A few months ago I wrote a blog entry for Apex Book Company that began with this sentence:
“I don’t know whether to admire Samuel Taylor Coleridge or curse him. I am conflicted, because Coleridge coined a phrase that, I am starting to think, has seriously held back our understanding of how we envision the fantastic specifically and fiction in general.”
Sadly, that column was lost when malware attacked the site’s server, but in that time my conflicting feelings have resolved, and I am more certain that the now ubiquitous phrase “suspension of disbelief” obfuscates our thinking about reading fantastic literature. Recently Charlie Jane Anders penned an entry for io9 entitled “Why We Love Suspending Our Disbelief.” While I agree with some of the points she makes, I find that using “suspension of disbelief” as the optic through which she discusses them diminishes our understanding of how we read in general and how we read fantastika in particular.
Fantastika (and often more specifically SF) occupies an overdetermined position in the utilization of the suspension of disbelief: many observers feel that SF requires a higher level of “suspension” to be fully appreciated. “Fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but sf requires a particular kind of suspension of disbelief, conceptually gerrymandered between rhetorics of realism and rhetorics of fantasy given ‘realistic’ appearance by appeals to science and technology,” claims Brooks Landon (oddly enough, in the midst of a discussion of “SF Tourism”). Anders echoes this assertion in her discussion: “One of the great pleasures of science fiction and fantasy is that they ask us to suspend our disbelief more than almost any other fictional genres.” The conceit is that the fantastic genres require far more skill and work to properly enjoy and understand.
But is “suspension of disbelief” actually how we engage a fiction, or any text for that matter? Do we draw our skepticism from its mental scabbard and hold it over the discourse like a Sword of Damocles, ready to strike at the first sign of contradiction or conundrum? Do we flip a switch in our heads that turns our disbelief on or off? The more that I consider how we approach a fantastic work, how texts contain and disseminate their meanings, and how we enliven and decipher texts, the less useful this idea seems. The “willing suspension of disbelief” neither represents the process of reading accurately, nor does it help us understand how we engage texts.