Big book review survey

Ella Rhodes reports.

What is it about contemporary fiction that makes readers tick? This is the question a multidisciplinary team of researchers, including psychologist Dr Tom Mercer, have tried to answer with the largest survey of attitudes to fiction in English.

The AHRC-funded team from the University of Wolverhampton, led by Chair of English Literature Professor Sebastian Groes, launched the Big Book Review survey with a UK tour including Belfast, Exeter, Glasgow, Swansea and the Birmingham Literary Festival. They asked members of the public to complete their survey as well as asking readers about their guilty pleasure reads and book-related secrets using a literary confessions box.

An experimental cognitive psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Mercer had previously worked with Groes on the ‘Snidge Scrumpin’ project – which explored regional differences in the Proust phenomenon, where certain smells trigger childhood memories. Mercer said this experience had shown him the value of multidisciplinary work and was pleased to get involved with Novel Perceptions, which includes specialists in English literature, computational linguistics, social science, and psychology.

The Novel Perceptions project has several strands and its main aim, Mercer said, is to gain an understanding of literary quality in two ways – through the Big Book Review Survey, and a computational analysis of the novels themselves. ‘We want to understand how readers evaluate contemporary and classic fiction and examine how this is connected to the characteristics of the novels, for example, aspects of the writing style such as sentence length.

‘Overall, the project aims to provide a reconsideration of the literary canon – the novels generally considered to be significant, high quality and worthy of academic study – as it is biased. By considering and addressing these biases, this project will encourage the creation of a more diverse and socially inclusive canon.’  

This is not the first time that Mercer has explored the impacts of literature – some of his other research, Novel Memories, uses surveys to look into how people remember novels as well as the individual autobiographical memories that certain novels trigger. ‘As people think about their favourite novels, they are reminded about their life at the time of reading. This might include the people, places, and events from that period. This has made a nice link with our earlier “Snidge Scrumpin’” project – just as smells can trigger old memories, novels can work in the same way. Readers also seem to clearly remember the emotions they felt at the time of reading.’

Mercer said that, along with cognitive psychology, psychological research into stereotypes and biases is key in this work. ‘For instance, we will be able to explore how variables such as age, gender and social class may influence reading preferences. Finally, as much of the project uses surveys, the quantitative data analysis techniques commonly used in psychology are proving a real asset as we assess responses from our readers.’

The Big Book Review survey, which closes on Monday 31 January, is available here: survey.bigbookreview.co.uk

To find out more about the work of the Novel Perceptions team, see: tinyurl.com/kaxdrvxc

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