Academic journal article Style

Stylistics Meets Cognitive Science: Studying Style in Fiction and Readers' Attention from an Interdisciplinary Perspective

Academic journal article Style

Stylistics Meets Cognitive Science: Studying Style in Fiction and Readers' Attention from an Interdisciplinary Perspective

Article excerpt


Readers' attention to text has been studied for a number of years in both the Humanities and Cognitive Science. Within the Humanities, attention is discussed in stylistics using the notion of foregrounding (Mukarovsky), with the emphasis being on textual devices and, in consequence, the effect on readers often being taken for granted. Some stylisticians, such as Leech and Short, have nevertheless emphasised the fact that the "psychological prominence" of textual features is an important precursor to literary interpretation in models of foregrounding, and researchers in the area known as the "Empirical Study of Literature" have studied the impact of foregrounding devices on readers experimentally (e.g. van Peer; Hakemulder). Within Cognitive Science, psychologists in the field of "depth of processing" research have looked empirically at the amount of detail that readers notice when reading (e.g. Sanford and Sturt). This work shows how readers can be made more or less attentive depending on the type of linguistic structure information appears in, but this work has focused on a limited range of stylistic devices and has not drawn on observations about how stylistic features operate in texts to highlight key aspects of stories such as plot and theme.

This article aims to bring together these research traditions from different disciplines. We combine stylistic analysis of items which we intuitively feel to be attention-capturing devices in narrative texts with psychological testing to determine whether the selected stylistic features do indeed capture the attention of readers, in the sense of making them notice more. The theory of foregrounding has provided a productive framework for empirical work on attention within the Humanities, but this type of work nevertheless often relies heavily on readers' subjective reports of their beliefs about the extent to which particular stylistic devices have an impact on them (see Section 1). We show how empirical work within psychology offers testing methods that are less dependent on subjective reports, summarising a body of previous work in depth of processing research termed anomaly testing (see Section 2) and explaining a new experimental technique, the text change detection method, developed by Sanford and colleagues (Sturt et al.) (see Section 3), both designed to test the amount of detail that readers notice as they read specific passages.

We summarise a broad range of experiments conducted using the text change detection method, studying syntactic, semantic, and graphological features including clefting, sentence and paragraph length and punctuation, vocabulary choice, and use of italics (see Section 3). In addition to these stylistic devices, we also use the technique to examine narratological indicators of potential key events in narratives, such as pre-announcements (e.g. "Then this happened"), explicit signals of importance and surprise, and signals of the emotional impact of events on characters (see Section 3). We then examine the results (see Section 3 (iv) and Appendix 1) and offer some observations on the possibilities and limitations of this type of psychological empirical work for studying foregrounding in narrative texts (see Section 4).

1. Stylistics background: Style in fiction and the study of foregrounding

The research described in Section 3 has been jointly conducted by a stylistician and a group of experimental psychologists. The significance of the study for these different disciplines is different, in terms of its relation to the existing body of research in each field and the potential for providing fresh insights into the nature of reading in each area. In this section and the following sections, we provide the context in stylistics and psychology respectively for the empirical work that we conducted.

Within stylistics, the original motivation for the work was to examine how stylistic features in fiction can apparently be used to highlight key plot and thematic moments (Emmott, "Reading for Pleasure" and "Responding to Style"), guiding the interpretation of readers at these points. …

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