The Riddle in PLOS One

Do novel readers want to be swept away by a novel? Or do they seek an intellectual challenge? Or both at the same time?

In 2013, the research team of The Riddle of Literary Quality, led by Professor Karina van Dalen-Oskam in the Netherlands, completed The National Reader Survey. Almost 14,000 respondents shared their opinions about recently published novels. The participants also responded to six statements that related to the question of what they personally considered important to reading fiction.

Today, in the international (open access, peer-reviewed) journal PLOS One, an initial analysis of these reactions appears. The American researcher Allen Riddell applied methods to analyze these responses that were previously used in research into voting behavior. He discovered an interesting pattern in the responses of the representative group of participants in the National Reader Survey. Readers who indicated they read in order to be intellectually challenged also indicated that they wanted to be carried away by a novel. Conversely, this did not apply: not all readers who wanted to be dragged along, also wanted to be challenged intellectually.

Readers who want more than just being swept away by a story are usually ‘literary’ readers. They usually have more demands and higher expectations when they read, they not only restrict themselves to the story, but also want to enjoy the use of language in a novel. This group is often critical of popular books that are “devoured” by others. But this research shows that they, as readers, do report seeking emotional engagement with works: they report wanting to be carried away by a novel. An interesting outcome, not only because it tells us something about the readers of literature but also about the literature itself.

In the article, Riddell and van Dalen-Oskam state that they suspect that the literary reader has come to appreciate this way of reading in the education they have enjoyed or by developing their own reading experience. Literary readers sometimes are critical about ‘non-literary’ readers and the books they read, but this research shows that they do want the same. Only a little more …

Allen Riddell & Karina van Dalen-Oskam, Readers and their roles: evidence from readers or contemporary fiction in the Netherlands. PLOS One, 26 July 2018,

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