In the empirical study of literature, genre is often treated as a broad category. In our own work, for example, we have often examined how exposure to fiction differs from exposure to nonfiction. These two categories each encapsulate a wide diversity of sub-genres that may have little resemblance to one another. That said, even using these broad levels of categorization, systematic differences between the two genres can be observed. But this is not to say that genre-specific studies are without interest; they are simply, and somewhat unfortunately, less frequently performed. Recently, a group of researchers from the UK and Vienna performed a fascinating study of surrealist literature (Swami et al., 2012). They took short excerpts of about 150 words from 10 different sources, such as Salvador Dalí’s The Passions According to Dalí and The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton and Philiippe Soupault. A total of 400 participants (200 men and 200 women) then read these texts and answered a number of other questions pertaining to demographics and individual differences. The researchers found that although men and women did not differ in their liking for these texts, those with more education and higher incomes expressed greater preference for these excerpts. After controlling for these demographic variables, two individual differences were found to independently predict liking for the surrealist excerpts. One was level of sensation-seeking, with people who were more motivated to encounter different and novel experiences more likely to appreciate the surrealist texts. The other was trait Openness to Experience, a tendency to appreciate aesthetics, engage in fantasy, and enjoy intellectual pursuits. Lastly, a liking for surrealism in general (e.g., its approach to art and film), also independently predicted how much people appreciated this subset of surrealist texts. This study is an important step towards a more nuanced treatment of genre in the empirical study of literature.
Swami, V., Pietsching, J., Stieger, S., Nader, I. W., and Voacek, M. (2012). Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella! Individual differences and preference for surrealist literature. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6, 35-42.
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