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Reading race in small Island : discourse deviation, schemata and the textual encounter

Lang, Anouk (2009) Reading race in small Island : discourse deviation, schemata and the textual encounter. Language and Literature, 18 (3). pp. 316-330. ISSN 0963-9470

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This article uses the work of Cook and Semino on discourse deviation to investigate the schemata – the existing cognitive frameworks – that readers bring to their encounters with texts. It aims to challenge the tendency within some strands of discourse analysis and literary theory to ignore empirical readers and to focus on the effects of texts on readers while neglecting the role played by readerly agency. The analysis centres on a discussion between Liverpool residents with various levels of involvement in Small Island Read 2007: a project encouraging residents of the city to read Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Bill. In this discussion, hedging around lexical items connected to ethnicity and slavery suggests that these readers came to Small Island with a marked reluctance to discuss these topics. When coupled with corroborating data from online questionnaire responses on the topic of ethnicity, this finding is a significant one for understanding the effect of Small Island on its readers, as it offers a degree of contextualization missing from extant claims that readers have been transformed in some way by the novel, and brings empirical depth to discussions which have so far been predominantly theoretical. As an exploratory study, the analysis also offers a model for other investigations into the effects of reading which, I argue, would be enhanced by considering what readers bring to – as well as take from – their textual encounters.