“There’s no literary term for the quality Twilight and Harry Potter (and The Lord of the Rings) share,” wrote Lev Grossman of Time magazine in 2008, “but you know it when you see it: their worlds have a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there.”
If there’s no literary term, we can test a scientific term instead: “narrative collective assimilation.” In a new study, Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young from the University at Buffalo asked 140 participants to spend thirty minutes reading a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Afterward, they measured the extent to which the participants psychologically assimilated to the collectives — vampires or wizards — described in each passage.
The results, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, showed that the Twilight readers associated themselves with vampires, while the Harry Potter readers associated themselves with wizards. This finding held for both explicit measurements (“How sharp are your teeth?”) and implicit ones (the speed with which participants placed words like ME and FANGS into the same category).
Not all participants exhibited collective assimilation to the same degree. Gabriel and Young also administered standardized test items such as “When I join a group, I usually develop a strong sense of identification with that group.” Interestingly, participants who rated these items more highly also associated themselves more strongly with vampires or wizards after reading a passage. That is, participants who have stronger tendencies to identify with collectives in real life apparently transfer these tendencies to fiction.
Participants also completed a five-item questionnaire to indicate their mood, and a single-item questionnaire to indicate their life satisfaction (“Right now, in most ways, my life is close to ideal.”). Analysis of the results indicated that narrative collective assimilation correlated with better mood and increased life satisfaction. In other words, the more participants associated themselves with vampires or wizards after reading the passages, the better their mood and the higher their life satisfaction score.
Fiction is often viewed as an to escape from the real world, but Gabriel and Young conclude just the opposite. Fiction, they argue, offers an important opportunity to connect with social groups and participate in something bigger than ourselves.
So Grossman’s observation gets some confirmation from the laboratory: both Twilight and Harry Potter allow readers to climb inside a new world and “buy real estate”. Furthermore, doing so doesn’t just put you in a better mood — it actually makes you think that your entire life is better. That’s a striking finding.
Equally striking, though, is the fact that the results hold true for both books, despite the rather different critical receptions they have received.
Elizabeth Spires of The New York Times gave Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight a mixed review: “The premise of Twilight is attractive and compelling…but the book suffers at times from overearnest, amateurish writing. A little more ‘showing’ and a lot less ‘telling’ might have been a good thing.” Writing in the same publication, Michael Winerip had nothing but praise for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Like Harry himself, J.K. Rowling “had wizardry inside, and has soared beyond her modest Muggle surroundings to achieve something quite special.”
The Salon.com reviews also draw a contrast between the books. Laura Miller critiques Meyer’s characterization of Bella, the human protagonist of Twilight: she is “more of a place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward’s chilly charms.” Writing in the same publication, Charles Taylor says simply: “I don’t think you can read 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before you start feeling that unmistakable shiver that tells you you’re reading a classic.”
A close look at Gabriel and Young’s results actually does suggest that the participants assigned to read Harry Potter show greater effects of narrative collective assimilation than those assigned to read Twilight, particularly for the explicit measures. So Rowling’s prose may create a more measurably powerful experience for readers than Meyer’s. Still, the effects are present for both authors, and Gabriel and Young do not distinguish between them in their report.
We (or rather, I) like to think that the difference between amateurish writing and classic writing matters. But Gabriel and Young’s results potentially transcend this difference. Whether you read Twilight or Harry Potter, doing so makes you feel like part of a group. And that feeling is nothing short of transformative.
“Read a book, stay connected” in US News and World Report
Gabriel, Shira and Ariana F. Young. To appear. Becoming a vampire without being bitten: The narrative collective assimilation hypothesis. Psychological Science.
Meyer, Stephenie. 2005. Twilight. Little, Brown.
Rowling, J.K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic.
Wikipedia articles on Twilight and Harry Potter.
Canteen clip art from Educational Technology Clearinghouse