readers

Murder and Metafiction

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 9 December, 2018

The cover of Running HotThere's a short metafictional passage in Jayne Ann Krentz's Running Hot which manages to make quite a few points about the appeal of popular romance, and implies it isn't less realistic than crime fiction:

He glanced at the cover of her book. The illustration showed the shadowed profile of a woman. She had a gun in her hand. The title was equally ominous.
"Looks like a murder mystery," he said.
"Romantic-suspense," she corrected.
"Meaning?"
"Meaning it's got both romance and a couple of murders in it."
"You like books like that?"
"Yes."
He smiled. "Thought you said you weren't a romantic."
"I'm not." She turned another page. "Doesn't mean that I don't like to read about romance."
"What about the murders?"
"They get solved by clever sleuthing on the part of the hero and heroine. It's very satisfying."
"You know, in real life the motivation for murder is usually a lot more straightforward than it is in fiction," he said. "Somebody gets pissed off, picks up the nearest gun and shoots the guy who pissed him off."
"Really?" She did not seem particularly interested.
"What's more, the majority of cases get solved because someone talks, not because of forensics or clever sleuthing."
"If I want real police work, I'll read the newspapers, not a book," she said.
"Probably a good idea. Let me know how that one ends."
She turned another page. "I already know how it ends."
"You read the ending first?"
"I always read the ending first before I commit to the whole book."
He looked at her, baffled. "If you know how it ends, why read the book?"
"I don't read for the ending. I read for the story. [...] Life is too short to waste time on books that end badly."
"By badly, you mean unhappily, right?"
"As far as I'm concerned, the two are synonymous." (152-154)

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Krentz, Jayne Ann. Running Hot. 2009. New York: Jove, 2010.

Latest (not conclusive) findings about romance and readers' relationship beliefs

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 24 August, 2018

I thought I'd write up a brief summary of the findings related to romance in

Stern, Stephanie C., Brianne Robbins, Jessica E. Black and Jennifer L. Barnes. "What You Read and What You Believe: Genre Exposure and Beliefs About Relationships." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. Abstract here.

Stern et al summarise prior research which found that

People who watch more soap operas, which tend to focus heavily on romantic storylines, have been shown to hold beliefs about relationships that detract from one’s relationship satisfaction and longevity (Haferkamp, 1999). Exposure to romantic comedy movies in young adults has also been shown to correlate with greater support of the relationship ideals common to the genre, such as the belief that love conquers all and the idealization of romantic partners (Hefner & Wilson, 2013). Similarly, in a study by Shapiro and Kroeger (1991), participants who endorsed unrealistic beliefs about relationships scored higher on a measure of exposure to romance novels and movie romantic comedies. Specifically, exposure to romance was shown to significantly correlate with greater support of the belief that mindreading and sexual perfectionism should be expected in a relationship.

Taken as a whole, this body of work is consistent with the idea that exposure to Romance fiction, across media, is associated with a variety of unrealistic beliefs about romantic relationships. However, a majority of the studies cited above relied on voluntary self-reported exposure to romantic films, magazines, and/or novels, and the definition of what qualifies as “romance” media varies significantly between experiments. (4)

Their paper

is focused on the degree to which exposure to seven different literary genres relates to participants’ endorsement of the beliefs that the sexes are inherently different, that all disagreement is destructive, that one’s romantic partner should be able to know one’s thoughts and feelings without being told, that romantic partners cannot change, and that sexual perfection should be expected in relationships (3)

The seven genres were "classics, contemporary literary fiction, romance, fantasy, science fiction, suspense/thriller, horror" (5), later reduced to six because "high collinearity between science fiction and fantasy" (6) led them to combine the two.

For romance, the "association between familiarity with romance authors and the belief that the sexes are difference [sic] was positive: participants who recognized more romance authors scored higher on the sexes are different subscale" (6). In other words, romance readers were more likely than other readers to endorse the idea that men are different from women. However, romance reading was not associated with any of the other "unrealistic" beliefs listed above.

The correlational findings from this study differ from past research on the romance genre in several ways. For example, Fong and colleagues (2015) found no significant correlation between exposure to romantic books and attitudes about sex and gender, whereas the current research found that individuals who read romance novels are more likely to assert that the sexes are inherently different. Conversely, research on other forms of media has shown various correlations between Romance and maladaptive relationship beliefs, such as the belief that mind reading is expected and stronger idealization of relationships as a whole (Shapiro & Kroeger, 1991; Hefner & Wilson, 2013), whereas our study showed no relationship between exposure to the romance genre and these beliefs. This difference may be due, in part, to the present study controlling for exposure to other written fiction genres, including literary classics, which may be particularly important, given that exposure to the classics— or increased knowledge of them—may reflect education more than reading habits per se. (9)

In addition, the results do not show that romance causes its readers to believe that "the sexes are inherently different":

Another limitation that merits consideration is the correlational nature of the results reported here. The current experiment found a relationship between exposure to certain written fiction genres and relationship beliefs, but it does not and cannot determine the nature of that association. It is possible that repeatedly reading specific genres affects our beliefs about relationships, but it is also possible that preexisting beliefs guide genre preferences. (10)

So more

research is needed to explore whether viewing or reading specific genres of fiction affects relationship beliefs and, conversely, whether priming specific relationship beliefs can influence fiction preferences. Finally, future research is needed to explore the role that other variables, such as education, imagination, prior experience with romantic relationships, and transportation may play in the associations found here. (10)

 

A Little Light Bedtime Reading

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 10 June, 2018

Apparently

Research has [...] demonstrated that ‘pleasure readers’ do more bedtime reading which promotes peaceful sleep at night (Ponniah & Priya, 2014) and reduces stress and anxiety, as the pleasurable activity of reading helps secrete more serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that works synergistically with melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, to give contentment and peaceful sleep (Buchanan, 2007). (Ponniah 116)

Admittedly there's no mention here of what happens to readers who are so engrossed they stay up late and are then exhausted in the morning when they can't sleep in, but it sounds like a great explanation/excuse for why bed-time reading should be encouraged.

So, here's a very short story by R. Joseph Ponniah about the benefits of late-night romance reading.

Once upon a time, a well-educated woman "approached the researcher asking for assistance and suggestions for improving her telephone conversation skills and language used in business contexts" (118). Her first language was Tamil, and she wanted to improve her English for use at work.

First, the researcher instructed that she watch a series of videos designed to teach business English. However, the videos were too boring, and the woman said so.

Then the researcher suggested that she read a series of novels about war, written by male authors. However, the woman said that these books were not of interest to her.

At last, the researcher thought to ask the woman about the novels she enjoyed reading in Tamil, and asked her to find similar books in English and

She collected more than 50 novels published by Mills and Boon and Harlequin and started reading them one after another without any assistance from the experimenter. In six months she completed 27 novels in [...] English [...], including Song of the wave (Anne Hampson), Scandalous (Charlotte Lamb), Temporary bride (Patricia Wilson), Kiss the moonlight (Barbara Cartland) and Married in a moment (Jessica Steele). She read at bedtime as she had more work during the day, and now she continues to read novels in [English] for pleasure. Discussion with the subject confirmed that reading such novels is a pleasurable experience and this kind of reading gave her not only the confidence to speak on the telephone but also helped her clearly communicate the intended meaning both in written and spoken language. When asked about her L2 reading experience, she said that she read for pleasure and did not feel that she was reading in a second language. [...]

 

She used to seek the experimenter’s assistance to draft business letters, but once she had been reading English novels for pleasure for about a month she developed the ability to draft without the support of the experimenter. She explained that she never experienced writing apprehensions after reading the novels in L2. Further, her confidence level increased when telephoning in English as she had acquired the skills required for conversation. (119)

And that is the story of how a little bed-time romance reading helped one reader gain proficiency and confidence in a second language!

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Ponniah, R. Joseph. "First-Language Reading Promotes Second-Language Reading and Acquisition: Towards a Biolinguistic Approach". The Idea and Practice of Reading. Eds. R. Joseph Ponniah and Sathyaraj Venkatesan. Singapore: Springer, 2018. 113-124.

Literary Criticism: Emotion and Not-so-Objective Criteria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 May, 2018

Following up on my last post, which defended happy emotions as not being any less profound than sad ones, here's a quote from a new book by Catherine Butler which discusses the implications of "most literary criticism [...] rhetorical[ly] positioning [...] the critic as an objective observer and analyser" (54):

one method of marginalising affect in criticism is to exclude from serious critical consideration genres seen as designed to elicit strong (or “crude”, or “manipulative”) affective reactions: popular romances and horror stories are obvious examples. When Aristotle kickstarted Western literary criticism more than two millennia ago, he did so in part by analysing tragedy’s affective power over the emotional state of its audience; but one might contend that the mode of affective engagement elicited by Oedipus Rex and Fifty Shades of Grey are sufficiently distinct to warrant a degree of critical triage. However, such arguments, especially when applied to whole genres rather than to cherry-picked texts, tend to be sustained by question-begging assumptions about what kinds of emotional experience are worthwhile, complex, profound, life-enhancing and so on. Approaches of this type are both arbitrary (excess is more critically “respectable” in Gothic texts than in modern horror, for example) and orientated so as to privilege the tastes of certain groups of readers (men over women, educated over uneducated, adults over children). (46-47, emphasis added)

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Butler, Catherine. Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Respecting the Prejudices of the Reading Public

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 6 December, 2017

Earlier this year the Disability and Romance Project was launched, with the aim

to start new conversations about disability in the romance community. We’ll be gathering data from romance readers, writers and other industry professionals to explore how readers respond to depictions of disability in romance, what motivates authors to write disabled characters, and if there are any barriers to publishing romance novels featuring disabled characters.

Things have, of course, changed over the decades and perhaps it's helpful to have as reference point the situation in romance writing in the 1960s, when Ann Britton and Marion Collin's guide to writing romantic fiction included disability among the "taboo" subjects:

Deformity is also unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely and the larger-circulation magazines tend to avoid it unless it appears in an exceptionally good story. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)

It's probably worth noting that at the time the heroine was "never 'tipsy'" (15), divorce was a "delicate subject [...] though there have been more in recent years, possibly owing to a slight American trend" (16), "Illegitimate children are out of the question" (16) and there was "a colour bar [...] .To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time" (17).

The reason given for all these taboos was that in order to "appeal to as many readers as possible [...] they must respect the prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public" (17). The impression I have is that some romance authors have always challenged, or wanted to challenge, the "prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public," whether in small or large ways. In 1964, for example, Mills & Boon

asked Alex Stuart for major changes to her latest manuscript [...]. In her submission letter, Stuart realized that there might be prolems with this novel. 'Please understand that I want Mills & Boon to publish this one very much but I know your reputation for publishing "pleasant books" is of great value to you and, of course, wouldn't want to damage this' [...]. The problem concerned Stuart's insistence that the heroine's father act as a crusader in race relations in Lehar, a fictional African nation. He publishes a book demanding equal rights for black people, and targets South Africa and its apartheid laws. (McAleer 269)

Stuart, "as Vice-President of the Romantic Novelists Association, often spoke on the future of the genre" and she believed more challenging novels such as this one were "the kind which must come in the future, if the romantic novel is to hold its new, young readers and go forward, rather than backward" (169). Mills & Boon didn't publish the novel, but romances have changed with the times. Whether they've generally led the change, or largely followed in the wake of changes in the prejudices of the reading public, I'm not sure. There's certainly a long tradition of smaller publishers (e.g. of lesbian romance) catering to more niche markets, with stories that did not "respect the prejudices" of a large proportion of "mainstream" readers.

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Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. Romantic Fiction: The New Writers’ Guide. London: T. V. Boardman, 1960.

McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

 

"translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring [...] discernment"

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 23 October, 2016

In "Reading Readers: Living and Leaving Fictional Worlds" (Narrative 24.3 (2016): 351-69) Cristina V. Bruns explores a downside of deep engagement with novels:

here is a problem of fiction reading. Good stories of many kinds can show us what we are missing. In them we can discover by imagined experience what our ordinary lives lack. During the duration of our reading, our inner world is merged with the imaginary world we meet and to some extent create at the prompting of the text, and our self-experience is thus temporarily re-formed by our encounter with a world of adventure, terror, triumph, love lost and regained, and significance, as well as our encounter with the selves we become as we inhabit that world. Then we must inevitably return to our ordinary life and may find no place in it for our newly shaped self, instead facing only the absence of opportunity for that self-experience, a desire for which the reading has awakened. From this perspective, it is no wonder that one of my students blamed books for leaving her thoroughly dissatisfied with her life. Immersing oneself in the world of a literary text may produce the intense intermediate experience that Winnicott attributed to transitional object use, but in these cases it seems not to give relief from the strain of relating inner and outer reality but indeed to heighten that strain because the intermediate world drawn between the reader’s self and the text shows the reader through imagined experience what is lacking in her world outside the text. It seems that the reader’s task is not yet finished. The process of bringing back into one’s world one’s experience of the story, the process of continuing “a literary style in one’s own life,” in Macé’s words, is neither automatic nor inevitable, but the incongruity between the fiction and life can seem or indeed be insurmountable. (362)

She mostly looks at young adult readers of series such as Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight but there is a section, based on Radway, which suggests this phenomenon may also affect adult readers of romance. Bruns does note that Radway's findings date from the 1980s, so aren't necessarily reflective of contemporary readers, and she also notes that romance reading did lead on to successful careers for both Dot (the bookseller Radway interviewed) and romance readers who became romance writers.

Here's a bit more:

This work of translation from fiction to life, however, is not only difficult but dangerous, as Flaubert and Cervantes demonstrate in perhaps exaggerated form with Emma Bovary and Don Quixote. Both characters in their own ways try to mold their external worlds to fit what they discovered in reading but found sadly lacking in their mundane realities. What they choose to introduce into their realities, however, cannot fit there. Two students I have interviewed also enacted in life what they found in fiction, both as young teenagers, but one with more intentionality than the other and with very different outcomes. Sarah was teased and excluded for being smart and so read much of the time as an escape. In the Harry Potter series, she discovered Hermione, a girl who also was smart but who used her intelligence and didn’t care what others thought of her. Sarah decided to act like Hermione, to act like she was confident and didn’t care that others teased her. Before long Sarah became that person rather than just imitating Hermione, and this enactment brought her out of a period of intimidation and alienation. The other student, Melanie, loved the romance of the Twilight series and was thrilled early in high school to win the affection of an older boy who seemed out of reach for her socially like Edward was for Bella. She said that a few years later she realized that during that relationship she had used Edward’s sometimes harsh treatment of Bella to rationalize and tolerate her older boyfriend’s growing demands that made her increasingly uncomfortable. If the relationship at the heart of the Twilight series could survive and flourish through such difficulty, hers could too, she reasoned, even though it produced at times physical bruises like those Bella received. Eventually Melanie had to be pulled out of school in order to get away from her hoped-for romance.

In both instances these avid readers brought into their lived experience elements from the fictional worlds they loved, producing in Sarah’s case clearly a more satisfying relation with the world around her, and in Melanie’s the opposite. One could attribute the difference between these outcomes to a widespread assumption that Harry Potter is a better book series than Twilight, but it could also be that Sarah’s choice of an element was compatible with her reality while Melanie’s was harmful when transposed into ordinary life. If, as Booth claims, writers of fiction construct worlds designed intentionally to be more appealing than ordinary reality in order to keep readers reading, then translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment. (363-64)

I think Bruns is right that "translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment." I also think it's likely to be a problem potentially faced by all readers who find something desirable in the fictional worlds they read about.  Even if we're perfectly capable of separating fantasy from fiction, it can be harder to work out exactly what it is in the fictional world which holds the most appeal, why, and whether this has implications for our daily lives.

It occurs to me that this sort of "translation" and "discernment" is also required when engaging with a lot of other media, including the glimpses we can get into the lives of celebrities via magazines, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook etc. When real people shape how they present their lives to others, they may make them seem more appealing so perhaps even more discernment is required in order to work out the implications for our daily lives?

Effects of Written Erotica

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 6 February, 2016

A recent piece of research in The Journal of Sex Research, in which a group of male and female readers were exposed to three different types of erotica (male dominant/female submissive; female dominant/male submissive; neither partner submissive or dominant), suggests that:

reading about a sexually submissive woman may have a negative impact on attitudes toward women, including increasing benevolent sexism in women and rape myth acceptance in men. However, erotica also had the power to challenge traditional gender roles. We found that after reading about a sexually dominant woman, men rated dominance as an appealing trait in a potential partner, at least to the same extent that women did. Finally, we found that men and women were similar in their levels of arousal in response to sexually explicit erotica and that different types of erotica are equally arousing, regardless of the dominance and submission roles taken on by the protagonists. In sum, although we highlight some potentially negative consequences of reading erotica depicting male dominance, our findings should not be interpreted as devaluing erotica. Instead, our study hints at the utility and benefit of seeking out a range of erotica that eschews typical gender roles to encourage “eroticizing equality.” (10)

The authors did advise that:

It should be noted that the effects of reading different submission/dominance stories on attitudes were small. We speculate that the potential consequences of reading male dominance erotica on attitudes, such as more negative views toward women, may be exacerbated following repeated exposure to such erotica. Future research might investigate the effects of a longer-term exposure to submission-/dominance-themed erotica by using a diary study to test the effects of reading a full-length erotic novel, or longitudinal work testing male dominance erotica consumption and attitudes over time. Finally, an additional avenue for future research would be to test the effects of reading popular erotica in a nonheterosexual sample. For example, submission and dominance between a consenting lesbian pair would be unlikely to carry with it the same political meaning as male-on-female dominance. It is possible, however, that effects may still be seen on partner preferences. (10)

Here's a bit more detail about their findings regarding the dominant woman/submissive male and neither-partner-dominant-nor-submissive erotica:

It may be that depictions of nontraditional men and women as “sexy” broaden our understanding of what is considered gender appropriate behavior. The battle for less prescriptive gender roles is often fought directly. Our work highlights that change can also occur indirectly via the stories that we tell, including those that sexually arouse us. While erotica has the potential to result in detrimental outcomes for women (i.e., through increased benevolent sexism and rape myths), it also has the potential to make the deviant desirable and prompt a shift toward acceptance of nontraditional gender roles. Although the shifts observed in our study were small and likely to be temporary, more consistent exposure to nonnormative erotica (or even literature more generally) may have a stronger impact on what men and women want in a partner. (9)

and

Our findings provide promising evidence that a focus away from female submission does not mean a decrease in sexual arousal. Rather, stories describing female dominance or no dominance were equally arousing and perhaps less likely to perpetuate the belief in women that sex and submission are necessarily linked. (9)

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Harris, Emily Ann, Michael Thai & Fiona Kate Barlow (2016). "Fifty Shades Flipped: Effects of Reading Erotica Depicting a Sexually Dominant Woman Compared to a Sexually Dominant Man", The Journal of Sex Research.

Review/Summary (10 - Tricia Abigail Santos Fermin): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 27 December, 2015

I'm probably not doing a very good job of trying to capture the essence of many of these essays, given how little I know about the texts they discuss. At a minimum, I hope I'm giving enough quotes to let people know if an essay is on a topic which interests them.

The subject of Santos Fermin's essay is made clear in its title: "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines" but

In particular, I will show how Yaoi and Boys' Love have spread underground in the religously conservative societies of the Philippines and Indonesia, and contributed to the formation of fans' attitudes toward their own bodily passions, as well as a reworking of their moral sensitivities concerning non-heteronormative sexualities. Using data gathered from informant interviews of self-identified Yaoi and BL fans in Manila and Jakarta, this chapter ultimately aims to raise the following points. Yaoi and BL are primarily consumed for entertainment and titillation, serving as a non-threatening medium through which readers are able to explore and positively confront their own sexual desires. Informant accounts also show us that fan engagement with Yaoi and BL does not necessarily lead to a full rejection (or critique) of their society's hetero-sexism and an acceptance of homosexuality as a valid mode of sexual and gender identity. Instead, fans attempt to negotiate their personal stances on homosexuality, which are more often than not still heavily influenced by their religious beliefs and affiliations, in order to accommodate the strong but morally-conflicted interest that they develop in these genres. The discussion will show that while Indonesian and Filipino fans all eventually develop at least an open or permissive attitude toward non-heteronormative sexualities, issues around homosexuality and LGBT rights are merely a secondary concern. (189)

Santos Fermin concludes that:

The explorations of male homoeroticism, androgyny and coupling have helped fans realize and express their dissatisfactions with oppressive constructions of gender, sexuality and intimacy [...] and [...] also led at least some of these fans to [...] imagine a more egalitarian model of intimate relationships. (203)

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Santos Fermin, Tricia Abigail. "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 187-203.

Review/Summary (6 - Tanya Serisier): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 December, 2015

a simple search of the "Factiva" news database of English-language news outlets [...] reveals that in the year following publication of the Fifty Shades trilogy [...] there were 11,297 articles which mentioned the books. As a point of comparison, the figure for the two years after publication of Dan Brown's (2003) literary blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, shows just over half as many mentions, in 6,632 articles.

It is this cultural response, rather than the books themselves, that is the subject of this chapter [...] in it I attempt to think through some of the key tropes that I observed arising again and again. (117)

Serisier finds that almost all the reviewers were very critical of the books but

What the reviewers are interested in most of all is what the popularity of the books tells us about the many women who have not only read the books but recommended them to others, given the early lack of marketing efforts and reliance on word-of-mouth sales. To put it another way, the depiction of all that is wrong with the books easily slides into a quest to ascertain what precisely is wrong with their readers. (119)

Serisier analyses the reasons why the critics responded this way and in the final section of the essay Serisier summarises

what responses to Fifty Shades tell us about feminist readings of popular culture, arguing that we need feminist reading practices that are critical, but also engaged with and sympathetic to the complexities of gender and sexuality in contemporary culture. (129)

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Serisier, Tanya. "On Not Reading Fifty Shades: Feminism and the Fantasy of Romantic Immunity". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 117-132.

Romance Series: Surrogate Communities?

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 4 December, 2015

I've written a chapter about community in my forthcoming book on reading US romance as political fiction so I immediatedly followed the link when Merrian Weymouth tweeted

and it was indeed interesting and it led me to the original academic research, in which the authors

argue that [...] commonplace technologies, such as narrative fiction, television, music, or interactive video games, can [...] provide the experience of need fulfillment. We hypothesize that the facsimiles of social contexts presented in these technologies may be used to satisfy the fulfillment of belongingness needs. Just as Harlow’s (1958) infant monkeys experienced succor from cloth surrogates, satisfying belongingness needs, so too may beloved books, television programs, movies, music, or video games potentially serve as "social surrogates," leading to an experience of belongingness even when no real, bona fide belongingness has been experienced. (Derrick, Gabriel and Hugenberg 352)

and

common themes in [...] narratives are social (Hogan, 2003), and strong initial research demonstrates that narratives engage people in social processing (Mar & Oatley, 2008). For example, engaging in narratives leads to an increase in thoughts and emotions congruent with the ones presented in the narrative (Oatley, 1999), and exposure to narratives is related to more sophisticated social skills and abilities (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006). Indeed, Mar and Oatley (2008) argue that one core function of narratives is to mentally simulate social interactions, potentially facilitating subsequent social behavior. (353)

They also offer a hypothesis which, if applied to fiction, may partially explain why so many readers describe some books as "comfort reads":

If favorite television programs can yield the experience of belonging, we hypothesized that [...] events that typically elicit belongingness needs (e.g., threats to a relationship, a rejection experience) would elicit a desire to experience a favored television program. (353)

That said, the experiments described in the article provide little support for extending the hypothesis to books. If anything the people studied were less likely to read an "old favorite" than a new book (355) but they weren't necessarily readers who had "comfort reads": they were

Seven-hundred and one undergraduate students (233 men, 322 women, and 146 participants who did not indicate their gender; mean age=18.86) (354)

who were much more likely to turn to music, TV and movies.

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Derrick, Jaye L., Shira Gabriel and Kurt Hugenberg, 2009. "Social Surrogacy: How Favored Television Programs Provide the Experience of Belonging". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 352-62.