How professional readers process unnatural narrators
An empirical perspective
In an experiment, the authors tried to find out how professional readers deal with unnatural narrators (such as a narrating parrot and a speaking coin). The hypotheses and research questions were mostly derived from Jan Alber’s proposed reading strategies and operationalized to be measured with the help of a close-ended questionnaire. Thirty-two students of English from RWTH Aachen University took part in the study and were presented with four text passages that featured two natural and two unnatural first-person narrators. These excerpts represented a gliding scale of defamiliarization or estrangement in the sense of Shklovsky that ranges from (1) a realist backpacking tourist in India to (2) a narrator who suffers from hallucinations (both natural), and from there to (3) a narrating parrot and, finally, (4) a speaking coin (both unnatural).The results indicate that the participants perceived the narratives that featured unnatural narrators as being more estranging than the ones that contained natural narrators, and that unnaturalness was regarded as an indicator of fictionality. Furthermore, it was easier for the participants to emotionally engage with the natural (compared to the unnatural) narrators. The study also shows that blending was used as a strategy to make sense of the unnatural narrators, and that the participants thought that fictional worlds were relevant for their own world experiences – regardless of whether the narrators were unnatural or not. Furthermore, most of the participants were reminded of familiar genres (fantasy stories or fairy tales) when they dealt with the unnatural narrators.
Keywords: unnatural narrators, processing of the impossible, defamiliarization, cognitive approaches to literature, empirical literary studies
Published online: 19 March 2021
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