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Review of  World Building

Reviewer: Kim Ebensgaard Jensen
Book Title: World Building
Book Author: Joanna Gavins Ernestine Lahey
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 28.3398

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


A contribution to cognitive poetics, which is an increasingly popular branch of stylistics, “World Building: Discourse in the Mind” (henceforth, WB) is an anthology of sixteen chapters. Edited by Joanna Gavins and Ernestine Lahey, WB contains a range of contributions by experts within the field, all of which, in one way or another, are positioned within the framework of text world theory (Werth 2009, Gavins 2007).

The first chapter ’World building in discourse’ is the editors’ introduction to the volume, in which Gavins and Lahey identify the main premise of all chapters in the volume: a primary function of language is world-building, which is the construction of a mental representation, or world, in the mind of the reader based on linguistic cues in the text (Ryan 1998: 138). The editors, drawing mainly on possible worlds theory and text world theory (Werth 1999, Gavins 2007) (henceforth PWT and TWT respectively), address the overall landscape of world-building theories applied in literary and stylistic analysis.

In Chapter 2 ‘’I felt like I’d stepped out of a different reality’: Possible worlds theory, metalepsis and digital fiction’, Alice Bell explores the application of PWT in the analysis of metalepsis in Andy Campbell and Judi Alston’s multimodal digital novel “Nightingale’s Playground”. First offering a definition of metalepsis, which draws on Genette (1980: 234-235) according to whom metalepses are transgressions of the boundaries between narrative levels (or, indeed, text worlds), Bell explores the metaleptic potential of a number of narrative strategies deployed in the novel such as the cursor through which the reader interacts with the visual, textual, and audible worlds of the narrative itself.

Chapter 2 ‘Author-character ethos in Dan Brown’s Langdon-series novels’ presents a study by Ernestine Lahey of strategies of characterization of Robert Langdon, the main character in Dan Brown’s popular book series. In her analysis Lahey applies a combination of TWT and more traditional stylistics and addresses three aspects of Langdon’s characterization: his good sense, his physical appearance, and his humility. Through stylistic analysis of excerpts from all four novels in the series, Lahey maps world-architectures and identifies a number of interesting linguistic strategies deployed by Brown in the construction of Langdon’s ethos.

David Herman’s contribution, Chapter 4 ‘Building more-than-human worlds: Umwelt modeling in animal narratives’ is an exploration of storyworlds and the construction of minds of animals in primarily non-fiction texts. Drawing on Leech & Short’s (2007) model of speech and thought presentation in literary language, in which the presentation types constitute a continuum ranging from narrative to free direct discourse, Herman makes a case for Sternberg’s (1982, 2011) Proteus Principle (the idea of a many-to-many correspondence between forms and functions). Analyzing excerpts from a number of texts belonging to the non-fiction genre of nature writing, Herman further draws on the concept of mind-style (Fowler 1977) and identifies a number of ways in which the speech and thought presentation strategies are used in modeling the minds of animal characters and building their Umwelts (von Uexküll 2010).

In Chapter 5 ‘Building Hollywood in Paddington: Text world theory, immersive theatre, and Puncdrunk’s The Drowned Man’, Alison Gibbons offers an analysis, based on TWT, of Punchdrunk’s immersive theater play “The Drowned Man”. In offering a detailed linguistic analysis of the play’s Welcome Speech, Gibbons demonstrates how text worlds are constructed and interrelated via linguistic and discursive cues in the speech itself. Arguing for the application of the blended-world framework (Gavins 2007: 146-164) in the analysis of immersive theater, Gibbon’s makes a case for TWT enabling more nuanced understandings of the ontology of immersive theater than does Fauconnier & Turner’s (2002) application of conceptual integration theory (the blended-world framework combines conceptual integration theory and TWT such that the text-world of the narrative and the discourse-world of the reader reading a text or, in this case, the audience viewing a theatrical play, are blended into a metaleptic complex in which characters and the audience interact).

Isabelle van der Bom addresses identity-construction in a cognitive-discursive perspective in Chapter 6 ‘Speaker enactors in oral narrative’. More specifically, van der Bom investigates, via application of TWT, the construction of the self in the oral narrative by a British-born Chinese woman captured in an interview. Among the linguistic strategies investigated are the discursive markers ‘you know’ and ‘like’ which are used by the interviewee as ways to navigate the text worlds of the interview. Van der Bom addresses the challenges that face-to-face communication poses to TWT due to the ontological complexity of face-to-face discourse – and this in spite of the general assumption that face-to-face discourse is considered the prototypical discourse type – but ultimately makes a case for TWT being very useful in the study of linguistic self-representation.

Chapter 7 ‘Text world theory as cognitive grammatics: A pedagogical application in the secondary classroom’ by Marcello Giovanelli reports on a study of a school teacher’s application of practical TWT in the classroom as an ingredient in what Giovanelli calls “cognitive grammatics”. Cognitive grammatics is essentially a cognitively oriented version of Halliday’s (2002: 386) grammatics. In Giovanelli’s study, an English teacher at an upper secondary school had her pupils read William Carlos William’s short poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and subsequently draw the scenes depicted in the poem. The pupils extensively drew on their extant encyclopedic knowledge as a resource when constructing the text world of the poem, which was reflected in differences in their drawings. Giovanelli argues that the study points to TWT’s potential for being used in the classroom as a ‘thinking tool’, and that it can be a way to map the cognitive baggage that pupils bring with them into the classroom.

Jeremy Scott’s contribution is Chapter 8 ‘Worlds from words: Theories of world-building as creative writing toolbox’ is first and foremost a plaidoyer for the integration of elements from cognitive-poetic approaches to world-building into the creative writer’s toolbox. In his discussion, Scott addresses the application of schema theory (Bartlett 1932), TWT, PWT, and deictic shift theory (Galbraith 1995) in the writing process. Ultimately, Scott appeals to creative writers to consider engaging in principles in cognitive poetics pertaining to world-building and the relationship between writing and reading.

Chapter 9 ‘The texture of authorial intention’ by Peter Stockwell discusses readers’ application of mind-modeling to authors as part of the reading of literature. After an overview of authorial status in literary criticism and stylistics, Stockwell argues for the very likely possibility that readers in general treat literary works as having “authorial lives” (p. 149) and mind-model authors just like they mind-model characters in fiction. In analyzing deictic shifts in war poetry, Stockwell demonstrates – combining mind-modeling theory (Stockwell 2009) and TWT – how mind-modeling may be a factor in generating empathy and sympathy in readers towards the author and ultimately argues that authorial intention is a cognitive model constructed and elaborated by the reader.

In Chapter 10 ‘Building resonant worlds: Experiencing the text-worlds of The Unconsoled’, Sara Whiteley applies TWT in conjunction with Stockwell’s (2009) attention-resonance model as well as mind-modeling theory. Her chapter explores how Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “The Unconsoled” resonates with readers. Whitely presents a detailed analysis of an excerpt from the novel, pointing to resonance-generating linguistic attractors therein. However, Whiteley does not restrict her treatment of the novel to the novel itself, as her analysis of the excerpt is preceded by an analysis of online discussions of the novel in which the participants verbalize their responses to the novel.

Sam Browse’s contribution, Chapter 11 ‘’This is not the end of the world’: Situating metaphor in the text-worlds of the 2008 British financial crisis’, offers a cognitive discourse analysis of British op-eds in which the 2008 British financial downturn is discussed. Focusing on megametaphors (Werth 1994), Browse addresses this phenomenon in the op-eds. More specifically, Browse identifies metaphors based on the apocalypse, sea storms and conceptualizations of trust as glue, as he demonstrates how such metaphors are situated in different world-clusters throughout the texts.

Chapter 12 ‘The humorous worlds of film comedy’ by Agnes Marszalek applies TWT in a study of humor in three cinematic comedies – namely, “In Bruges”, “Bridesmaids” and “In the Loop”. Essentially a contribution to the stylistics of film, Marszalek’s chapter investigates the assembly of disrupted elements into what she has termed humorous worlds (Marszalek 2013).

Jane Lugea discusses mind-style and TWT and in her contribution, Chapter 13 ‘Spanglish dialogue in You and Me: An absurd world and senile mind style’, she investigates dialog in the absurdist play “You and Me” by Little Soldier Productions. In providing a detailed analysis of dialog features and juxtaposing these with findings from clinical-psychological research into senility (Bayles & Kaszniak 1987), Lugea suggests that a quite realistic senile mind-style is represented in the play. Her study is anchored in TWT and aligned with text-world-oriented research into absurd drama, (Cruikshank & Lahey 2010, Vassilopoulou 2008), as she maps a world-architecture from the discourse world down to modal worlds and proposes a cross-world cline of absurdity within the play.

In Chapter 14 ‘Autofocus and remote text-world building in the earliest English narrative poetry’, Antonina Harbus discusses how readers build text worlds when reading texts which in the discourse world is temporally remote from the reader. Investigating a sequence in the early English poem “Beowulf” in which the titular protagonist fights a dragon (the mightiest of three monster-enemies he has to face during the narrative), Harbus proposes that a cognitive process which she calls autofocus is at play in which the reader applies what she calls f-stops which are “default position[s] developed during lived experience as habituated and emotional reactions to types of situations”. The autofocus process allows readers react emotionally to even temporally remote heroic narratives which are rich in otherworldly and fantasy-based elements, and thus construct emotionally and otherwise meaningful text worlds.

Chapter 15 ‘’Into the futures of their makers’: A cognitive poetic analysis of reversals, accelerations and shifts in time in the poems of Eavan Boland’ by Nigel McLoughlin is a study of Boland’s poetry which combines the mobilities paradigm (a paradigm in the social sciences and neighboring theories which focuses on movement of people as well as entities and concepts and ideas) (Sheller & Urry 2006), attention-resonance theory, and TWT. This chapter is particularly neatly structured, as it first offers brief introductions to the three components of its theoretical backdrop so as to make sure that the reader is acquainted with the basic ideas of the three theories, and then offers an analysis of the poem ‘Is It Still the Same’ in which a rich world-architecture is offered based on rigorous analysis of deixis-based world switches.

Closing the volume we find Joanna Gavins’ contribution, Chapter 16 ‘Stylistic interanimation and apophatic poetics in Jacob Polley’s ‘Hide and Seek’. Here, Gavin applies TWT in the analysis of Jacob Polley’s poem ‘Hide and Seek’. More specifically, Gavins addresses Polley’s use of apophatic strategies in the poem with specific focus on the phrases ‘I wasn’t V’ and ‘I didn’t V’ which constitute two major parallelisms in the poem. Building on a detailed linguistic analysis of the poem, Gavins concludes that it is necessary to take into account the interconnectedness of the individual text features of the poem and argues that TWT is particularly useful in serving this analytical purpose.


Not only are all contributions to the volume interesting reads as such; many of them are also, in my opinion, very important contributions to the study of discourse and cognition, and the contributions by Bell, Herman, van der Bom, Giovanelli, Whiteley, and Browse in particular are worth highlighting. Bell’s chapter places the narrative device of metalepsis in the limelight and demonstrates its usefulness in the cognitively oriented study of narratives and makes a very compelling case for metalepsis being reflective of underlying text worlds. The importance of Herman’s contribution lies in how he demonstrates that mind-modeling and world-building are not just features of fiction but can also be encountered in non-fiction as well. Similarly, van der Bom and Browse both demonstrate how TWT and, more broadly, cognitive poetics can be fruitfully applied in discourse analysis of non-literary texts. I would argue that van der Bom’s contribution to the volume is not just an important contribution to cognitive poetics but also to cognitive anthropology, and Browse’s chapter, in demonstrating that cognitive poetics can be applied in the study of newspaper discourse, joins the ranks of work by the likes of van Dijk (e.g. 2014) and Hart (e.g. 2014) as important contributions to (socio)-cognitive discourse studies. Another particularly important contribution is Whiteley’s study of resonance; in particular, I think that her study of readers’ verbalizations of their experiences of reading the novel is an important step in the development of an empirically and scientifically reliable approach to reader-response. While these six chapters are important contributions to the study of discourse – literary and otherwise – and cognition, Giovanelli’s findings may potentially feed into actual teaching practices in the classroom, thus indicating that cognitive stylistic research can constructively feed into society outside of the ‘ivory tower’ of academia. This, I think, is extremely important, as it is an example of how research in the humanities certainly does generate societal value despite the often deprecating stereotyping misconceptions of the humanities and humanists which flourish in contemporary mainstream society.

Overall WB is characterized by a very clear red thread that binds all contributions together, and this focus is the main strength of the volume as a whole. Unlike many other research anthologies, whose chapters often strike me as being loosely interconnected via a broad theme, WB seems very focused and, due to TWT figuring in all chapters, there is a pervasive sense of coherence throughout the entire volume which makes reading the entire volume a seamless experience. This does not mean that each individual chapter cannot stand on its own, and all chapters can be read on their own.

The chapters in the volume appear to me to be primarily aimed at researchers – two exceptions perhaps being Scott’s and Giovanelli’s chapters – within cognitive stylistics and narratology and not so much at students. While undergraduate students would need to be closely guided by their tutor in reading any chapter from WB, I think that postgraduate students might be better equipped to read some chapters from WB and benefit from it (one exception is perhaps McLoughlin’s chapter whose structure strikes me as very undergraduate-friendly). In this perspective, WB is a veritable treasure trove of course material which can be used in advanced postgraduate courses in as diverse areas as stylistics, media studies, creative writing, theater studies, cognitive linguistics, pedagogy, literary studies, and discourse studies. I would certainly recommend that university libraries acquire a copy of the volume and that teachers within the fields mentioned above explore the volume for useful chapters.

One point of criticism I have, which is admittedly a minor issue, has to do with the organization of the volume. While the sense of focus and coherence is praiseworthy, I do wish that the chapters had been organized into thematic parts based on, say, the type of discourse addressed (e.g. literary discourse, multimodal discourse, and non-literary discourse). For instance, the contributions by Herman, van der Bom, and Browse all deal with non-fiction, while Gibbons, Marszalaek, and Lugea’s chapters all deal with the stylistics of drama. I am well aware that, in applying a structure such as the one hinted at above runs the risk of going counter to the very sympathetic non-elitist stance of cognitive poetics: “Cognitive poetics, too, sees literature not just as a matter of the happy few, but as a specific form of everyday human experience and especially cognition that is grounded in our general cognitive capacities for making sense of the world” (Steen & Gavins 2003: 1). Distinguishing between types of discourse might admittedly lead the reader into thinking that cognitive stylisticians retain some sort of hierarchy among literary and non-literary discourse types. However, the question is whether or not this should trump the reader-friendliness of an overtly thematically based organization of an edited volume.

This minor criticism aside, “World Building: Discourse in the Mind” is an immensely important contribution to the study of the interrelation between narrative, discourse, and cognition, and I sincerely hope that the findings and views put forth in the volume will feed into fields such as linguistics, stylistics, discourse studies, narratology, cultural studies as well as media studies and creative writing. Needless to say, the volume will primarily appeal to cognitively oriented researchers within these fields, but I would encourage researchers and postgraduate students alike within these fields more generally to engage with the volume even if cognition is not their primary research interest.


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Kim Ebensgaard Jensen is Associate Professor of English linguistics at the University of Copenhagen. His research falls under the rubric of cognitive linguistics, and he has also contributed to the fields of stylistics, corpus linguistics, and cultural linguistics.

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