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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.
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Background Narratives (including memoirs and novels) about eating disorders (EDs) are typically published with the intention to benefit readers, but survey evidence suggests that reading such narratives with an active ED may more often be harmful than helpful. To reduce the probability of inadvertent harm and learn more about how narrative reading and EDs interact, a pre-publication study was designed to determine whether or not a recovery memoir should be published. Methods 64 participants with a self-reported ED read either the experimental text (The Hungry Anorexic [HA]) or a control text (Ten Zen Questions [TZ]) over a roughly two-week period. All participants completed the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q) and the Anorexia Nervosa Stages of Change Questionnaire (ANSOCQ) one week before and two weeks after reading, and answered three recurring open-ended questions at six timepoints during/after the reading. Computational analysis of the free-text responses assessed text/response similarity and response characteristics on emotional, sensory, and action-effector dimensions. Both rating-scale and free-text data were analysed using mixed ANOVAs to test for effects of time and condition, and the university ethics board was notified in advance of the quantitative threshold for harmful effects that would prohibit the ED memoir from being published. Results On the two quantitative measures, there was an effect of time but not of condition: Significant improvement was found in both groups on the EDE-Q (with a medium-to-large effect size) and the ANSOCQ (with a very large effect size). In an ANCOVA analysis, no significant mediating effects were found for age, education, duration of professional support for the ED, or pre/post-reading BMI change. For the free-text responses, linguistic similarity measures indicated that HA responses most closely matched the text of HA, with the same being true for TZ. In a word-norm analysis, text condition significantly affected six emotional, sensory, and action-effector variables (interoception, olfaction, gustatory, mouth, torso, and hand/arm), mean scores for all of which were higher in HA responses than TZ responses. Close reading identified five major themes in readers’ responses. Conclusions The ED memoir was found not to yield measurably harmful effects for readers with an ED, and will therefore be published. The finding that significant improvement on both quantitative measures was observed irrespective of text condition suggests that positive effects may be attributable to linguistic characteristics shared by the two texts and/or to elements of the reading and or reflective processes scaffolded by both. The quantitative results and the free-text testimony have implications for our understanding of bibliotherapy, “triggering”, and the practicalities of responsible publishing.