is often perceived as a way to create meaningful connections with other people, to encounter new role models, and simply to feel less alone, with the text or its characters serving some of the functions of real-world friendship for some readers. As explored earlier in the context of the transportation hypothesis, the significance of these interactions is not dependent on any kind of wholly transported illusion that the text is other than a text: characters can be understood to be characters in books and nonetheless perform some of the important roles that physically real people do (see more detail on this testimony in ref 91). And harking back to our questions about identification, reading can also induce profound feelings of loss of self, with the habitual embodied self ceding to a feeling of identity with the book or the fictional world. ...
Compared with self-help bibliotherapy, little is known about the efficacy of creative bibliotherapy or the mechanisms of its possible efficacy for eating disorders or any other mental health condition. It is clear, however, that fiction is widely used informally as a therapeutic or antitherapeutic tool and that it has considerable potential in both directions, with a possibly significant distinction between the effects of reading fiction about eating disorders (which may—contrary to theoretical predictions—be broadly negative in effect) or one’s preferred genre of other fiction (which may be broadly positive). Research on creative bibliotherapy, especially systematic experimental research, is lacking and requires a medical humanities approach, drawing on knowledge and methods from psychology and cognitive literary studies as well as clinical disciplines to expand our understanding of how the dynamic processes of interpretation mediate between textual structures and characteristics of mental health and illness.