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The Collaboration of Belief: Reconsidering ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ in the Reading of Fantastika

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.

I state this as someone who has invoked the term often in the past. The term is widely used and debated, and has been since Coleridge coined it in 1817 in his Biographia Literaria. Consider Coleridge’s original formulation:

“… It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Coleridge is talking about engagement with poetry, particularly of the Romantic variety, and “suspension of disbelief” is one aspect of a larger philosophical-literary meditation on poetry, delusion, and truth. In the two centuries since he coined it this concept has been broadened to discuss theatre, fiction, film, and games. The term has come to mean the intentional holding-back of skepticism so that the reader or viewer can fully engage a narrative that is non-realistic. As stated in the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms:

It implies a contract between author and reader; the reader is encouraged to imagine that what is portrayed is real or possible rather than remain querulously aware of its fictionality and impossibility, and hopes thereby to attain satisfactions and discoveries for which involvement, not distance, is required.”

“Suspension of disbelief” is not an activity so much as the invocation of a negation that permits us to believe the claims to veracity of a fictional narrative.

In applying the concept Anders argues that:

“There are really two great myths about suspension of disbelief: 1) It’s a passive business, in which you just sit back and accept whatever nonsense the storyteller wants to throw at you. 2) The more you have to suspend your disbelief, the dumber the story is, because a well-done, clever story would automatically seem plausible without any effort on your part. In fact, the opposite of these two myths is closer to the truth, which is why suspension of disbelief is so valuable a skill.”

Anders goes on to debunk the myths, arguing for a more dynamic notion, and discuss the benefits (pleasurable and intellectual) that readers gain from performing this technique. When reading fantastika we must work harder to believe in the narrative, and, like literary fiction, we need to understand complex or subtle elements by not letting our disbelief interfere with our enjoyment or edification. She asserts that this approach to a narrative is a rewarding type of reading work that may even bring us to a “greater realism.”

“Suspension of disbelief” (often with its preface “willing”) implies several things: first, that we intentionally withhold our disbelief in order to permit our ability to believe to be effected by a fictional and/or fantastical text. Second, that to access a fictional text we must deliberately alter our usual state of rational suspicion and allow that text to, essentially, deceive us until its inconsistencies and irrationalities become too much to bear. Third, that we read and understand texts differently depending on whether or not they are fictional/fantastical or non-fictional/realistic, and that the difference between this distinction is so stark that we must muster up an act of will to change how we read and interpret a text based on its level of factuality. Performing this act of will permits us to experience the untruthful text and what it communicates to us.

“Suspension of disbelief” mischaracterizes how we approach narratives and misrecognizes how we apprehend and interpret texts. If there are two myths about “suspension of disbelief,” it is that we “suspend” or turn off some mental function before reading, and that we comprehend a fictional text from a standpoint of disbelief held in abeyance. These two notions are dubious from a number of angles. Psychologically, it has been demonstrated that “comprehension includes an initial belief in the information comprehended.” In order to process information, we have to take it in, and then grasp it. We do this by believing it, however incompletely or briefly; we assume initially that the information is worth accepting. The idea that we “suspend” a faculty in order to engage a fiction misleads us from the start (and may be why, for example, some commenters on the io9 article agreed with Anders’ conclusions but noted that they did not experience texts using “suspension of disbelief”).

Richard Gerrig has found that “readers must expend strategic effort to reject the information they acquire from literary narratives.” Furthermore, “fiction emerges as an experiential category not through a passive and wholesale sense of disbelief but, rather, through active scrutiny of the particular information proffered in fictions.” To suspend something is to “to hold or keep undetermined; refrain from forming or concluding definitely,” and as Gerrig and others have pointed out, when we read we employ a combination of strategies that are accepting and critical. Readers do not engage in “toggling” as Gerrig puts it, turning some faculty on or off, but employ a range of techniques to assess and digest the messages from a text.

Is, as Anders puts it “that moment when you just stop trying to buy into whatever the story is selling you, and you’re like, ‘Screw it. This is dumb'” the releasing of one’s disbelief, or the accumulation of inconsistencies or counterfactuals constituted by a dialogue between belief and disbelief, between reading protocols and cultural notions? This distinction is very important. There is a difference between holding one’s disbelief back, as if it is some fettered watchdog to be sicced on an intruder, and the processual presence and application of disbelief along with belief as a narrative makes less or more sense to a reader (for a host of reasons, often having little to do with “facts”). The former is a solid object, a thing in your head that is deployed against falsehood; the latter is an ensemble of cogitations. Disbelief is not a thing in our heads that we turn on and off; as Gerrig put it, what we engage in is a “willing construction of disbelief.” We do not apply some special mental apparatus to reading fantastika; we participate willfully, with an array of techniques and practices, using the process with which we engage all narratives. What varies is how we combine personal applications of cultural reading protocols with contextualized instances of interaction with a text.

More troubling is the implication of not just a toggling between belief and disbelief, but between rationality and play. It suggests that our ability to engage the fantastic, the surreal, or even just the playful can only occur through a conscious act of permission, which presumes that the prosaic, the actual, and the serious do not require such a suspension. We have no need to hold back our disbelief for the real, because it is real! Rigid dualities sprout like choking weeds within such an idea. We reify distinctions like realism and denigrate the fantastic in such formations.

This is not to say that we cannot or do not “suspend our disbelief” in some cases; sometimes we do specifically try to set aside suspicion and disputation to be more open and believing. But this is not how we always engage a narrative:

“A story is a story, in part, because we make it so with our belief and imagination, with our cultural gaze and cognitive discernment. We envision a fiction differently than a cereal box or a pre-nuptial agreement. We demand that there be more to the decrypting, as both writer and reader, and work hard to make it so with our interpretations of the code, We embrace the peculiar, insane, and potentially dangerous symbols on a page by making more out of them than the marks themselves could possibly contain. It is what we permit those words to mean that truly determines whether we submit or escape, explode the text or accept it.”

We cannot disbelieve something until we try to believe in it first, and our human impulse is to believe first. Skepticism is an effect as well as a practice, and our ability to accept and/or reject what we take in through our senses is far richer than Coleridge’s formula, or many of its applications. Our mental default is not to be critical, but assimilative, curious, and edacious. We learn to analyze and disbelieve by believing and experiencing, learning and testing; we create lenses and filters for discerning the world around us by first accepting what we perceive and checking it against knowledge, habit, and sensibility.

When we engage a narrative, we collaborate with it. The initial moment is one of acceptance, whether reluctant or wholehearted. We take in its symbols and create meanings, connections, and continua as we interpret it. “Suspension of disbelief” as it is generally used presumes that we consciously do not interface with a narrative when, in fact, we participate in the act of interpretation and acceptance and critique occur together. We don’t turn belief on and disbelief off; we move back and forth between them, deciding what makes sense and what does not. We believe and disbelieve in all sorts of combinations, seeking out meanings in a text, losing ourselves in symbols and image and, even when skeptical or horrified, sometimes continue to assent to what we obtain from the text, even as contradictions and ambiguities build. There is so much more to how we collude with narratives, the fantastic ones included, than a simple suspension of disbelief.

5 Comments on The Collaboration of Belief: Reconsidering ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ in the Reading of Fantastika

  1. Thanks, John.

    We cannot disbelieve something until we try to believe in it first, and our human impulse is to believe first.

    So, would you say that authors should write with the aim of not losing a willingness of people to engage in a suspension of disbelief, or write with the aim of actively trying to engage a reader in the details of a fictional world that are at odds with mundane reality in order to fully inform a reader and immerse her into the false reality the author is trying to create?


  2. It would depend entirely on what the author wants to have written; what the author expects the reader to get from what’s been written; the idiom(s), mode(s), manner(s), and genre(era) in play (both, it should be noted, at the time it was written, and in all the subsequent times it’s being, or will have been, read)–and all the various implications, connotations, annotations, and denotations that these many and varied variables might entail. (The phantastick thing about the fantastika is you know you’re gonna get served a hedgehog, sooner or later. It’s just there’s as many ways of taking them in as there are of preparing them.)

    I take heart, though, in the notion that disbelief is something to be earned, and not taken for granted.

  3. Felix Giron // August 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm //

    Hi John,

    Thanks for this. I enjoy your reframing/unpacking of this term into a much more active, processual and contingent concept.  Since I more often think of this phrase in relation to theatre, I’d like to continue the argument a little along two lines you mention:  play and collaboration.  I concur with your skepticism of a dichotomy between play and rationality since playing, particularly deep play, is an incredibly serious and highly rational act – as is the formation of cosmology and reality that can result from the process of collectively imagining.  As you mention, there is a “we” involved.  Speculative fiction and theatre both require that we (writers, readers, & fans, audience and performers) all participate consciously as playmates.  Perhaps it is when there is disagreement about what should structure our play, how we should play, what our product should look like, or what my role is, that our collaboration falters.  When collaboration stumbles what is often referred to as “disbelief” (but might better be glossed as disengagement) occurs.  Of course, that stumbling does not have to be fatal to the process, we can always choose to reengage and renegotiate.  One of my favorite books which protrays and grapples with this process well is Pamela Dean’s A Secret Country but my experience with any text or play has these elements.  The question I have is whether there is a specifically speculative fiction/fantastika/sci-fi mode for doing so.

  4. I think the appearance of the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” in text is often a symptom of intellectual laziness on the part of the person using it. People too often waft such phrases around as common currency in the discourse, asserting through that publication that we are all able to decode the same message. How convenient unanimity of meaning would be. For me, the better way of interrogating the text is to apply subjective criteria of credibility. If the mis-en-scène and actions of the characters accord with our own experience of such places and human behaviour in general, we are more likely to “suspend disbelief”. In much the same way that a jury of peers will seek to assess the credibility of witnesses in a courtroom, so those of us exposed to a work of fiction will decide whether the divergances between our experience and the narrative are significant. Put into action as a process, I might rapidly lose patience with a text if the main human protagonist acted in a way that was manifestly incredible and there was no reasonable explanation given for this irrationality. Obviously, an alien or ogre cannot be judged by the same criteria. For such protagonists, we have to suspend disbelief — sorry, feeling lazy today.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. I had written out a response and it was consumed by the aether again (I am pretty sure it is a problem with my work computer, Mr. DeNardo).

    To sum up: Paul’s question is one that is complicated to answer, because I think the range of writing strategies and authorial intentions are broader than its scope. Some writers want to misdirect us, have unreliable narrators, set us down in places that are disheveling. Others want to create Geertz’s “aura of factuality” and create intense belief in the storyworld they present. Some want to question our own ideas of what is real, others want to ignore them and make up their own. It depends on what the author is trying to do, in the end, and thus, as David pointed out, we cannot escape subjective considerations.

    Felix brings up some great points in her response, and I would like to elaborate on them more in the column itself. I think that play, the idea of the ludic, is part of the reading experience, as it is for theatre (less so, I would argue, for film and computer games). I need to go find some material I gathered on this in college when I was writing about ritual and play, and see what’s been done since to get a better sense of how insights into play can enrich our understanding of the reading process, and perhaps the writing process as well. I am particularly intrigued by the disengagement (disenchantment?)/renegotiation/reengagement notion, which precisely demonstrates what “suspension of disbelief” obfuscates: the active reader. As she notes: “that stumbling does not have to be fatal to the process.” In fact, that stumbling can also open up interpretations, create critical angles for reading the text, and potentially enrich our engagement.


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