When readers talk about characters as if they were real, how do they talk about them? Empathy and gossip in reading group discourse

Laffer, Alexander. 2020. When readers talk about characters as if they were real, how do they talk about them? Empathy and gossip in reading group discourse. Poetics, pp. 1-17. ISSN 0304-422X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

It is often claimed that readers talk about fictional characters as if they were real. This article examines how this is done through the analysis of five reading groups talking about The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, leading to a new framework for understanding and analysing this phenomenon in book talk.

Reading group discourse was selected as it provided situated and contextualised responses to the book, allowing for the empirical examination of reading-in-talk (Meyers 2009) from naturally occurring reading events.

The analysis follows a discourse dynamic approach (Cameron, 2010), which views interaction as ongoing processes within a dynamic system (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008), influenced by socio-cultural and personal variables and subject to shifts and stabilisations in the flow of conversation.

Empathy was identified as underpinning assumptions of how readers talk about characters. This was supported by the reading group data, where it was found that readers performed both automatic and deliberate empathy. To better understand how readers talked about characters as if they were real, deliberate empathy was further refined into attribution (Palmer 2004) and positioning (Harré, 2012) and additional processes (stereotyping, extension, mediation and synechdocal interpretation) were identified. Using these processes, readers were found to gossip about characters, evaluating their behaviour by drawing on a range of social knowledge, personal experience, textual detail and extensions of the text. The evaluations led to understanding of characters that ranged from complex individuality to stereotypes. However, even when stereotyping, by drawing on real world social knowledge and norms, these evaluations underpin how readers talk about fictional characters as if they were real.

In addition, evidence of self-reflection alongside consideration of real-world social groups emerging from discussion of characters as if they were real supports existing scholarship that identifies reading groups as sites of intellectual and social development.

Item Type:

Article

Identification Number (DOI):

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2020.101503

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature

Dates:

DateEvent
13 June 2019Submitted
21 October 2020Accepted
25 November 2020Published Online

Item ID:

27470

Date Deposited:

06 Nov 2019 15:38

Last Modified:

10 Jun 2021 09:00

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.

URI:

https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/27470

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