A Science of Literature?

I’ve been reading the first issue of the new journal, The Scientific Study of Literature. Is a science of literature possible?

Occasionally we read about a study that claims to be a scientific investigation of literature. For instance there are increasing accounts of the evolutionary origins of stories and story telling, others on what is happening to various areas of the brain as we read a book, and still others that describe computerized research on a large body of textual materials, say an author’s work or a particular historical period.

However, the first issue of the new journal departs from these approaches in emphasizing the experience of reader and the interaction of the reader with the text, rather than the interpretation of texts, the method that currently tends to dominate literary scholarship.

Research on literary processing is carried out in the laboratory with a group of individuals as they read specially designed reading materials. Only rarely are published sections of works of fiction or non-fiction examined, either in the lab or under natural (non-laboratory) conditions.

In discussing the current state of the field Dixon and Bortolussi distinguish between cognitive processing and that focused on emotion and affective reactions. “Personal resonance” is a term that investigators in this area use to contrast a literary text from an expository one. In a representative study it was reported that while both types of text prompted an equal number of recollections, those elicited by a literary text were more personal, evoking scenes in which the reader was involved.

Surely that is one of the reasons for the great appeal of reading works of literature and why individuals become so absorbed in the experience. It reminds us of a similar experience or elicits an association with some personal meaning, sometimes having nothing to do with what is meant in the text.

In his article, “The Individual in the Scientific Study of Literature,” Raymond Gibbs writes: “Yet I am continually struck by an overwhelming sense that reading is so deeply personal, and the content and workings of my mind so individual, that it would be near impossible to describe my literary experiences in any way as something shared with others.”

And then, he poses the central question for this field: How is it possible to use a reader’s unique response to literature as the basis for general scientific principles?

In any study of a group of individuals, a large percentage will vary from the general statistical trend. Gibbs reminds us of the countless ways these individuals differ: gender, age, occupation, education, social status, language, culture, geographic origin, religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, personality, physiological differences, etc. Can a general theory of literary responding be derived when confronted with these differences and the complex ways they interact with one other?

My own view, one expressed occasionally in previous posts, is that other than recognizing this fact, such generalizations are impossible. And that is why I find the entire field rather anomalous and more closely allied with case studies, clinical research, and single subject designs.

Long ago Virginia Woolf said all this much better in her essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” “In the first place, I want to emphasize the not of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions…. After all what laws can be laid down about books?”