Powerful Literary Fiction Texts

Online Conference 2020

Report PLit 2

Just like the previous PLit conference, the event sought to promote the exploration of powerful literary fiction texts through an approach that combines reading aloud, close reading and a study of the text’s potential effects on readers, in other words, the reading experience the literary extract provides. Attendees brought short passages of their choice to read out loud to the audience before explaining why and how they may impact readers.


Mariane Utudji and Victoria Pöhls opened the conference and reminded the audience of its main purposes. They pointed out that while reading fiction, we’ve all come across passages that are so powerful and enjoyable that we feel like reading them again and again, aloud, as though they were poems or songs, because for some reason, they deeply move us, and that when read out loud, such passages turn into living material and captivate listeners, as though they were meant to be performed. They maintained that this performance-based approach is even part of the stylistic analysis of a literary excerpt, being an effective way to highlight the linguistic components and workings of the text.

The organisers specified that the idea of the conference originated from their wish to put potentially powerful texts are at the centre of attention, so that the members of the audience could properly ‘taste’ and experience them, as both had noticed that despite the fact that literary works are the main subject of literature conferences, they are paradoxically too often neglected and very rarely performed, whereas such pieces of text should be the concrete starting point of any commentary. 

In conclusion they asserted that as texts can’t be powerful in themselves, they must be read out loud, our human voice being a potential vehicle of energy and emotion and the best means at our disposal to release the full power such literary passages are endowed with.

The performance and the thus full experience of each literary passage allows for a stylistic analysis putting forth clear hypotheses to the question: which textual features elicit which effects in readers? While at this point partly limited to the researchers’ own perspective, these postulates could then be used as an informed starting point to research empirically if these effects hold true for ‘common  readers’, or under which circumstances this is the case, taking extra-textual features like reader and situation variables into account. The organisers closed by stressing that thus bringing together empirically and non-empirically working scholars is key to fully understand the potentially ’powerfulness’ of literary fiction texts. 

The first keynote presentation was delivered by Raymond A. Mar (York University, Toronto, Canada). It explored whether surface-level  textual  features could be tied to what makes characters and stories appealing to us, trying to find generalizable patterns in such an individual activity as reading. He chose Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending to illustrate that characters  described with  abstract, negative,  and arousing  words tended to be rated as more interesting  and complex.  In contrast,  characters described with words associated with positivity and calmness tended to be more likeable.  The empirical results highlight the importance of affect  words and abstractness with regard to reader impressions of characters. 


In Search of the Hidden

Talks in this panel dealt with what might not be clearly seen or understood straight away, “the hidden” meanings of texts, the parts where readers have to make assumptions and engage their imagination.

The first talk by Lily Alexander focused on the gaps in The Brothers Karamazov, which might generate interest and suspense in its readers, who were not only made to search for the murderer, but are more generally invited to figure out the protagonists’ motives. 

Marie Jadot presented Rebekka Makkai’s Exposition, a text where readers have to fill even more conspicuous gaps, originating from fictionalized censorship and self-censorship. In doing so, she argued, they can discover what was supposed to be hidden, leading to a subversion of censorship and a powerful impression not possible through an explicit treatment of the subject. 

Then Amir Harash discussed his eye-tracking research on Borges’ text Emma Zunz. His findings indicate that in this text, the hidden meaning, the opaque, might be what most catches readers’ eyes, and that these more obscure passages are the ones that are evaluated as beautiful or interesting. 

While a reader might struggle to understand the philosophical remarks in Borges’ text, Beatrice Fuga showed that the baroque writing style in The Adventures of Master F. J. by George Gascoigne, renders it nearly impossible for readers to decipher a meaning and thus requires a specific reader and reading situation to be appreciated at all: Someone who could admire the overabundance of rhethorical features without asking to ‘understand’ or a more scholarly reader with time and abilities to devote to the subject 

From Image to Imagery

The next three talks dealt with the author’s various ways of resorting to and producing images and imagery. 

Alice Labourg’s paper focused on Ann Radcliffe’s pictorial writing  (or “pictorial Gothic”) in The Mysteries of Udolpho, which turns the description of a castle into an animated painting. 

José Antonio Jodar Sanchez then analysed Luis Goytisolo’s resort to spatio-sexual metaphors and discourse metaphors in his highly acclaimed novel, Antagonia

Kimberley Pager also investigated metaphors, along other kinds of imagery techniques, in a passage from Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American dreamer, so as to demonstrate how such features may serve to convey the protagonist’s feelings and thoughts.


Tone, Sound & Discourse

The first two papers looked into texts that provide varied sound effects impacting on the reading experience. 

Mirjam Haas’s empirical study looked into the tone and prosody suggested by the now-famous dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf at the beginning of Tolkien’s The Hobbit

Then Silvina Katz’s paper started from the sounds within a short story by Silvina Ocampo (prosody, rhythm) to show how they elicit the sensorial fictional world that is depicted, especially when the text is read aloud.

Narrating Closeness, Narrating Distance

This section’s talks zoomed in on stylistic devices and textual mechanisms which guide the distance or involvement felt by readers.

The second keynote presentation, delivered by Sandrine Sorlin (University Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3, France), analysed the traumatic ending of Jim Grimsley’s Winter Birds (1992) and adopted a pragma-stylistic perspective to disclose how the author’s use of the second-person pronoun potentially invites readers to performatively embody the narrative. 

Ailise Bulfin very similarly asked: How can texts make you feel close to a protagonist when narrating traumatic experiences of child abuse, but still distant enough so you are able to continue reading despite the disturbing and possibly/hopefully distant subject matter? The discussed novel, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, underscored that very distinct and different answers of how to successfully keep a balance between distance and closeness are possible in literary fiction texts.

Pia Masiero spoke about a very different kind of distance that can be bridged by a literary text: Richard Power’s The Overstory strives to give voice to the other-than-human, aiming to make the reader embody the experience of a tree. 

Again a different kind of distance and closeness was at the heart of Norman Manea’s short story that Brindusa Nicolaescu presented: How can somebody else’s memory of a departed loved one be described in a way that elicits feelings of closeness in a reader while still preserving the character’s subjectivity?

Yael Balaban focuses on sensory representations in Shulamiths Hareven’s City of Many Days as a means to evoke emotions and argued, supported by research in cognitive science, that the text is thus able to convey (embodied) closeness. 

We would like to thank…

… The Scientific Advisory Board, composed of seventeen researchers in the fields of linguistics, stylistics and literature from France, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Poland;

… Sarah Brendecke (Max-Planck-Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Graphics) for the design of the conference Booklet;

… and all participants for great presentations and lively discussions (including the intro and outro breakout sessions that were designed to favour socialization, in an attempt to compensate for the usual face-to-face coffee-breaks)!

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