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The Bellowing Ogre: 12 Excogitations on the Reading of Fantastika

“All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” – Alberto Manguel

I have a lot of ideas rattling around in my head this week, so I thought that I would write them down, still-forming and tentative, and see what I can make of them. And I ask you, the reader, to let me know which of these notions make sense, and which seem counter-intuitive.  A few of them are intentionally excessive in their speculations — little thought-exercises to stimulate debate and reflection. My goal here is to articulate my conjectures and then start taking them apart to find out which ones are most useful and evocative for examining the reading experience and process.

  1. Reading fantastika does not require some special talent, proclivity, or rigorous indoctrination. Like all forms of writing, the reading of it does require some cultural proficiency and a threshold of literacy to read pleasurably and/or fruitfully. The idea of discrete “protocols,” however, seems like a limited way to characterize how people come to read fantastika. It is also a limiting way to look at how and why people read fantastika; it presumes that you must develop a very particular method of reading before you can decode a text. Even with SF specifically, which is where the idea of protocols is most often applied, experience and experimentation with reading, rather than a formal system of initiation, seem to be the primary methods that readers use to  engage the literature, as people do with all literatures. The exceptionalism of SF, or any fantastic fiction, does not lie in a rarified approach to its reading.

    Reading fantastika is a process of attenuation, not of inculcating a formal procedure. Ideas of exclusivity seem to be more about identity and social connections rather than  a unique reading regimen.

  2. That said, reading fantastika is a distinctive experience, and there are  distinctive aspects to the reading process. but this consideration is just the starting point for understanding it. We read for many reasons, with many goals in mind. Reading fiction is a  process that does not begin by picking up a certain book or clicking on a link. A large part of that distinctiveness is the reader’s relationship to the text, which comes from the readers themselves.  Readers are looking for particular experiences when selecting a text to read, one that emerges out of their ongoing lives and that influences how they read and interpret a text:

    “Reading is a process of constructing meaning in which the reader is an active participant. Meaning doesn’t flow automatically from the text to the reader; rather, the text contains clues that the reader uses to generate meaning” (Karen M. Feathers, Infotext: Reading and Learning, p. 26)

    The distinctiveness is often framed as a desire for escape, or for a pure sort of speculation or elucidation, or to generate a “sense of wonder or a thrill of discovery” And yet, other genres of literature can provide these as well. It is not just what effects are being sought, but how readers take them in. The distinctiveness is not just in what is sought, but what a reader hopes to obtain.

  3. Reading is implicated, often deeply, in our social and cultural lives. For dedicated readers of fantastika, there is an added subcultural element through fandom. There is a vast literature on fandom that makes arguments for the productive effects of reading, such as Henry Jenkins’ ideas of “textual poaching” and “convergence culture.” (which focus on fan appropriations of media culture) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance. Reading is not just a method of taking in information, but a practice that creates cultural capital (and, sometimes, cultural baggage!). Fantastika has a rich social and cultural history that is generated primarily by reading and the social activities that emerge from that practice.  How do we examine this without cutting readers off from the texts, which often happens (as in Camille Bacon-Smith’s Science Fiction Culture) or without bounding the texts off from the readership (which most literary studies do)?
  4. A significant aspect of those social and cultural elements are the pleasure effects we seek from fantastic literature. We read fiction for many reasons, but pleasure is often at the top of the list. Pleasure can come in many forms, and one question that comes up for me often is: what are all the sorts of specific pleasures that readers obtain from fantastika? There are some obvious ones which come up frequently in discussions of the literature, from aesthetic appreciation to vicarious thrills. But I wonder if there are other pleasures that bear examining. For example, when we read we utilize the ventral and dorsal systems of our brain’s left hemisphere; basically, easier words are processed in the ventral, while more difficult words engage the dorsal region. Thinking about this in relation to fantastika, do neologisms, non-mimetic styles, and other unfamiliar elements that might cause us to employ the dorsal system create a sort of pleasure? Are there cognitive preferences in play when reading fantastika, and do these have social and cultural effects? As I noted in an earlier column, ” Can we consider fantastika as a different sort of simulation’?”
  5. The idea of genres such as SF, speculative fiction, fantastika, fantasy, etc., emerge from interactions between participants in the nested fields of literary production. Reading is the primary practice in those fields, the practice from which all other practices and effects are generated. Reading’s effects  influence conceptions of genre, from ideas of publishing categorization to contested boundaries in a given work. Genres are not just categories, but lenses we use to decode texts, common theoretical ground for comparing and analyzing texts, and social linkages between texts and readers. Much has been written about the fantastic genres, but how do they emerge from and influence the reading process and the experiences we gain from that? How much of our notion is genre is affected by reading, and how?
  6. Many readers of fantastika are skilled readers. While there are some casual readers in the wider genre, the core readership is relatively devoted, if heterogeneous in tastes and social interaction. One way that some reading researchers look at such a readership is through the idea of engagement perspective, the notion that skilled readers possess “a joint functioning of motivation, conceptual knowledge, strategies, and social interactions during literary activities.” I think that this idea of engagement is a powerful one for examining the reading of fantastika, because it can be used flexibly. If we start from the idea of readers as engaged on multiple levels that are active, what can we see that we might be overlooking when thinking about reading?
  7. Building on this idea of engagement could create a bridge to better understanding readers’ agency. We read to not only access the text, but use it for some purpose. We not only decode the text actively, we employ what we read for all sorts of purposes. Even when we read for pleasure, what we glean and imagine can have many other effects. Reading can challenge or reify ideas we have about our identity, about social mores, about politics, about how the world works. What do we seek when we read, and what do we do with what we find? Why do some of us look for mythic resonance, others scientific puzzles, still others visceral thrills? What do we hope to find, and what do we when we find it. . . or when we don’t? What do we consciously discover and unconsciously absorb? How much of an agent is a reader when reading, and how might this change when reading fantastic or weird literature?
  8. Another thought is about the role of literacy in reading fantastika. How does the history of fantastika articulate with histories of literacy? Are there commonalities across cultural or national boundaries? Is there a threshold level of literacy for readers? Can the rise of fantastika inform the conception of literacy and its histories? “Issues of power and control are important in understanding the impact of reading and writing in different cultures and in different historical periods.” Fantastic narratives, like most fiction, address these issues, as does the reading of those narratives. Can we talk about a particular sort of literacy that emerges from reading fantastika? What are the positive and negative aspects of such a literacy (or literacies?)
  9. A number of cultural assumptions condition our reading of fantastika. The one that I have found most problematic is “willing suspension of disbelief.” As I noted in a previous column, “‘Suspension of disbelief’ mischaracterizes how we approach narratives and misrecognizes how we apprehend and interpret texts.” Much of the cognitive, linguistic, and anthropological work I have read on reading demonstrates that what we do is quite the opposite; we collaborate with a text until sufficient inconsistencies bring our reading into question. This idea turns the general understanding of the workings of fantastika on its head; we try to believe. Humans constantly construct their world out of their thoughts and knowledge, their desires and needs. Reading is no different; we read to believe, not disbelieve to read.
  10. The idea of the field of production impinges the ideas of agency, engagement, and even the collaboration of belief. We engage in struggles over our readings, sometimes struggle to understand what we’re reading, and develop new understandings of how and what we read through social interaction and cognitive reflection. We look for symbolic capital to use later, we struggle with others over meanings and significance, over our place in the field, over the place of the texts we love (or hate) in that field, over the value of stories and criticisms and social linkages to those elements.  The idea of the field of production creates a framework through which we can view reading. The question is, how does that idea shape our view of reading, and how do we keep it from determining our perspective?
  11. I’ve just started reading about the hermeneutics of reading.  Essentially, this means studying the method of interpretation readers employ to garner meaning from a text. It is easy to get sidetracked into philosophical debates or to become mired in overinterpretation, but I am curious about the idea that there might be a hermeneutic of reading fantastic literature, and how that might be examined. Is part of that distinctive experience of reading SF or epic fantasy or weird fiction emergent from a kind of philosophical standpoint? What aspects of it are dynamic, and which are ossified? How do issues of conventionality and originality play into the interpretive process? Is there variation between genre categorizations or expectations? Does such an idea enrich the idea of reader agency or constrain it? How is the process of reading used specifically when reading fantastic literature?
  12. All reading happens as a shift in time, one different than direct speech or even recorded speech/visual media. Reading fiction often creates a greater sense of disjuncture. The author is displaced and dislocated, and their communication is fixed in written symbols. the narrative is not about the moment at hand, or generally one based in consensual reality. Readers take in and refashion the meanings of the text at their own pace, process it with their own skills and knowledge and desires. Reading often changes how we experience time.  When we read we create a moment-within-a-moment. When we read fantastika, is this effect intensified in our reading? Engaging a secondary world, the future, or an alternate history creates yet another temporal displacement in addition to the shift in conceptual location that most reading creates. What are we doing with time when we read fantastika? Why are we doing what we do when we read fantastika, and why is it such a compelling, if sometimes difficult and fraught, experience?

6 Comments on The Bellowing Ogre: 12 Excogitations on the Reading of Fantastika

  1. jeff vandermeer // May 17, 2012 at 10:22 am //

    Clearly, we all need to better develop our dorsal fins. Especially with ocean levels rising.

    • I think it would awesome if you grew a stabilizing fin out of your head that was somehow connected to your LH dorsal region and allowed you to both swim and increase your enjoyment of weirdness.

      • jeff vandermeer // May 17, 2012 at 9:27 pm //

        I tried real hard but I just think I broke something from the strain.

  2. When we read fantastika, is this effect intensified in our reading? Engaging a secondary world, the future, or an alternate history creates yet another temporal displacement in addition to the shift in conceptual location that most reading creates.

    So, except for Historical fiction, and in many ways more so than HF, yes, Fantastika does create that additional temporal displacement.

  3. Hmm…you pose a lot of meaty questions, all of which deserve deeper and more cogent responses than a single blog comment might allow. But that being said, your points 6 (reader engagement), 10 (field of production), and 11 (hermeneutics) raise an important question: what about readers who are unaware of/unengaged in the field of production? I suspect that when those of us immersed in fantastika read something, we note different facets of the experience than those a reader ignorant of the broader field would. While we won’t run into them at cons, these readers do exist (an anecdotal example: a good friend of mine actively dislikes “sci-fi”, preferring contemporary mimetic lit…yet she devours China Mieville books). How does the process/experience of fantastika differ for the cognoscenti, the niche sub-genre fandom, and the casual reader? And how these groups’ perceptions of genre outside of books (especially film) filter back onto their perceptions of literature?

    • Levels of engagement, and articulations with other fields, are issues that definitely need more examination. I think that they are difficult to engage because the more casual a reader, the more distant from the core of the field, the harder it is to see their experiences manifest. I have so many readers at my bookstore who just shrug and say they “like” a given book and can really provide no deeper explanation. At the casual level is there an intechangeability of experience? Are these more flexible readers because their investment is different?

      I think that they are part of the field of production, because they do read the literature, and they do get something out of reading it. It’s much harder to discern what that is, and their effect on struggles within the field and the creation and exchange of symbolic capital is more diffuse. It is also more difficult to codify their interest in the literature and what they get out of it, and I wonder if there traverse borders with more ease. This might also mean that cultural influences between fields affect them differently. I have a few theories on this that I will discuss in more detail down the road.

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