Manipulating inferences: interpretative problems and their effects on readers

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This chapter explores some of the ways in which prose fiction texts can be thought of as manipulating readers because of different kinds of inferential processes they encourage. It focuses in particular on ways in which texts can make it hard for readers to derive inferences from representations of the texts as a whole. The discussion focuses in particular on two novels: Rachel Cusk’s (2014) Outline and Eimear McBride’s (2013) A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, contrasting these with a novel which does not pose such difficulties (Elif Batuman’s The Idiot). Both Cusk’s and McBride’s novels have features which make it difficult for readers to represent them as a whole. While it is not hard to understand individual parts of Outline, it is hard to grasp it as a whole, partly because it mainly consists of fairly unmediated representations of what other characters say to the narrator. Readers of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing find it hard even to understand what is happening in individual parts of the novel. In the case of McBride’s novel, these difficulties encourage a sense of immersion in the text and a sense of the reading experience as relatively ‘realistic’. Cusk’s novel can be understood as realistic in some ways (in that the narrator does not do much to mediate what others say to her) and unrealistic in others (our daily experience is not reducible to what we hear others say). The chapter argues that we can understand responses to the novels partly by considering the nature of inferential processes they give rise to and that this can help to account for aspects of the experience of reading them. Evidence from readers’ and reviewers’ responses can also help us to understand how readers treat fictional texts as acts of communication. Within the terms of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986), they provide evidence that the texts raise fairly specific expectations of relevance and that readers notice when these seem not to be satisfied.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStylistic Manipulation of the Reader in Fiction
EditorsSandrine Sorlin
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Electronic)9781350062986
ISBN (Print)9781350062962
Publication statusPublished - 12 Dec 2019

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