The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story

By Barbara Lounsberry; Susan Lohafer et al. | Go to book overview

15
Interdisciplinary Thoughts on Cognitive Science and Short Fiction Studies

Susan Lohafer

When we read a short story, what cognitive strategies come into play? Do we "process" short stones differently from other literary texts? Do we know what "storyness" is--how we recognize it, how it mediates the meaning of a given text, how it functions in a cultural context?

In the past, questions like these have been asked separately and differently by psychologists on the one hand (often working with simple folk tales or texts written by the investigator) and by literary scholars on the other (usually working with canonical, "high culture" texts). There has been little interaction between the scientists and the humanists, partly for practical reasons, but partly because each group felt the other would not understand or value its materials, methods, language, or goals.

Nevertheless, anyone looking at the larger paradigms of academic study knows that "text" is a word that turns up everywhere. "Narrative," as a fundamental human activity, is studied by almost everyone interested in the behavior of the brain. There is, for example, Theodore Sarbin influential volume called Narrative Psychology. The Storied Nature of Human Conduct, with an introductory essay called "The Narrative as a Root Metaphor for Psychology" ( 1986).

Coming from the other direction, there is Norman Holland, the name most literary people associate with a "cognitive approach." Like I. A. Richards and Stanley Fish, Holland introduced a degree of empiricism into his work by experimenting with real readers. Unlike the psychologists who study text processing, he was interested in the cognitive "style" or "personality" of his subjects, and how this "identity" controlled their responses as readers ( Holland 1975). More recently, literary scholars who have worked with frame theory ( Reid 1989) and discourse analysis ( Lohafer 1989, 1993, 1996) have begun modifying the empirical methods of science in other ways, developing new "experiments" in reader-response.

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