Although personal relevance is key to sustaining an audience’s interest in any given narrative, it has received little systematic attention in scholarship to date. Across centuries and media, adaptations have been used extensively to bring temporally or geographically distant narratives “closer” to the recipient under the assumption that their impact will increase. In this article, we review experimental and other empirical evidence on narrative processing in order to unravel which types of personal relevance are more likely to be impactful than others, which types of impact (e.g., aesthetic, therapeutic, persuasive) they have been found to generate, and where their power becomes excessive or outright detrimental to reader experience. Together, the evidence suggests that narratives are read through the lens of the reader’s self-schema independently of genre, although certain groups of readers, especially in certain situations, may experience personal relevance and related effects more strongly than others. The literature further suggests that large-scale similarities between reader and character (e.g., gender) may not per se be enough for relevance effects to arise and that emotional valence has a role to play in the process alongside thematic saliency.
Personal Relevance in Story Reading: A Research Review
Anežka Kuzmičová is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University, and an adjunct researcher at the Institute of Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences. Working in the area of reading research, she has authored numerous theoretical and empirical studies on literary reading and leisure reading practices, in journals such as Communication Theory, Convergence, Language and Literature, Semiotica, Style and others. In 2014 – 19, she served as working group leader in COST Action IS1404 E-READ (Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation). Her doctoral monograph, Mental Imagery in the Experience of Literary Narrative: Views from Embodied Cognition (2013), is freely available online.
Katalin Bálint is assistant professor in media psychology in the Department of Communication Sciences, VU University Amsterdam. She researches the experience of cinematic and literary narratives and the effect of noncontent formal features on viewers’ social cognition responses. Her papers have been published in Frontiers, Projections: The Journal of Movies and Mind, Journal of Media Psychology, and Scientific Study of Literature. She has coedited several journals and handbooks, including Narrative Absorption (2017).
Anežka Kuzmičová, Katalin Bálint; Personal Relevance in Story Reading: A Research Review. Poetics Today 1 September 2019; 40 (3): 429–451. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7558066
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