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  • Cognition and representation in literature: The psychology of literary narratives by János László
  • Alan S. Bruflat
Cognition and representation in literature: The psychology of literary narratives. By János László. Budapest: Akadémiai Liadó, 1999. Pp. 220. ISBN 9630576635. $52 (Hb).

This book explores literary interpretation from the perspective of cognitive psychology. Using empirical data, János László attempts to discover the psychological elements that influence the interpretation of a literary text and offers insight into the age-old question of what makes literature and its interpretation unique.

The book has two main divisions and fifteen chapters plus appendices that include the texts used in the author’s experiments. While written from a specialist’s perspective, the book’s clarity makes it useful to any literary scholar. Part 1, ‘Literary reading as text-processing’, begins with an overview of narrative analysis, including psychoanalytic criticism, narratology, structuralism, reader-response criticism, and Russian formalism. The mention of such figures as Viktor Shklovsky, Norman Holland, and Stanley Fish will help orient the nonspecialist to L’s perspective and methodology. The author asserts that, while the various critical schools have made important contributions regarding the ‘literariness’ of texts (e.g. the Russian formalists’ concept of ‘defamiliarization’), they fail to account for any distinctive features in the processing (interpreting) of such texts.

Part 1 offers various hypotheses about the elements of literary interpretation and describes the experiments used to gather data and test those hypotheses. Among the variables tested are point-of-view, identification of a literary text that has been placed in a nonliterary context, and reading time of literary vs. nonliterary texts. The experimental results, however, do not conclusively demonstrate that readers process a literary text differently from a nonliterary one unless affective factors such as sociocultural background, personal experiences, and genre familiarity are considered.

Part 2, ‘Social-cognitive approach to literary interpretation’, considers those very factors. L finds that the greatest differences in interpretation between two experimental groups occur when personal experience, historical familiarity with the period or setting of the text, and familiarity with narrative devices inform the reading process. For example, two groups of readers, one Hungarian and one Danish, read a short story about a Nazi interrogation of two peasants. The Hungarian group scored higher in virtually every category of reader response (enjoyment, interest, relevance); the study concludes that the Hungarians’ sociocultural experience makes the story more accessible and understandable to them. It should be noted that such affective factors as enjoyment and relevance are viewed by cognitive psychologists as among the conventions that govern literary texts and can be empirically analyzed.

L concludes his work in an honest and forthright manner. He states the strengths and limitations of the cognitive-psychological approach to literary analysis. While the approach proves inadequate for identifying the uniquely literary characteristics of a text, it helps unlock interpretation as a negotiated process between the reader and the text and shows clearly that the experiences and tools a reader brings to a text enhance interpretation. In the end, L’s work demonstrates the dynamic nature of interpretation and is a solid link to many of the reader-oriented theories of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Alan S. Bruflat
Wayne State College


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