A strange introduction, perhaps, to this post on literatures for young adults, but I encourage you to now think about your reaction to that paragraph. Did anything bring a small chuckle? Maybe a sense of discomfort? Disgust? Can you pinpoint exactly where that might have occurred and why?
Reactions to comedic texts may be more evidently subjective than those reactions we experience when interacting with other texts. Taking scenarios that in one context might be disgusting (maggots swarming garbage) and making them humorously disgusting is a talent comedic writers must possess; the use of comedic timing and bodily reactions a talent that actors possess so as to deliver that humor. All texts—whether humorous or serious—are written to evoke emotional reactions from readers. While writers create these texts (or, in the case of movies/television programs, written, performed, directed, and produced by teams), textual reaction and response relies on the reader/viewers in a process we refer to as “hot cognition.”
Audience reception—the way the reader/viewer constructs the texts and utilizes schemes of reference to interact—shows a key interplay between emotion and reasoning. Let’s return to this scene in the Great Outdoors for a moment for a clear understanding. In order for me to find the film—specifically that scene—humorous, I, as an audience member, must have been conditioned to find that stimuli humorous. What is it about John Candy’s discomfort that makes us laugh? How is it we know he’s experiencing discomfort? Why do we find the need to vomit laughter inducing in one situation (picking up garbage covered with maggots)? And do we really understand why we have these emotional reactions? Why do these stimuli add up to make me laugh, perhaps in disgust?
For my dissertation, I studied readers’ affective reactions and responses to the literary reading of the sequential art narrative, Refresh, Refresh. There were a few reasons for the study, though none more essential than my belief that literary reading is an experience. From the most initial empirical studies of literary readers by I. A. Richards (1929) to later empirical studies (e.g., Auracher & van Peer, 2008), affect had consistently taken a back seat to interpretation even though it is a key aspect of the literary experience. The affective turn in literary scholarship (e.g., Ngai, 2005; Vermeule, 2010), which brings the work of psychologist Sylvan Tomkins (1962, 1963, 1965, 1991, 1992) to understandings of text, presents to teachers an important means of supporting students’ readings of literatures for young adults.
Sylvan Tomkins’ work on the relationship between schema, stimuli, and emotion offers important information about human personality and what makes human beings human. He posits that individuals not only feel emotional reactions to stimuli about which they’ve been conditioned to reply (e.g., why do I feel an overwhelming sense of joy when my team wins in a sports match?); we can also recognize in others how they feel from facial/body language cues. Apart from graphic novels or films, which provide visual cues, we also sympathize with characters in particular situations in traditional literary texts. For instance, we can “feel” what Lizzie “feels” as she watches her sister deteriorate in Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” or we can “feel” what the speaker feels as he waits for the death of a fellow inmate in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Of course, our ability to “feel” and “sympathize” or “empathize” comes in time as we mature into adulthood and investigate our consciousness. According to Tomkins, though some scholars might disagree (e.g., Ngai ), affects can be broken into nine basic emotional categories, seven of which (not counting dissmell and disgust) function as continua.
Affective reading encourages students to wrestle with their emotional reactions while reading and think about how these emotional reactions are triggered. Of course, becoming aware of our emotional reactions is not sufficient. As we know from Tomkins’ scholarship, emotions are intricately tied to values that we have been conditioned to experience. The affective dimension of education (though consistently ignored, Krathwohl, Bloom, Masia  in the second handbook of educational objectives posited that we teach in a way the integrates cognition and affect and thus influence behaviors) is perhaps most important in adolescence, as adults transition to adulthood and have to begin thinking critically about their values. Again, let’s use Great Outdoors as an example—what is it about that scene that makes me burst out laughing and yet find it simultaneously disgusting? What does it say about my values that someone’s discomfort should evoke chuckles and the thought of maggots festering in rotten, fetid garbage that makes my skin crawl? How did I learn this?
In the context of literary teaching, where we encourage students to wrestle with the human experience (which is dependent on emotion), we can encourage students to really think about their values and the social contexts in which they live (and how these social contexts change). In essence, we can encourage them to become conscious of the “why” and wrestle—critically—with these understandings. How integral to their personalities, their identities, are their affective state, and how do their emotions stem from the values they were conditioned to believe—and should they continue to believe in them?
There are a few ways we can meaningfully integrate affect in the literature curriculum. First, encouraging students to record notes about their emotions as they experience them. I asked my participants to annotate Refresh, Refresh with Post-It notes (primarily because graphic novels aren’t the easiest medium for taking notes while reading). This process alone encourages students to think about their emotional reactions as they occur.
To make this clear, let me use the example of Marvel Comic’s X-Men: Magneto Testament, a text that focuses on the very human Erik’s internment in a concentration camp as a child and adolescent. Very accessible, the text features numerous images and textual moments that are emotionally powerful. As students read, they can affix Post-Its to these images.
The second method I had participants engage in was close reading selected segments of the text that they found to be the most emotionally salient. These close readings encourage individuals to think about how the text is being constructed and what stimuli the author uses to invoke these emotions. Further, we can encourage conversations about what ideologies affect the interactions between values, emotions and, stimulus.
One of the key things I realized as I worked on this dissertation is that values are very individualistic and subject to change. Consider how Ancient Greek audiences might have responded to Medea in ways that might be different from contemporary audiences. Or how Elizabethan audiences would have responded to Caliban or Shylock. When we consider the ideologies of the times against the textual evidence, would these characters really be sympathetic? What is it that has changed over the centuries that has caused us to think Shylock (the silver-tongued lawyer who uses emotion in the realm of law) or Caliban (the slave who attempted rape against a virginal daughter of a master) sympathetic? Was Euripides the first feminist playwright, or is he doing something sinister with his portrayals of gender?
Encouraging students to then engage in reflection, exploring what they learned about their own emotions and values not only encourages them to be more aware of their own identities. Students become more primed to think about how texts are created and the relationship between ideologies and societal contexts. We are giving them tools that they can carry beyond the classroom.
As teachers, we often expect students to have a grasp on adult sensibilities that teenagers are just coming to think about. When I conducted my study with teachers using the graphic novel, Refresh, Refresh (date; adapted from a short story by Benjamin Percy from his collection Refresh, Refresh: Stories), I found that there were many emotional reactions participants had towards the text that we couldn’t expect teenagers to have. While all readers might sympathize with the protagonists, I found that the adults in roles of protector of teenagers were often very forgiving. They reasoned about characters’ actions in ways that teenagers—who are of the age of the protagonists—might not. While I didn’t find any real gender differences about the violent behaviors of the boys in the novel, there might be differences in responses of teenagers based on gender. Further, if we ask teenagers how they would react were these female characters behaving in the same manner, we might also encourage teenagers to have deep conversations about why they associate behaviors against particular values they have about genders.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that teachers have “superior” values or ideological schemes against which emotions are enacted when stimulated by textual moments. As societies evolve, values shift and change, with youthful generations sometimes expressing emotional reactions to textual stimuli adult readers might not have experienced. Becoming socialized into a culture and community certainly requires perpetuating particular ideologies, but there are points where ideologies clash and are contestable, and one view that was previously a minority ideology might become the dominant. So, when students “read against” what we might feel about textual actions or moments, like what has happened in scholarship to Caliban and Shylock, let’s not assume they’re wrong—let’s invite these conversations and see how these thoughts reflect ideologies that, while counter to ours, are not necessarily inferior.
Consider for instance the realities of LGBTQ individuals. More visible in society, more visible in schools, and more visible in children’s and young adult literature, many younger individuals are finding themselves more accepting of sexual and gender diversity than their teachers might have found when they were adolescents. Of course, this could certainly be true about any socially contestable issues, like race, religion, etc. As society progresses, we might find students who are more receptive and open to issues we might have previously felt too controversial for inclusion in the curriculum.
Of course, changes are not happening only in society writ large; publishers are also redefining how sexual and diversity is represented in literature. At a time that homosexuality was designated psychological abnormality, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer or Blair Niles’ Strange Brother humanize gay men. The authors rely on the dangers that confronted gay men at the time to make them sympathetic, going so far as putting their lives at risk. If we wanted readers to feel sympathetic about queer characters, we had to put them in peril. Isabelle Holland’s The Man without a Face remains a controversial text, but the controversy illuminates still prevalent criticisms about homosexuality alive in more conservative communities.
Literature for teenagers about LGBT characters has dramatically shifted as societal thinking has evolved. While many books featuring LGBT protagonists still focus on the issues of sexual or gender diversity as the key purpose of the text, newer publications, like We Are Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson or Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai or One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva have now integrate being LGBT in with other experiences of being a teenager. This is not to say that the didactic nature of many LGBT books for young adults is a negative quality. Books like, Tim Federle’s The Great American Whatever; Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley; Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron; Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan; Hero by Perry Moore; The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth; Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg; Saints of Augustine by P. E. Ryan; Absolutely Positively Not . . . by David La Rochelle not only promote sexually and gender diverse individuals as human beings, they also promote cultural relevance and help LGBT teens seen quality possibilities for their lives.
To dip a toe into the realm of comics, though there have been long-standing LGBT characters (and some who are now identified as LGBT), the Young Avengers series (focusing on teenaged heroes) features two characters—Wiccan (son of Scarlet Witch) and Hulking—who are in a committed and loving relationship since their introduction. Providing a loving and genuine relationship for teens shows them that it is possible to find love.
Of course, young adult literature can’t ignore that there are awful situations confronting sexually and gender diverse teenagers. Consider that in real life the brutal death of Matthew Shepard can be seen as a key turning point in the fight for LGBT awareness and visibility; his death was a catalyst for many people to rethink how they speak about and address LGTB individuals as well as those who are to come out. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew by Leslea Newman captures the powerful effect that his gruesome murder had on a community and on a country. The young adult non-fiction title, Branded by the Pink Triangle, illustrates how LGT individuals were treated by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Judd Winnick’s graphic memoir, Pedro & Me is a testament to the power of knowing a human being who is confronting horrible realities and yet still finds the power to survive, endure, and appreciate the fundamentals of life (e.g., finding love). The memoir shows an individual who was a reality TV celebrity (before reality TV took off) confronting the AIDS crisis that, even today, continues to tear asunder generations of gay men. Winnick, while confronting his own emotions about the very public death, also writes from a place of anger about how gay men and people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS were treated in society.
I write this conclusion one week from the massacre in Orlando and with the extreme right on the rise throughout the world. If we want to encourage our students to think about the importance of the human experience—which is really the key purpose the humanities serve—then we have to engage them meaningfully with texts that can directly affect their lives. Encouraging students to see each other as human beings requires that they think affectively and engage in emotional reasoning. If you need more of a reason, or justification, affective reading is based on literary scholarship (e.g., Ngai ),educational objectives (e.g., Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia ), and psychological scholarship (Tomkins, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1991, 1992).
Auracher, J., & van Peer, W. (Eds.). (2008). New beginnings in literary studies. Newcastle, UK:
Cambridge Scholars Press
Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives:
The classification of educational goals: Handbook II: Affective domain. New York, NY: David McKay Company, Inc.
Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Richards, I. A. (1950). Practical criticism. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & World. (Original
work published in 1929)
Tomkins, S. S. (1962-1992). Affect imagery consciousness (Vols. 1-4). New York, NY: Springer
Tomkins, S. S. (1965). Affect and the psychology of knowledge. In S. S. Tomkins & C. E. Izard
(Eds), Affect, cognition, and personality: Empirical studies (pp. 72-97). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
Vermeule, B. (2010). Why do we care about literary characters. Baltimore, MD: The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Brian Kelley can be contacted at email@example.com