I continue to be intrigued by the reasons individuals are drawn to literature, why literature seems to mean so much to dedicated readers. Of course, the question emerges from my own experience of feeling literary fiction plumbed human behavior more deeply than the research I was doing or teaching in psychology. I thought fiction captured those experiences of ordinary life that simply couldn’t be measured by psychological tools.
I am sure one of the reasons why individuals are so powerfully affected by literature is the feeling of “personal resonance” that occurs when reading a work of fiction. The sense of resonance occurs when a reader is reminded of an experience (s) from their past.
This is the theory of Uffe Seilman and Steen Larsen derived from their research on “remindings,” as they put it or some association between the text and an event in their life.
The link can occur because the reader was either a participant or an observer of a similar experience. Another way to express this is in terms of verisimilitude. This suggests that some readers are not necessarily concerned with the story’s truth or writing excellence or even the richness of its narrative, but rather with the degree to which it resembles some experience they have had. For these readers, if the story doesn’t ring true to anything they have encountered before, it isn’t likely they will enjoy it.
This view is similar to one expressed by the philosopher Susan K. Langer who suggested that: “The poets business is to create the appearance of experience, the semblance of events lived and felt, and to organize them so they constitute a purely and completely experienced reality, a piece of virtual life.”
A literary reminding, if you will, is never the same for readers of the same text. This is because the experience of each individual is never the same as any other. The recognitions that we find in literature, then, are unique for each reader. In addition, as Seilmann and Larsen acknowledge “…different readers--even with similar background and similar present circumstances—may react very differently to a give work…”
We also test a literary truth against our own experience. So in a way reading literary fiction is not that much different than doing science. Science tests its propositions against generalized (aggregate) human experience. Literature tests its truths against each individual reader’s experience.
Again, Susan K. Langer put it well: “The criterion of good art is its power to command one’s contemplation and reveal a feeling that one recognizes as real with the same click of recognition with which an artist knows that a form is true.”
It is the click of recognition, the remindings and the sense of personal resonance that drew me to literature. And I’m sure it is the same for many other readers too. As one of the participants in Changing Life Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program put it: “I started to see myself in him [ship captain in Jack London's Sea Wolf] and I didn't like what I saw."
(The Seilman and Larsen study (including their experimental test) Personal Resonance to Literature: A Study of Remindings while Reading appears in Poetics, 1989, Volume 18, pp 165-177.)