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1. La séduction du discours, On Seductive Discourse

Literary seduction: Minds, bodies and non-textual phenomena

Michael BURKE


Les discussions portant sur le degré de « persuasion » d’un texte littéraire, sur ce qui séduit les lecteurs et leur donne envie de continuer à lire, tournent autour d’une combinaison de choses : (a) le contenu/le thème, (b) l’ordre dans lequel les événements de l’histoire sont présentés et de quelle manière (la structure narrative et la question du point de vue), et (c) comment l’histoire est écrite (la question du style et de la rhétorique). Mais ces facteurs ne peuvent à eux-seuls donner envie aux lecteurs de poursuivre leur lecture s’ils n’entrent pas en résonance avec un certain nombre de phénomènes corporels et cognitifs non-textuels. À l’évidence, il doit y avoir une couche axiale (textuelle) interne et une couche externe supplémentaire (non textuelle) de la séduction à laquelle on prête peu d’attention et qui fonctionne lorsqu’on est engagé dans l’acte de lecture d’une œuvre littéraire, les deux couches devant être optimales pour que la séduction du lecteur opère et perdure. Dans cet article, me fondant essentiellement sur ma théorie des données affectives (affective inputs) qui proviennent du texte littéraire et sur mon cadre théorique basée sur l’idée d’un processus de lecture cognitif « océanique » (Burke 2011), j’exposerais certains de ces phénomènes extérieurs non textuels comme (i) l’état d’esprit, (ii) le medium ou (iii) le lieu, démontrant que pour appréhender la raison pour laquelle les lecteurs continuent à lire un roman, on doit prendre en compte l’ensemble des dimensions de la séduction. A l’heure du numérique et de son impact cognitif sur l’expérience sensori-motrice, nous ne pouvons plus seulement nous focaliser sur les traits textuels au cœur de la compréhension narrative au détriment de phénomènes non-textuels plus extérieurs.

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1. Introduction1

  • 1 A lecture that was based on this article was delivered on February 16, 2016 at the “On Seductive Di (...)

1What seduces a reader of literature to continue reading once they have started? Is it just the text, as we stylisticians are wont to imagine, or might there be something else at work – something decidedly non-textual? This is the central question that will be explored in this paper. A logical further question is why should literary linguists be interested in non-textual phenomena that seemingly have no link to linguistic style? A provisional answer to this is that when we do micro-level work, as we often do in stylistics in our grammatical and pragmatic analysis of text, it is beneficial to be aware of − and make reference to − macro-level issues that will ultimately affect what goes on at the micro-level. Tunnel vision is rarely a good thing in any field and employing strict boundaries between inner and outer, core and periphery, axial and auxiliary is an outmoded attitude that is destined to both misrepresent and to disappoint. In the embodied age of cognition, the study of language is about much more than just studying language. This becomes all the more urgent when stylisticians conduct reader-response studies and cognitive stylistic/poetic analysis. In these two areas in particular there is a need to look beyond the language of the text − and also the immediate linguistic co-text and context − to consider the mind, the body and immediate physical environment. The reasons as to why this is the case will be developed in the course of this paper.

2. The textual sources of literary seduction

  • 2 The term “themes” is used here and throughout the paper. It might have been substituted for the ter (...)

2Let us start with the text: the most central piece of evidence that the stylistician has to work with. In the realm of literary textual seduction there are broadly three matters to be considered: what is written, how it is written and how that which is written is presented and ordered/filtered. The first of these, “what is written”, refers to the literary themes and topics that are in a specific novel or short story, for example, is it a love story, a thriller, a whodunit, an adventure story, etc.2 Such genre matters can also be extended to a favoured author, period or movement. This category can be regarded as the “what” of textual literary seduction. It draws for a large part on nonconscious biases and preferences that are grounded in favoured past reading experiences. The second category, “how it is written”, is specifically concerned with micro-level linguistics matters – with the style and the rhetoric of the text. A central goal here is to discover how the words and sentences are structured and ordered. For example, might foregrounding be at work at a syntactic, semantic, lexical, morphological or phonetic level? Is there something going on pragmatically regarding the communication, for example, does it deviate from a norm by flouting some communication rule, as can be tested against the theories of speech acts, conversation analysis, conversational implicature, relevance theory, etc. The second category can be regarded as the “how” of literary seduction. As was the case with the “themes” category, it also draws for a large part on nonconscious biases and preferences that are grounded in favoured past reading experiences. At the core here, and as I have argued previously, is the notion of “literary style motifs”, namely, favoured remembered fragments of text – often rhetorical style figures or metrical patterns and units – that have been stored and can be triggered non-consciously either in anticipation of or during an engaged literary reading event (see Burke 2013). The third category concerns two related issues, (a) how language and themes are filtered to the reader, and (b) in which order the otherwise chronological events are presented to the reader. The first of these, the filtering, is a matter of point of view, mind style and modality. In essence, it is a matter of narrative … not just a case of “who says” but also of “what is said”; not just a matter of “who sees”, but also of “how does he/she see”? The second issue in this category is about the potential for narrative disjointedness. Does the story flow from beginning to end with all the elements in their (from a typical perspective) “appropriate” places: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution or have the elements and sections been transposed, rearranged or omitted – intentionally or otherwise? Like the second category above, this one can also be regarded as a “how” of literary seduction. For the sake of clarity, let us call this one “How-2” and the previous one “How-1”. As was the case with the first and second categories, ‘How-2’ also draws for a large part on nonconscious biases and preferences that are grounded in favoured filterings and favoured orderings of past reading experiences.

3We can look to the structure of classical rhetoric, and especially to the five Ciceronian canons, to understand where these three categories fit within the larger scheme of persuasive and seductive discourse. In the world of classical rhetoric, the so-called “five canons”, developed and introduced by Cicero some two thousand years ago, play an important structuring role. This heuristic is as logical and as lucid as is humanly possible. This is also a reason why it has remained intact and unchanged for so long. First, one “collects” or “generates” or “discovers” all kinds of textual materials using both ready-made and also self-made questioning prompts and proofs. This is the first canon of rhetoric and is often referred to as the “invention” stage (inventio in Latin). This is the raw material, similar to that which might come out of a modern-day brainstorming or mind-mapping session, from which those materials that are needed will be selected for later use. Once selected, these materials (episodes, examples, citations and arguments) have to be ordered in the text. This is the second canon known as “arrangement” (dispositio in Latin). If the second canon is about ordering at a macro level (i.e. the text as a whole), then the third canon (elocutio) is about ordering, and especially “stylizing”, at a micro level. This is primarily at the levels of the sentence, clause, phrase and word. The fourth canon of rhetoric deals with the memorization of a text for effective persuasive delivery (memoria) and the fifth canon concerns the delivery itself (pronunciatio), namely, oral features like strength of voice, modulation of voice, inflection of voice, volume and pausing and also paralinguistic features such as facial expressions, gestures, stance and movement. If we now reflect on the two “How” categories mentioned earlier, we can see that “How-2” is largely a matter of the second canon, “arrangement”. It is concerned with “how” at a textual level; a level that runs vertically throughout the story. The “How-1” category is mainly located in the third canon, “stylization”. It operates primarily at the sentence level, running horizontally. In a way, together they operate on a kind of paradigmatic and syntagmatic axis as can be seen below in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: The two textual dimensions of ‘How’

Fig. 1:   The two textual dimensions of ‘How’

4These then are the three main textual phenomena, synopsised as (i) literary themes, (ii) literary narrative, and (iii) literary style, that can seduce readers into continuing to read. These constitute the inner, textual, axial layer of literary seduction. But is it really the case that these textual factors alone can seduce a reader into engaging in extended acts of literary reading? Might there also be an outer, non-textual, auxiliary layer of literary seduction at work? Moreover, if there is an auxiliary as well as an axial layer of literary seduction, might they be required to be “optimal” in their relation to each other at a given moment if a reader is to be successfully seduced into continued acts of literary reading? This is what will be explored in the course of this paper. Before doing so, however, it is useful to refresh some of the core principles of the oceanic literary reading mind, which will help structure these auxiliary, non-textual phenomena.

3. The oceanic, literary reading mind

  • 3 Towards the end of this monographic work, it was postulated that in hindsight there is probably a s (...)

5In a study on the cognitive and emotive factors that play a role in engaged acts of literary reading, it has been proposed that there are at least five “affective” inputs (Burke 2011).3 These can be initially separated into (i) sign-fed ones (such as the themes in a text and the style of a text) and (ii) mind-fed ones (such as location, literary reading induced mental imagery (LRI) and pre-reading mood). Although these are principally initially either bottom-up (sign-fed) or top-down (mind-fed), they act on a fluvial continuum during engaged acts of literary reading. This can be seen in their representation in the Venn diagram below, where the five categories overlap. The category of “mood” is placed at the top of the diagram, as in several ways it can be seen as the governing category.

  • 4 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 155.

Fig. 2 The five sign-fed and mind-fed affective inputs4

Fig. 2  The five sign-fed and mind-fed affective inputs4

6A further important model in the theory of the oceanic literary reading mind is the notion of the literary reading loop (Burke 2011). Literary reading, like all communicative linguistic acts, is a fluvial process. It is not a series of discrete units in a finite event with a definitive beginning and end, but rather a perpetual, cyclical procedure. One can even argue we are still engaging in acts of reading (via stories) when we are dreaming.

  • 5 Disportation is an embodied affective-cognitive event. It has a detailed conscious/non-conscious in (...)

7In the “non-reading state”, the period when actual physical reading events are distal in time, a reader’s mind is on what might be termed a low swell. This is a state of greatly reduced reading activity. Once a new reading event approaches, the “pre-reading phase” starts and textual and non-textual elements in the mind, in anticipation, start to undulate. This might plausibly see them moving in and out of working memory, occupying the buffer zones and then receding into longer-term holding areas until the actual text processing is in full flow. This is a mode of non-conscious cognition. Next follows the “reading” or “text processing stage”. This is the actual reading event: eyes on the page, saccades and fixations. During this text processing phase, there will be many boosts and falls in tension, plausibly depending on such matters as (i) the themes of the story, (ii) the potential for readers to reasonably identify and empathize with protagonists, (iii) the perspective of the telling, (iv) the ordering of the events, and (v) the stylizing of the language employed. During the actual reading event, the ebb and flow of textual, cognitive and somatic elements can take on a more rhythmic pattern, somewhat like the physical subconscious act of breathing. The tempo, however, changes when approaching the end of the story, as the intensity of the reading increases. This can involve either “speedings up” to rush to the end of the story for climactic gratification or “slowings down” to savour the ordering – and in some cases even the disordering – of text and the events portrayed in that text. This is a different mode of gratification resulting in a warm afterglow effect. Of course, a climactic reading can also be a combination of both rapid and measured text processing. The fourth part of the literary reading loop is the “post-reading phase” which is in some ways similar to the pre-reading phase. The difference is that tension is generally not increasing but decreasing, unless of course “disportation” is taking place – or has just taken place – which should lead to a robust, near-conscious, transitory, post-reading, emotive “boost” (see Burke 2011).5 This, in time, settles back into the low swell of reduced activity that is characteristic of the initial “non-reading phase”. These four interwoven, fluvial phases constitute the “literary reading loop” (see Figure 3).

  • 6 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 153.

Fig. 3 The four fluvial stages of the ‘literary reading loop’6

Fig. 3  The four fluvial stages of the ‘literary reading loop’6

8A third significant model in the theory of the oceanic literary reading mind is the notion of the “oceanic processing nature of the literary reading mind” which considers the roles of both emotion and memory (Burke 2011). Specially, it considers two existent and widely accepted approaches to emotion. These are the so-called “appraisal account”, where cognition is paramount over emotion (see, for example, Lazarus and Lazarus 1994) and the “primacy of emotion” account where it is the other way around (see, for example, Zajonc 1980; 1984). Discussions on this have raged since the advent of psychology back in the late nineteenth century when William James posed the question “do we cry because we are unhappy or are we unhappy because we are crying”? Joseph Ledoux also tackles this question in his work The Emotional Brain (1998). In this work he postulates that there are two neural routes to emotion: a higher cortical one also known as the “high road” to emotion (one that appraisal theorists would agree to) and a lower cortical route, known as the “low road” to emotion (which “emotion-first” proponents would identify with) which initially bypasses higher cortical regions to engage directly with the emotive areas, such as the amygdala in the sub-cortical region of the brain. In addition to this accepted emotion dimension, the model also adopts a mainstream approach to memory. This includes the notion of “explicit memory” and its subdivision of “semantic” and “episodic” memory and also “implicit memory” with its subdivision of “priming” and “procedural” memory. From these, slightly modified categories were produced. On the emotion side these are (a) “cognitive emotion”, which is essentially an appraisal theory, and (b) “affective cognition”, which is more akin to LeDoux’s “low road” to emotion. On the memory side, existing terms of explicit and implicit memory were retained as these needed no modification. As can be seen in Figure 4, in the model, affective cognition overlaps more with cognitive emotion and implicit memory than it does with explicit memory. Likewise, cognitive emotion has stronger links to affective cognition and explicit memory than it has to implicit memory. Similarly, implicit memory has a larger overlap with affective cognition and explicit memory than it does with cognitive emotion, while explicit memory shares more features with implicit memory and cognitive emotion. The important thing, however, is that they are all linked in some greater or lesser way: cognitive emotion has a modest overlap with implicit memory, and explicit memory with affective cognition. In this model the main mind-based components that make up oceanic cognition become apparent.

  • 7 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 159.

Fig. 4 The oceanic processing nature - literary reading mind7

Fig. 4  The oceanic processing nature - literary reading mind7

9If we now consider these three models together we can see that they do not exist in isolation but are intrinsically linked. The oceanic literary mind is not a product but a process. A key concept that can be said to play an important role in all three, thus uniting them even further, is “mood”.

Fig. 5 The oceanic literary reading mind as a process

Fig. 5  The oceanic literary reading mind as a process

10Let us now return to a key question in this paper: can a literary text seduce a reader by inner layer, axial, textual phenomena alone? Before starting to formulate an answer to this, consider the text below. It is from an essay called “Reading, that most dangerous game” written by the American novelist and literary critic, Harold Brodkey.

The act of reading as it really occurs is obscure; the decision to read a book in a real minute, how one selects the book, how one flirts with the choice, how one dawdles on the odd path of getting it read and then reread, the oddities of rereading, the extreme oddities of the procedures of continuing with or without interruptions to read, getting ready to read a middle chapter in its turn after going off for a while, then getting hold of the book physically, having it in one’s hand, letting one’s mind fill with thoughts in a sort of warm-up for the exercise of mind to come – one riffles through remembered scenes from this and other books, one diddles with half-memories and other pleasures and usefulnesses, one wonders if one can afford to read, one considers the limitations and possibilities of this book, one is humiliated in anticipation or superior or thrilled in anticipation, or nauseated in retrospect. One has a sense of talk and of reviews and essays and of anticipation or dread and the will to be affected by the thing of reading, affected lightly or seriously. One settles one’s body to some varying degree and then one enters on the altered tempos of reading, the subjection to being played upon, one passes through phases, starting with reacting to or ignoring the cover of the book and the opening lines. (reproduced in Gilbar 101-102)

11For many avid readers of literary fiction this is a very recognizable account of the act of literary reading. What Brodkey is essentially saying here, with his almost endless list of multi-sensual descriptions, is that we would be ill-advised to think that the language of a given literary text is the “be all and end all” of acts of literary reading. A core reason for this is that our emotions muddy the waters. This ties in with the truism that all effects cannot have the same cause. Brodkey’s findings may seem a little outlandish to some, but they are neither odd nor idiosyncratic. Indeed, leading cognitive psychologist and emotion expert Nico Frijda has cogently argued that “emotions are rarely, if ever, elicited by an isolated stimulus. Rather, the emotional effectiveness of sensory stimuli depends upon the spatial, temporal, and meaning context in which they occur, …” (267). This was written some thirty years ago when it was contested. Today, this is a mainstream view in cognitive psychology. Brodkey’s smorgasbord of sensual experiences that occur regularly and recurrently during engaged acts of literary reading do indeed suggest that the emotions that are generated while reading a literary text are unlikely to be caused by a single stimulus, such as the text itself and the language that constitutes that text.

4. Non-textual phenomena – the auxiliary layer of literary reading

12In light of what has thus far been reported, it is time to turn our attention to a number of non-textual phenomena and investigate these in some depth. The three that will be examined in this section will be (i) mood, (ii) medium, and (iii) location. I will be revisiting data collected at two earlier stages and looking at them from a different perspective. The mood and location qualitative data sets are from Burke (2011) and the medium data set is from Burke and Bon (2017).

4.1 Mood

13In my 2011 study on the nature and make-up of the oceanic literary reading mind, I posed the following question to thirty-six subjects: “Prior to starting to read a novel do you think that your mood has ever affected the actual reading event itself?” All the participants in the study were undergraduate students based in the Netherlands at two locations (Utrecht and Middelburg). They were studying for a liberal arts and sciences undergraduate degree at an honours college. Twenty-nine of the thirty-six participants answered affirmatively. However, this quantitative information was not important. All subjects were given the opportunity to expand on their choice by writing a comment pertaining to their chosen answer. This qualitative data is what is of real significance to this study. Thirteen of the twenty-nine participants who responded affirmatively chose to produce such a written response. These have been reproduced verbatim in the box below. None of the seven respondents who answered negatively opted to provide a comment.

  • 8 This qualitative data also appears in Burke 2011 92-93.
  1. When I’m very happy it’s easier to see the happy/positive side of a story. When I’m feeling a bit down, it’s easier to just notice the negative/depressing side of a story. So my mood can really influence the way I read a novel and it can also influence the way I think about the story

  2. If I am in a good mood, I have less trouble appreciating a novel

  3. I think that the mood has a big effect – maybe not on reading as such, but definitely on what I remember from the book

  4. For instance, I was once in a very happy and energetic mood when I started to read a book that was rather serious and dramatic. For me, my mood didn’t go together with the moods of the people in the book. So I put the book down because I couldn’t identify with the book’s characters. However, when I picked it up at a later time, when I was in a more serious and calm mood, I found the book to be wonderfully written and I found it very interesting and gripping

  5. My mood influences which book I read. It can also account for why I stop reading a book after just a couple of pages because it doesn’t match the way I am feeling at that moment in time

  6. I think one’s mood always affects the reading somewhat, mine certainly does, although the effect tends to turn around very quickly, i.e. the reading will have a stronger effect on my mood than the other way around

  7. There is always more than one reading of a text possible and my gut feeling tells me that my mood could very well influence this

  8. Sometimes you have to be in the mood to read something. It is not that you can read anything in any mood. I have read the same book more than once in the same period and it turned out that I could appreciate the book more in a certain period than another and vice versa

  9. Sometimes I know I mustn’t start in a certain book, because my state of mind isn’t right. For example, in The Discovery of Heaven I must have a certain state of mind to start that book. Otherwise, I can’t enjoy it, and I can’t even read the book properly

  10. If I don’t feel right when I start to read a book, I will just stop because I won’t be able to get into it. If I read a book I am usually on vacation or at least do not have a lot of studying to do, my mind is clear and the book will help me to relax even more

  11. If I am in an emotional mood, it’s more likely I get emotional because of tragic or unhappy events in the book. If I’m very happy, I tend to laugh easier at jokes in the book

  12. When I feel stressed out or sad/bad about something, then I cannot concentrate properly. My mind wanders off to what’s bothering me. That’s why I probably never was any good at obligatory reading. I did read the books, but not as well as I wanted to. Simply because I had to finish the book in a certain number of hours. I think I tend to read best when I’m happy and won’t get distracted by a sad thought

  13. To be in the mood to read, feeling energetic, but always a little lonely, works for me8

14This qualitative data, although far from expansive, offers much to consider. Some readers’ moods have a top-down effect on the story and can influence the way a novel is read and appreciated (see respondents 1, 7 & 8). Respondent number 8 also makes reference to the importance of the timing of the reading event with his/her comment “in certain periods”. Other participants in the study admit that they can’t even start reading a novel until their mood is optimal (see respondents 9 & 10). Respondent number 10 also makes mention of the importance of the location and the time of the reading event when he/she writes about reading while “on vacation” and when “not hav[ing] a lot of studying to do”. For some participants in the study, a good mood leads to a better ability to appreciate the story (see respondents 2 & 12). For others, mood can determine what gets remembered from the story (see respondent 3). Other respondent reports are more complex. For example, converse to the top-down effect view, respondent 4’s mood is affected by the moods of characters in the novel, so much so that in the past when those moods have not been in alignment, as it were, he/she has had to wait until his/her own mood was in sync as it were with those of the characters before an optimal and satisfactory reading could take place. Respondent 5 says something similar to respondent 4 − and respondent 6 shows both sides of the argument: his/her mood has a top down effect on the novel but this can quickly change as the novel starts to influence his/her mood. It is this bottom-up mode that ultimately wins out for this respondent. For participant 11, heightened emotions in real life can intensify the emotions experienced and felt while reading about events and characters in a novel. Other responses were philosophical, even somewhat metaphysical, like respondent 13 who wrote “to be in the mood to read, feeling energetic, but always a little lonely, works for me”. This idea of readers having to be “animated yet solitary” is an enticing idea. Interestingly, it mirrors to some extent what has been claimed to be the optimal state of the literary writer. Indeed Marcel Proust once famously noted that in order to be a good writer, one must possess the seemingly paradoxical trait of being a “gregarious loner” (Novakovich 4).

4.2 Medium

  • 9 One of the two liberal arts and sciences honours colleges of Utrecht University.

15Having explored one non-textual phenomenon in literary reading, namely, “mood”, let us now consider a second one: “medium”. The sample for this study consisted of thirty-nine respondents. All respondents were studying for a liberal arts and sciences undergraduate honors degree at University College Roosevelt in Middelburg (The Netherlands).9 The data was collected in the autumn of 2015. From the students in the sample, twenty-eight (71.8%) were female and eleven (28.2%) were male. My colleague and I were interested in discovering which kind of the medium or device (from paperbacks to mobile phones and everything in between) this group of literary readers uses at that moment in time (i.e. late 2015) to read literature on. The basic response data pertaining to frequency of use is located in the table below.

Table 1 Frequency of use of means during literary reading


Number and percentage of respondents who use this means

(n = 39)

Means ranking by respondents

(n = 39) in order of frequency of use


26 (66.7%)


Desktop computer

13 (33.3%)


E-reader (Kindle, Kobo, etc.)

13 (33.3%)


Hardback book

39 (100%)



31 (79.5%)


Literary magazine/journal

23 (60.0%)


Mobile phone

20 (51.3%)


Paper (printed sheets; A4)

28 (71.8%)


Paperback book

39 (100%)



7 (18.0%)





  • 10 The rise of phone reading and the simultaneous demise of the e-reader in young, urban, professional (...)

16The main outcomes of this survey can be synopsized as follows: (i) all students read literature using paperback and hardback books, (ii) one out of three students reads literature on an e-reader, (iii) approximately four out of five read literature on a laptop, (iv) two out of three listen to audio books, (v) about one in five reads literature on a tablet or iPad, (vi) one out of three students reads literature on a desktop computer, (vii) a little over half the group uses their mobile phone for reading literature. We must bear in mind that this is a group of Western/European student participants. It is not a random sample of readers from the general public. In this sense, the findings here are not generalizable to a larger group – other than plausibly a similar group of Western/European students. Perhaps unexpectedly the participants in this study are quite conservative readers. For them, print has not given way to pixels as books (both paperback and hardback) are still read by all participants. Their conservatism is also shown in the fact that four out of five of the participants read literature on a laptop computer. Convenience is probably the reason for this (students often carry a laptop computer around with them). If this group were to be compared, for example, with a similar sized assembly of young urban professionals, then it can be postulated that literary reading on a laptop would be far less likely to happen. For this group of young urban professionals, e-readers, tablets and iPads will be the medium of choice. Further, the mobile phone – the ultimate “on-the-go” device, will be increasingly dominant in this group (although interestingly half the group from the student participants in the study also said that they read literature on their mobile phones).10

17What makes the notion of reading “medium”, or reading “device”, important as a non-textual, non-conscious, auxiliary literary reading phenomenon is the sense of touch. This tactile dimension is of great significance to reading pleasure − and also to displeasure if underestimated or misjudged. The category of literary reading medium encompasses a robust embodied aspect, which is grounded in affordances, namely, the possibilities of an action on an object in the environment or in some cases on the environment itself. The non-conscious phenomenon of medium is all about the hands: manual dexterity. In this sense, the quality of bodily contact with the outside world – and with objects in the outside world – is more direct than say sitting or lying down would be, where the back, buttocks and legs play a dominant role. This can be seen when we consider the so-called cortical homunculus, a kind of physical representation (or anatomical division) of the sensory and motor body mapped onto the brain. In the cortical homunculus, the hands and the fingers (together with parts of the face like lips and the tongue) take up a large part of the neurological map. It can be argued that a book or electronic, digital device needs to rest in a fitting, reassured, familiar and habitual manner in the hands of a reader (where the hands can squeeze or bend or fold) in order for an optimal emotional engagement with the themes, narrative and language of a literary story to take place.

18The habitual hands rather than the conscious brain can be primary in selecting a book to be read. In his much-acclaimed work A History of Reading (1996) book scholar Alberto Manguel highlights this when he writes “my hands, choosing a book to take to bed or to the reading desk, for the train or for a gift, consider the form as much as the content. Depending on the occasion, depending on the place where I have chosen to read, I prefer something small and cosy or ample and substantial” (125). Here it is the form and the feel of a book that are just as paramount as the content and story: non-textual, auxiliary, embodied phenomena, that are just as vital as textual, axial, cerebral phenomena. A mismatch, forced or otherwise − as is sometimes the case in experimental settings in reading labs, where paperback lovers are handed tablets or iPads to read a favourite story on − may lead to haptic dissonance. Here, procedural implicit beliefs about what it feels like for a certain reader to hold a book while reading it may conflict with reading an e-book on a tablet, e-reader or mobile phone. This may lead to a felt sense of lost equilibrium and strong feelings of discomfort (see Gerlach and Buxmann – see also Gregory).

4.3 Location

19The third non-textual input to be considered here is location: the physical place where a reader, consciously or otherwise, choses to place his/her body for the duration of the reading event. Haptics are at work here too just as with the reading medium, only here it is not the hands that are either holding, caressing or manipulating a book or tablet, but how and where one chooses to position one’s body for the reading event. This is often in a soft, comfortable familiar “receptacle” (such as an easy chair or bed), and “spaces” (such as bedrooms and gardens) in order to get the most, emotionally and aesthetically, from a literary reading experience. Location is therefore a matter of what you choose to recline into, non-consciously or otherwise, and where it occurs. The sensory preceptors that can modify the quality of enjoyment that is experienced while reading are located in the back, the buttocks and the legs.

20The location data has been previously published (Burke 2011). Once again, as in the “mood” section, I will return to the same raw data and analyse it differently to how I did then. The question that was posed was “If you want to read a novel that you have very much looked forward to reading, does it matter to you, and to the quality of your subsequent reading experience, where you actually read it, i.e. where you decided to physically put/position your body for the reading process?” Twenty-seven of the thirty-six respondents answered affirmatively. Once again, it is the qualitative data that is of significance. Twenty-two of the twenty-seven respondents who answered affirmatively elected to offer a written response. This data can be seen in the table below. None of the nine respondents who answered negatively opted to provide a comment.

  • 11 This qualitative data also appears in Burke 2011 99-101.
  1. If I want to read a book I’ve really looked forward to I find myself a quiet place where I can sit comfortably and where I will not be disturbed. I would never read such a book for instance on the train because then I am not really able to ‘dive’ into the book

  2. When I am in a comfortable situation (not too much noise, etc) I can concentrate much better which makes me enjoy reading more

  3. I would not be able to concentrate on reading a book elsewhere than in my room. Especially if it is a book I have been looking forward to reading. I am even used to locking my door while reading

  4. The place where I decide to sit should be somewhere comfortable where I can curl up and read the book in peace; for instance, a couch or a big deep chair. Also, the spot should be in the sunlight; in natural light

  5. I would want to read that novel in either a very comfy chair or love seat or in bed at night. I cannot just sit down in the train and read it. I get too distracted to be able to fully enjoy the novel

  6. It has to be somewhere reasonably comfortable and for me it is also important that I know I’ll have plenty of time to read (that I don’t have something urgent to do or have to be somewhere in an hour or so). That also has to do with the place; it’s nice when it’s somewhere where I’m not very likely to be interrupted, somewhere not very crowded or loud

  7. I have experienced that I can’t read in places where there is a lot of noise as good as I can in silent places. Also reading in bed or in hot/sunny places makes me feel tired and decreases my attention

  8. It is more relaxed to read a book sitting on the couch, than it is when you are sitting in a car. I always prefer reading a book in the garden when the sun shines, this makes it possible for me to really ‘get into’ the book

  9. I cannot start reading a book that I have looked forward to just anywhere. I need to be at home and also need to have some time so that I can read at least the first few chapters before having to put it down again

  10. I always wonder how people can read in trains, busses and aeroplanes. I have tried doing so many times but have never really enjoyed it. I tend to be easily distracted by people and things around me and then I need to reread parts of what I have read because I cannot continue reading while knowing that I have not completely absorbed those parts. I always have the fear of having missed something that is crucial for the story. I do like reading outside, for instance at the beach, but then early in the morning or late at night – again to make sure that there are not too many people there to invade my reading experience. In the US I used to love reading in the college church and in the stacks of the library. Also, at the fountain, because the constant sound of water had a soothing effect

  11. The place I always do all my reading is in bed. I like to make it comfy and cosy and cuddle up big time with lots of pillows and blankets/covers and hot chocolate

  12. If I look forward to reading a book, I want to take the time to read it. I probably won’t start reading it in the metro or something, or somewhere very noisy, where I will get distracted but somewhere I can pay all my attention to the book. Probably my couch or my bed

  13. I like to read when I am on vacation in quiet places with not too many people bothering me. I also like to read at home, alone, in bed. Some people I know read when they take the tram to work or to the university but for me that’s not quiet enough

  14. When I look forward to reading a book, let’s say the new Harry Potter, I want to give it my full attention. I don’t want to miss a thing. So I read it when I’m alone. I probably won’t answer the phone when I want to spend a couple of hours reading. I don’t want to be disturbed

  15. I love to read in bed or in a place where I feel safe. But I do read in planes and on trains as well. These last two probably out of boredom, and to keep my mind busy to prevent thinking about ‘what will happen if’ scenarios. I definitely prefer the former: in bed and places where I feel safe

  16. It has to be quiet and comfortable, i.e. a sofa

  17. I read best when I am alone with some very soft music in the background, either in a comfortable chair or on the balcony in the sun. Sometimes I can enjoy reading on the train but there is often too much noise and talk to concentrate for long

  18. I like to lie down on the sofa or in bed with lots of cushions. I need to be nice and comfortable. And have my feet up

  19. I read best when I am at home on the sofa or in bed. When I start reading a novel that I really want to read then I almost always start at home. When I am sitting for example in a metro/train, I can’t concentrate that well. With a really good novel I want to be able to concentrate really well, because I don’t want to miss one word of it

  20. I usually read in or on my bed, either in the evening before going to sleep or during the day (for lack of a chair or couch). I tend to really ‘install’ myself, complete with a cup of tea, cushions at my back, feet up and music on

  21. When I read I prefer to lie on my bed or sit in a comfy chair where I can relax

  22. I think when starting to read a novel that I have been looking forward to I would like to be in a place where I feel comfortable and peaceful. I have to be able to focus my attention and let go the ego to become part of a story which is different to mine11

21This data offers much to consider. However, the idea of seeking out a quiet, familiar and safe place where one will be comfortable and remain undisturbed is a theme that runs through almost all of the twenty-two responses. Readers want to be in their bedrooms – even resorting to locking the door to safeguard their privacy (see respondent 3). They want to read on couches, sofas and in deep chairs (see respondents 4 & 16). They read in bed, or sat in love seats and in comfy chairs (see respondent 5). Some will read in bed but only with lots of pillows, blankets and hot chocolate (see respondent 11 – see also respondent 18 who likes to have his/her feet up while reading and respondent 20 who “installs” himself/herself before reading with cup of tea, feet up, cushions at his/her back and, perhaps unexpectedly, “music on”). The idea of needing background noise of some kind to facilitate the best reading experience also appears in response 10, where the reader reads at the college fountain “because the constant sound of water has a soothing effect”. Background noise, however, is also rejected in a number of responses, including response number 6. Something else that is unpopular with some participants is having to read on public transport, such as trains, trams and aeroplanes (see, for example, responses 1, 5, 10, 12 & 19). Some participants like reading in outdoor locations, such as at the beach (see response 10); in the garden (see responses 8); on a balcony (response 17) or, simply, while on vacation (see response 13). Sunlight appears to be an important factor for outside reading (see responses 4, 8 & 17). For inside reading, like in the college church and in the library, as mentioned by respondent number 10, it may very well be more persuasive non-conscious olfactory stimuli that are at work, like the smell of old books and wooden pews (although, expectedly, no mention is made of this mostly non-conscious sensory aspect in the data). Some comments are quite philosophical here too, as was the case with the mood data. Respondent number 22 notes how in order to achieve an optimal reading situation he/she needs to be able to “focus my attention and let go (of) the ego to become part of the story which is different to mine”.

22The location of the literary reading event is important to the overall (positive) experience of a reading act. The earlier-cited book scholar Alberto Manguel sums the importance of the reading location when he writes that “some books seem to demand particular positions for reading, postures of the reader’s body that in turn require reading places appropriate for those postures” (151). He continues, “often, the pleasure derived from reading largely depends on the bodily comfort of the reader (151).

4.4 The coalescence of axial and auxiliary levels of literary reading phenomena

23Now that we have considered the three cases of mood, medium and location we can start to formulate a position. To my mind, for an optimally engaged, emotive reading experience to take place, we have to be aware of the condition of both the text and its environment, in both the physical and the cerebral sense. We cannot prize the axial, textual materials from auxiliary, non-textual phenomena without a negative knock-on effect taking place in our analysis. Purely textual analyses may be very precise in their grammatical and rhetorical observations, but they will be impoverished nonetheless. The reason for this is that the axial and auxiliary levels of communication that are active during episodes of literary reading are engaged in a continuous, soundless interchange with each other, for such emotive acts of literary reading are incessantly fluvial, persistently intertwined, endlessly mobile. In short, inner and outer layer reading phenomena – i.e. the axial and the auxiliary − should ideally be favourably aligned in order for the best qualitative reading experience to emerge from a literary sitting. This necessary coalescence is represented at an abstract level in the two-dimensional diagram in Figure 5.

Fig. 6 The aligned workings of a favourable literary reading condition

Fig. 6  The aligned workings of a favourable literary reading condition

24It is my contention that without also appraising the outer, auxiliary layer of non-conscious literary reading phenomena (e.g. mood, medium, location, etc.) and understanding how they interact and shape meaning and emotional responses – together with the inner, axial textual/discourse layer of style, themes and narrative – we are unlikely to ever fully grasp what it is that makes a literary discourse – or perhaps even any discourse – seductive.

5. Stylistics and embodied cognition

25This is all very good and well but how should stylisticians proceed with this knowledge – and especially those stylisticians who engage in either literary response studies or cognitive stylistics/poetics? The answer, to my mind, is that stylistics arguably needs to explore what embodied cognition might offer it. Stylistics started some fifty years ago with the text as its sole object of study. Then, when this narrow focus was deemed too restrictive, it was then expanded to the co-text, the immediate textual environment. In more recent years it has expanded further to include the context, i.e. speaker and hearer relations. Now it should push on into the non-conscious, non-textual, embodied cognitive environment. This logical progression is shown in the stacked Venn diagrammed below.

Fig. 7 The layers of stylistic analysis - the present (1-3) and the near future (4)

Fig. 7  The layers of stylistic analysis - the present (1-3) and the near future (4)

26The concept of embodied cognition puts forward the idea that many, if not all, features of human cognition are formed and created by aspects of the body that are beyond the brain (see Shapiro 2011; 2014). At the core of embodied cognition is the philosophy of phenomenology and in particular The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) (original title: Phénoménologie de la perception) written by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. At a more literary level, via the philosophical works of Husserl, there is Wolgang Iser’s book The Act of Reading (original title: Der Akt des Lesens) which is a key theoretical work in reader response that many stylisticians will no doubt have already read. The “aspects” referred to above that are “beyond the brain” include culture as well as the immediate physical environment. In my discussion on mood, medium and location, many aspects of the direct physical situation came to light in the reader responses: (i) from “comfy chairs” that hold bodies, to “beds” that bodies can stretch out on; (ii) from the tall narrowness of library stacks, to the broad deserted expanses of beaches at dawn and dusk, and (iii) from “natural sunlight” to “artificial bedroom light”.

27Embodied cognition has many guises and stylisticians should be wary that some are more remote than others, bordering on postmodernism, so we will have to read broadly, tread carefully and choose well as to what might best suit a stylistic analysis. Candidates for consideration include a number of theories developed by many different scholars over time. These are (i) grounded cognition, (ii) situated cognition, (iii) 4E cognition, i.e. embodied, enactive, embedded and extended, (iv) context effects, (v) priming, (vi) framing, (vii) simulation, and (viii) empathy, both the “theory of mind” cognitive type and the affective type.

28Little work has been conducted in the field of reading and cognition. For example, in Shapiro’s recent handbook consisting of thirty-five chapters, a leading publication in the field that extensively covers the embodied world − from the embodiment of culture to the embodiment of vision and from the embodiment of memory to the embodiment of language − no mention is made of the embodiment of reading, let alone embodiment during literary reading. The opportunities for stylisticians are many and varied and burgeoning. One recent extended publication of interest is Guillemette Bolens’s monograph The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative. In this work, Bolens investigates the ways in which writers and readers draw on sensorimotor capacities and embodied knowledge when creating and experiencing literary works. This study, though far from stylistic, opens ways to further examinations on many related topics like, (i) whether, and to what extent, descriptions of character gesticulation might give rise to mirror neural activation in engaged readers and (ii) what further emotive effects such activation might have on the reading experience in general and how the text and style of the story gets processed. It is largely for the young crop of stylisticians, and especially cognitive stylisticians, to explore this matter further and in doing so bring stylistics and the study of literary reading within the realm of embodied cognition without letting go of the all-important language of the text, which is so central and so necessary for our stylistic analyses. To playfully paraphrase a participant in one of the studies that have been cited in this paper, perhaps, as linguists and stylisticians, we need to start to let go of our textual ego a little in order to become part of an embodied story which is different to ours.

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1 A lecture that was based on this article was delivered on February 16, 2016 at the “On Seductive Discourse” seminar series held at Aix-Marseille University, France. My thanks go to Prof. Sandrine Sorlin for her kind invitation and to her colleagues and graduate students for their insightful contributions during our discussions.

2 The term “themes” is used here and throughout the paper. It might have been substituted for the term “genre” as there is not much semantic distance between the two.

3 Towards the end of this monographic work, it was postulated that in hindsight there is probably a sixth affective input closely linked to ‘location’ and that this was concerned with the notion of the ‘time’ of the reading event. For example, it can be significant for the quality of affective engagement with a literary text whether a specific book with a specific theme or written in a specific style is read (a) in the morning, afternoon, evening or night, (b) in the spring, summer, autumn or winter, (c) at Christmas, Easter or Halloween, (d) while on a summer vacation or on a winter holidays, or (e) on dark rainy days or bright sunny days. Such temporal dimensions will ultimately affect – and will also be affected by – ‘mood’; the governing category in the affective inputs of the oceanic literary reading mind.

4 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 155.

5 Disportation is an embodied affective-cognitive event. It has a detailed conscious/non-conscious interaction. The word has an etymological basis incorporating notions of movement and affect. When it occurs, it is often (but not always) at the end of a physical reading cycle (i.e. at the end of a story). Depending on the context, its primary triggers can be cognitive or linguistic (mind or text). Disportation is a heightened emotive state that occurs in affectively-engaged individuals while reading literature. It is characterised by a distinct feeling that a reader undergoes for a few seconds, whereby a person feels that he/she is both energized and in motion (often upwards and outwards), even though no perceptible movement is actually taking place. It often ends with a state of deep reflection, sometimes accompanied by the surprise arrival of tears.

6 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 153.

7 This Venn diagram also appears in Burke 2011 159.

8 This qualitative data also appears in Burke 2011 92-93.

9 One of the two liberal arts and sciences honours colleges of Utrecht University.

10 The rise of phone reading and the simultaneous demise of the e-reader in young, urban, professional environments have been reported in a number of US newspaper articles (see, for example, Alter 2015 and Maloney 2015). These articles also report how sales in print (paper) literature are holding up strongly.

11 This qualitative data also appears in Burke 2011 99-101.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: The two textual dimensions of ‘How’
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Titre Fig. 2 The five sign-fed and mind-fed affective inputs4
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Titre Fig. 3 The four fluvial stages of the ‘literary reading loop’6
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Titre Fig. 4 The oceanic processing nature - literary reading mind7
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Titre Fig. 5 The oceanic literary reading mind as a process
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Titre Fig. 6 The aligned workings of a favourable literary reading condition
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Titre Fig. 7 The layers of stylistic analysis - the present (1-3) and the near future (4)
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Michael BURKE, « Literary seduction: Minds, bodies and non-textual phenomena », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5976

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Michael BURKE

University College Roosevelt, Utrecht University
Michael Burke is Professor of Rhetoric at University College Roosevelt. He is also the Honours Dean at Utrecht University. He is the author of Literary Reading Cognition and Emotion (Routledge, 2011), editor of The Routledge Handbook of Stylistics (2014) and co-editor of Cognitive Literary Science (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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