Reader reception of Bernardine Evaristo's "Girl, Woman, Other". A distant and close reading approach

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2020 32 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Bernardine Evaristo’s Fusion Fiction

2. Theoretical Introduction: Distant and Close Reading for Reception Analysis

3. Distant Reading of 300 Reader Reviews
3.1. Fictional Characters and Their Perspectives
3.2. Aesthetics (“Fusion Fiction” and Use of Language)
3.3. Intertextuality and Intermediality

4. Close Reading of Narrative Techniques in Girl, Woman, Other

5. Close Reading of Emotional Effects on Readers (goodreads reviews)

6. Discussion & Outlook: Opportunities and Limitations of Distant Reading

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction: Bernardine Evaristo’s Fusion Fiction

“I loved this! Maybe my favourite book” (Hannah) is how most of the goodreads1 reader reviews on Bernardine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other echo. Revolving around the lives of twelve Black British women, the book spans nearly two centuries and explores the topics of feminism, womanhood, homosexuality, politics and racism in Britain. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific character:

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There’s Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright, and non-binary Morgan, who uses the internet to navigate their gender identity – but also Shirley, a teacher who feels alien in Amma’s community, and Winsome, a bride who has arrived from Barbados to an unhappy marriage. Many of the characters are close – friends, relatives or lovers – while others simply visit the same theatre on the same night or argue with each other on Twitter (Frazer Caroll)

With an average rating of 4.42 stars on a scale from 1-5 on goodreads, Girl, Woman, Other compares to all-time favourites like the Lord of the Rings (Æ 4.51) or Game of Thrones (Æ 4.45) (Brandstetter). But why is this experimental novel received so well? Is it its experimental style of writing, which Bernardine Evaristo describes as “fusion fiction” allowing her to “simultaneously get inside the characters’ thoughts as if they are speaking in the first person, but also present them externally, while segueing their past with their present, and their stories also flow into each other’s” (Donnell 101)?

Yet, is it this fluidity in prose which speaks to the reader and allows her2 to identify or critically differentiate from Girl, Woman, Other ’s characters? Which narrative techniques and strategies influence reader reception so that a literary work receives a 4.42 star-rating on the online platform goodreads. How can this be measured? Can empirical data tell us enough about reader reception and how literature influences society today? Or do we still need close reading of fiction to understand how it can influence readers? How, if at all, can reception be measured?

This paper combines empirical analysis of actual reader reception data with a close reading of reception data as well as the literary work. The first chapter provides essential theoretical background focusing on distant reading and cognitive/empirical reception as well as the guidance of reader reception through empathy, all with a particular focus on character representation. Chapter two analyses 300 goodreads reviews on Girl, Woman, Other through distant reading to find out what the contemporary reader focuses on . Chapter three looks at narrative techniques used in Girl, Woman, Other analysed through close reading before focusing on their emotional effects on the reader by applying close reading to the available reader reviews. Chapter five discusses the opportunities and limitations of distant reading for reader reception studies and provides an outlook for future research possibilities. A final conclusion will then sum up the paper’s major findings.

2. Theoretical Introduction: Distant and Close Reading for Reception Analysis

Ever since Marco Moretti’s 2000 article “Conjectures on World Literature” introduced concepts like distant reading and the macroanalysis of texts to literary academia, discussions on the advantages and disadvantages, of both distant and close reading have been on the rise (i.e. Moretti, Eve, Underwood, Fish, Marche, Spivak3 ). To Moretti, distant reading means processing large chunks of texts with the help of computational and statistical analysis. Distant reading abstracts and works out recurring patterns and explores models with which a text can be described and visualized. He stresses the importance of “distance” for distant reading since it is distance that allows a fine-grained analysis turning into “a condition of knowledge: it [distant reading] allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems” (Moretti 48). Distant reading is thus the computational analysis of texts, delivering helpful insights into a piece of fiction without the need to actually read it. Computers take over the reader’s task, but which role is left for the reader? Is she not an essential part of constructing meaning in fiction taking into account traditional reader response theory? How can distant reading help to understand both reader and literary work better?

With the cognitive turn of the 1980s, scholars slowly started developing models which aimed at understanding the reading process better. Cognitive theories focus on deconstructing the reading process to understand how readers make sense of fictional texts. According to Jens Eder, cognitive theory sees reader reception as active and constructive process between text and reader relying on reader’s “human physicality and experience” (283). Yet what is “human physicality and experience” and how does it influence the reading process? Lisa Zunshine was one of the first to map this interaction between reader and text in her 2006 book Why We Read Fiction which aims to answer why some readers prefer some narratives over others. Why are some narratives well extremely well received (like Girl, Woman, Other) and some are not? She explains that readers are able to make sense of fictional narratives because they are capable of interpreting the characters’ presented physicality and experience correctly due to humans’ innate ability to make social sense. Interpreting social situations, both factual and fictional, correctly then leads to a feeling of satisfaction. This process is commonly referred to as “theory of mind” or “mind-reading” (Zunshine 6).

Zunshine further claims that “the novel feeds the powerful, representation-hungry complex of cognitive adaptations whose very condition of being is a constant social stimulation delivered either by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions” (10). Readers thus read fiction because they enjoy the cognitive stimulation they receive through the fictional representation of life as they know it (or not know it). The novel, in that sense, is a “cognitive experiment” for the reader, who is given the chance to interpret fictional characters’ social behaviour – without the pressure of being accurate as demanded in real life: “one of the pleasures of reading novels is the enjoyment of being told what a variety of fictional people are thinking (…). This is a relief from the business of real life, much of which requires the ability to decode accurately the behaviors of others” (Palmer qtd. in Zunshine 19). How exactly does the reader know how to interpret a character’s mental state?

This is addressed in what Eder then terms “cognitive reception studies”, where scholars focus on both the cognitive activities while reading but also on the emotional effects the reading process has on readers (284). It is thus a combination of the reader’s ability to “mind-read” and the emotional affect (empathic as well as sympathetic) the narrative has on the reader which generates the reader’s accurate social cognition of a fictional narrative (Nünning 21). The empathy and sympathy felt towards fictional characters, however, is not necessarily an active reader decision, rather the contrary.

In 1990, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of neurophysiologists discovered the “mirror neurons” after experiments relating to the social behaviour of macaques. They found that primates, and thus humans, do not differentiate between action and perception. It showed that the mere imagination of an action could trigger the same emotions (i.e. empathy and sympathy) in the human brain as the actual experience (Lusin 12). The mirror neurons literally “mirror” a feeling to an observer so that she can understand the feelings or needs of the observed. Applied to literary studies, the discovery of the mirror neurons suggested that readers’ mirror neurons were activated during the reading process and could trigger those emotions in the reader which the fictional characters were described to experience.

It seems natural then to assume that certain narrative strategies can influence and guide reader feelings towards empathy, yet what exactly is empathy? Nünning defines empathy as the basis for our joint social living. Empathy enables humans to understand the feelings of other humans (Nünning 93). It requires “taking the perspective of others, which involves both affective and more abstract cognitive processes when people simulate the beliefs, emotions, and thoughts of others” (94). Empathy has the power to socially educate people – in real life as much as in fiction – and is thus a fictional narrative’s subversive power. Contrasted to sympathy, however, which is feeling for someone (“Mitgefühl”), empathy is feeling like someone (“Einfühlung”) (Lusin 17, my emphasis). How can a narrative guide reader reception towards empathy to guarantee an effective and sustainable impact?

Since empathy is usually directed at humans, one of the most important narrative strategies in guiding reader reception towards empathy is the presentation of fictional characters: How are their emotions presented? How does the character develop over time? If there is only sparse information on fictional characters for the reader to process, is she still capable of filling in the blanks and making sense of the character’s emotional state? How are the relationships between the characters presented? How does a character’s self-image differ from, for example, his antagonist’s perspective of him? (Nünning 105). Blakey Vermeule claims that the “best” characters to sustainably influence reader reception are those who are most versatile and who provoke reflection: “Characters that require lots of mind reading appeal because their perceptive power lie slightly outside the limits of what ordinary humans are capable of” (Vermeule 52). Readers thus enjoy the “cognitive challenge” these narratives offer.

However, characters, and concomitantly plot and action, are not the only fictional elements which influence a reader’s emotional reaction to a narrative. Next to deriving emotions from character presentation, action and plot, readers also respond emotionally to aesthetics, writing style and language (Nünning 120). Fictional narratives including non-conventional metaphors may challenge the reader and evoke satisfying feelings towards a text’s aesthetics (123). Lastly, it is also personal connection which can increase the reader’s emotional response to a text. Fiction can trigger past experiences to be “relived” and “remembered” (123), thereby increasing the emotional impact on the reader. Yet how is this cognitive impact of empathetic and sympathetic emotions currently measured?

This is where empirical reception studies and distant reading come together. Many new empirical reception studies focus, for example, on the role of “personal relevance” for reader reception. It questions how readers process fictional narratives in relation to their own lives and mental schemata. Anezka Kuzmicova and Katalin Balint conclude in their recent research overview on “personal relevance in story reading” that “readers involuntarily compare story content as well as character features to the information stored in the representation of their own selves” (445). If story and real-life content overlap to a great extent, “personal relevance” is generated for the reader resulting in a greater emotional response to the narrative. Personal relevance is thus an important factor for readers to critically reflect on fictional content through empathy: “personal experience with story topic predicts empathy with the protagonist as well as insight and postreading reflection” (433). Reading fiction can therefore have an educational effect on readers as fictional narratives have the power to socially influence readers through emotional, empathetic responses, sustainably challenging readers’ minds (Nünning 120).

Empirical reception studies rely on empirical data, such as measured brain activity while reading and answers to literary response questionnaires (Kuzmicova & Balint 433). A distant reading of reader reception data in the form of reader reviews, however, might already provide useful insights into reader opinions. Popular online platforms like goodreads provide excellent and readily available reception data for statistical analysis. Distant reading can thus complement empirical reception studies on a more practical and applicable level. A distant reading analysis of selected reviews provides excellent reader reception data, which will be the focus of the upcoming distant reading chapter analysing reader reception on Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

3. Distant Reading of 300 Reader Reviews

The 2019 Booker Prize winning novel Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo has been received extremely well on goodreads. As polyphonic novel following 12 black, British, female characters over the course of their individual lives, Girl, Woman, Other questions and challenges contemporary views on gender, sex, class and culture. The rating details provided by goodreads reveal that 98% of readers liked it (3-5 stars) indicating an overall reader enthusiasm.

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Figure 1: Distribution of goodreads ratings (retrieved July 27, 2020).

Yet why is Girl, Woman, Other perceived so extremely well? What do contemporary readers like about it? To answer this question, 300 goodreads reviews which had received the most likes as of May 30, 2020 were extracted via web scraping for a distant reading analysis. Reception data was collected in an excel file and contained the respective star-rating connected to the extracted review, reviewer name and review text.

A keyword analysis via tagcrowd then showed that readers focused on characters the most. The extracted wordlist, retrieved via corpus analysis toolkit AntConc, showed the four most frequently mentioned words in all 300 extracted reviews to be “women/woman” (399 mentions), “characters” (368 mentions), “black” (246 mentions) and “lives” (137 mentions). The search excluded the words “story/stories”, “novel” and “read” as well as author’s name and title since these were considered not to contribute any value to the textual analysis. The result was then visualized in a word cloud displaying the 50 most frequently mentioned words (see figure 2).

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Figure 2: Word cloud of 50 most frequent word used in goodreads reviews on Girl, Woman, Other

The word cloud evidently visualizes a strong focus on characters, yet where does this come from? In an interview with Alison Donnell, Evaristo herself claims that she wanted her readers to empathize with her characters while simultaneously challenging reader expectation through “creating characters who defy reductive notions of who we are in this society, in the world” (Donnell 99). It thus seems plausible for readers to frequently use the word “character/s” either to identify and empathize with one (or all) of the twelve presented figures or to express the aversion or inability to identify with the fictional characters. This is what Ralf Schneider calls a process of “de-categorization” when readers have to reassess the category in which they have put a certain character (Schneider 125). Yet which characters do readers focus on the most?

Since Girl, Woman, Other is polyphonic and combines the voices of twelve different characters, a comparative analysis of character name frequency between the novel and exported reviews was conducted. The blue bars of figure 4 show the relative frequency of character mentions in Girl, Woman, Other while the orange bars show the respective frequency for the reader reviews.

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Figure 3: Relative frequency of character names mentioned in Girl, Woman, Other and goodreads reviews (absolute frequency divided by total wordcount of respective dataset)

It is interesting to observe that readers mention three characters more often than the book mentions them: Amma, Winsome and Megan/Morgan. Amma is likely particularly interesting to the reader because of her similarities to the author as pointed out in an interview by Bernardine Evaristo herself: “I would say that Amma is a more extreme version of my younger self” (Donnell 102). Winsome, who is the mother of Amma’s conservative friend Shirley, is assumedly so controversially discussed in the reviews because she is said to have an affair with her daughter’s husband. Megan/Morgan is frequently mentioned and thus discussed because of another, to some readers rather controversial, aspect: he/she is gender non-binary.

A comparative analysis of the frequency of pronouns used in Girl, Woman, Other and reader reviews was then conducted to analyse how readers reviewed and which “language” (i.e. pronouns) they used to articulate themselves. Unsurprisingly, the personal pronouns “I/me” were used significantly more often in reviews compared to the novel. It was interesting to observe though that reader reviews hardly used male pronouns suggesting that the sparse male characters of Girl, Woman, Other were considered completely insignificant even though Girl, Woman, Other used male pronouns “he/him” more often than the plural pronouns “we/us”, for example.

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Figure 4: Relative frequency of personal pronouns used in Girl, Woman, Other and goodreads reviews (absolute frequency divided by total wordcount of respective dataset)

This data analysis raises the question what exactly makes the reader identify and empathize with a character? Kuzmicova and Balint summarize several reader experiments which indicate that empathy (and therewith focus on fictional characters) “is facilitated by readers’ own personality characteristics (Komeda et al. 2013) or personal life experiences (Koopman 2015a; 2015b; 2016).” (431). Even though the extracted data set of reader reviews used in this paper might not reveal deeper psychological insights into the reader’s personality, a closer analysis of available reviewer names revealed the following: 61% of reviewer names were tagged as “female”, 20% as “male” and 19% as “n/a” when aliases or pseudonyms were used. Figure 5 shows the distribution of reviewer gender and explains the strong focus on characters: since 61% of reviewers are female, they are more likely to identify and empathize with the exclusively female characters of Girl, Woman, Other. This, however, also raises the question whether female readers are generally “more prone than males to empathizing” as pointed out by Charlton, Pette, and Burbaum in Kuzmicova & Balint (437). Nonetheless it needs to be noted that in this case, gender was attributed manually to reviewer names, which is why the accuracy of distribution cannot be guaranteed.

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Figure 4: Relative distribution of gender of goodreads Girl, Woman, Other reviewers

Naturally, there are numerous factors influencing reader empathy and reception besides reader gender. Kuzmicova and Balint list possible factors influencing personal relevance in the second section of their research review “Individual Differences and Situational Factors”. Reading habits and general attitude towards literature, for example, also influence reader reception as well as age, specific life situations, personality traits and demographic relevance (436f.). These factors, however, can only be analysed through quantitative and qualitative experiments and are thus not within scope of this paper’s data analysis.

In sum, the statistical analysis of 300 goodreads reviews on Girl, Woman, Other showed that the majority of reviewers focused on characters in their reviews as shown by figure 2. Further, they reviewed on a personal level as seen by the increased use of personal pronouns “I/me” while simultaneously “ignoring” male characters as seen by the minimal usage of pronouns “he/him”. Lastly, most of the reviewers were of female gender. Yet which narrative techniques guide reader’s reception towards identifying and empathizing with fictional characters? The next chapter present a close reading of Girl, Woman, Other to analyse the predominant narrative strategies which guide reader empathy and reception. It will then conclude on their effect on the reader by returning to a close reading of the available reception data in the chapter five.

4. Close Reading of Narrative Techniques in Girl, Woman, Other

This chapter devises the narrative strategies used to guide reader empathy in Girl, Woman, Other. It will start by analysing character representation to find out when “sentences turn into persons” and how readers map the personality of fictional characters (Schneider 118). The second subchapter focuses on aesthetics and their emotional effect on readers (Nünning 123). It asks how writing style and language can influence reader reception. Lastly, a brief subchapter on intertextuality and intermediality presents references to real life in Girl, Woman, Other, which are thought to influence reader reception by enhancing the “perceived realism” (Nünning 221).

3.1. Fictional Characters and Their Perspectives

Distant reading of empirical reader reception data (goodreads reviews) has shown that readers focus on characters. Why is that? Kuzmicova and Balint suggest that personal relevance plays a crucial role in guiding readers’ identification (or non-identification) with fictional characters. Therefore, external factors like age, gender, ethnicity, among others, are considered to guide reader empathy towards a fictional character if they resemble the reader’s personal background (Kuzmicova and Balint). However, it is not so simple. Readers primarily strive to understand fictional characters as other humans (Schneider 130), which means they constantly evaluate and reassess their mental image of a certain character. For this, the reader needs to differentiate between three versions of character: “the one presented in the narration, the character’s own image, and the pictures painted by other characters” (Taylor), which she then assesses and reassesses. With the highly discussed character Amma, for example, readers are presented with different versions of her character.

Girl, Woman, Other’s first chapter, for example, outlines Amma’s early morning walk in London on the day of her play’s “The Last Amazon of Dahomey” premiere (Evaristo 1). Despite its a third-person narration, the chapter is frequently interrupted by Amma’s free indirect discourse (“oh shut up, Amma, you’re a veteran battle-axe, remember? (5)) and reported speech (“because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely, she tells them” (4)). These internally focalized insertions allow the reader to access Amma’s mind and build a mental image of her character, which is Taylor’s “the character’s own image” (Taylor).

Apart from Amma’s self-image as focalized through herself, a narrated version of her character is also presented to the reader. This is, for example, transmitted through a detailed description of her style and how it has changed over the years: she (…) has her own sod-you style, anyway, which has evolved, it’s true, away from the clichéd denim dungarees, Che Guevara beret, PLO scarf and ever-present badge of two interlocked female symbols (talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve, girl) these days she wears silver or gold trainers in winter, failsafe Birkies in summer winter, it’s black slacks, either baggy or tight depending on whether she’s a size 12 or 14 that week (a size smaller on top) summer, it’s patterned harem pants that end just below the knee winter, it’s bright asymmetric shirts, jumpers, jackets, coats year-round her peroxide dreadlocks are trained to stick up like candles on a birthday cake silver hoop earrings, chunky African bangles and pink lipstick are her perennial signature style statement (Evaristo 3)

This excerpt is so rich in vivid descriptions that it deserves a detailed analysis. Firstly, this section is again interrupted by Amma’s internal focalizations, this time explicitly put in brackets (“talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve, girl” and “a size smaller on top”), which present the reader with Amma’s “personal” thoughts and comments on the narrated version of herself allowing her to (critically) compare and evaluate the two presented versions. Secondly, the avid use of colour adjectives (gold, black, bright, peroxide, silver, pink) support the creation of the reader’s mental image of Amma and also work symbolically presenting Amma as a black (“black”), confident (“bright”, “gold”, “silver”) and modern (”peroxide”, “pink”) woman. Thirdly, several contemporary references (“Che Guevara”, “PLO”, “Birkies”) reduce the distance between the story and real world since they are most likely familiar to the common reader. Fourthly, several “unusual” images like wearing your heart on your sleeve by displaying “two interlocked female symbols” and the “peroxide dreadlocks” sticking up “like candles on a birthday cake” might challenge a conventional reader’s expectation of the novel’s first protagonist. However, they are also vital to challenging a reader’s cognitive processing in a positive way: Amma, as fictional character, breaks with “reductive notions” and follows Bernardine Evaristo’s self-declared goal with Girl, Woman, Other: “to explore the variety of who we are as black British women” (100).

This description of Amma, however, is immediately followed by what Taylor calls a character’s “picture painted by other characters” – this time by Amma’s daughter Yazz: Yazz recently described her style as ‘a mad old woman look, Mum’, pleads with her to shop in Marks & Spencer like normal mothers, refuses to be spotted alongside her when they’re supposed to be walking down the street together Yazz knows full well that Amma will always be anything but normal, and as she’s in her fifties, she’s not old yet, although try telling that to a nineteen-year-old; in any case, ageing is nothing to be ashamed of especially when the entire human race is in it together (Evaristo 3f.)

Again, this passage reveals a variety of insights into Amma as a character. Firstly, Yazz’s perception of her mother’s style is directly displayed as reported speech in the second line (“a mad old woman look, Mum”). Secondly, the passage is once more interrupted by Amma’s free indirect discourse (“although try telling that to a nineteen-year-old; in any case, ageing is nothing to be ashamed of”) used to communicate Amma’s reaction to Yazz’s perception of her as her mother. Thirdly, references to ordinary activities like shopping at Marks & Spencer’s and “walking down the street together” are familiar to the common reader and stand in contrast to the description of Amma’s extravagantly alternative appearance at the beginning of the excerpt yet beautifully illustrate the mother-daughter-relationship, which seems to be teasing, since Yazz refuses to be seen with her mother but simultaneously loving and appreciative: “Yazz knows full well that Amma will always be anything but normal” (3).

The beginning of the chapter then continues to bring in yet a different perspective on Amma and her life by depicting her relationship with her friends: although sometimes it seems that she alone among her friends wants to celebrate getting older because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely, she tells them as the night draws in around her kitchen table in her cosy terraced house in Brixton as they get stuck into the dishes each one has brought: chickpea stew, jerk chicken, Greek salad, lentil curry, roasted vegetables, Moroccan lamb, saffron rice, beetroot and kale salad, jollof quinoa and gluten-free pasta for the really irritating fusspots as they pour themselves glasses of wine, vodka (fewer calories), or something more liver-friendly if under doctor’s orders (Evaristo 4)

The reader is again presented with Amma’s reaction to other characters, her friends, through reported speech (“because it’s such a privilege to not die prematurely, she tells them”), which provides yet another piece of the puzzle of her character. The relationship with and to her group of friends is strategically communicated through the extensive culinary references, which point to a culturally diverse circle of friends, ranging from Marocco (lamb) to Gambia (jollof), from Greece (salad) to Italy (pasta). Ironic insertions on eating habits (“gluten-free” and drinking “vodka (fewer calories)” or “irritating fusspots” (Evaristo 4) hint at the prominent discourse used between the friends, reducing their distance from readers by creating a sense of intimacy between the reader and the narrative and allowing her to identify or empathize with Amma and/or her group of friends.


1 Goodreads has been established in 2007 and has gained over 90 million members, added over 2.9 billion books and gained over 90 million reader reviews.

2 For practicability and simplification purposes, this paper will refer to the “reader” as female, which naturally also includes all genders.

3 On the discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of distant reading see Franco Moretti (2000) “The Slaughterhouse of Literature”; Martin Paul Eve (2017) “Close Reading with Computers: Genre Signals, Parts of Speech, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas”; Ted Underwood (2017) “A Genealogy of Distant Reading”; Stanley Fish (2012) “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation”; Stephen Marche (2012). “Literature Is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2005) “Death of a Discipline”


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University of Freiburg – English Department
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Title: Reader reception of Bernardine Evaristo's "Girl, Woman, Other". A distant and close reading approach