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The Problem of the Idealized Reader in Fantastika

“The ‘deficient reading protocol’ is a comforting explanation, and like all comforting explanations, should be regarded with some suspicion.” – John Barnes

In the comments to last week’s column Chris, The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin, observed that one of the problems with looking at reading in any field of literary production is that there is not one type of reader. “[W]hat about readers who are unaware of/unengaged in the field of production?” he asked. “How does the process/experience of fantastika differ for the cognoscenti, the niche sub-genre fandom, and the casual reader? And how [do] these groups’ perceptions of genre outside of books (especially film) filter back onto their perceptions of literature?” My immediate response was to assert that, in some way, those more casual or less-invested readers are part of the field of production, but are perhaps more peripheral, and may be better at crossing (or just ignoring) borders and textual cues because they are looking for something more essential in their reading. The issue of different types of readers who may occupy different positions in/around the field and to particular texts and other field participants is one that I want to examine more closely. Before I do that, however, I have come to realize that I need to deal with another issue first: that of the idealized reader that many of us in the field conjure up in our discussions of how the literature is read.

Many of the attempts to theorize how readers engage fantastika arise from notions of initiation and arcane attenuation. In most elucidations there is no average reader: there are Those Who Get It and Those Who Don’t. Reading fantastika is considered to be a transformative experience inculcated by absorbing the proper etiquette and methods for properly understanding and enjoying the literature.  There is an implication of social transformation as well, into a valid participant in the field who properly engages texts and performs the correct functions of a genuine SF reader. This is because fantastika, and often more specifically SF (as both speculative fiction and science fiction) are not considered comprehensible without the reader undergoing a change in their relationship to the act of reading.

What makes most discussions and analyses of reading fantastika — or SF or fantasy or weird fiction or any related genre — problematic is that they often  presume the transformation of a generalized reader into a very particular Reader, one who embodies certain abilities and understandings that enable them to interpret the texts properly. Fantastika is not for the normal reader who has been taught mundane methods of apprehending fiction; new techniques and protocols need to be fathomed and deployed to proper undertake a competent reading of the literature.  Despite that conceit, however, it is difficult to codify what that process of transformation is; there is a hint of mystification in the process of becoming one of Those Who Get It.

A reader must undergo a form of initiation to become one of Those Who Get It.  I saw this when I examined the idea of reading protocols, but this became clearer after I read a recent piece by the author John Barnes about protocols and practices of reading.  In that piece he describes his own research on reading habits and interpretation; to summarize very grossly, he theorizes that the reason why many readers seem uncomfortable with SF is not that they don’t have the right protocols (or as he put it, “modules”); “What I am saying is that there is a serious flaw in the standard sf-friendly semiotic explanation for why some people who enjoy reading can’t enjoy sf and even report not being able to understand it.  It seems very improbable that they would start liking sf  if they would just install  a couple of critical modules in their reading protocols.” His hypothesis is that the shifts required to use those protocols are not pleasurable, and may be more a product of reading styles and objectives than a lack of knowledge about the proper way of reading.

This is a different perspective than that put forth by other observers. From Samuel Delany’s formative ideas about reading fantastika to more recent articulations of the idea of protocols by authors such as James Gunn and Jo Walton, the assumption is that what keeps readers from enjoying fantastika is that they just don’t know how to read it properly; they are not yet the capable reader that can fully appreciate and properly decipher the mind-bending enigmas and recondite conventions of the literature. As Gunn put it “I realized that good reading is a matter of learning the protocols and applying them with understanding and sensitivity to a particular genre.” One must match the exact reading method to the genre to appropriately understand and enjoy a text; thus, one must become an ideal reader, an adept of genre interpretation, in order to extract meaning correctly from a fantastic story.

Walton characterizes the protocols as the “SF reading skillset.” In her discussion she highlights several examples of people reading SF (her term for “the broad genre of science fiction and fantasy”) and not understanding the signals within the text that tell a reader what is important and what isn’t.  Walton’s “toolkit” seems less like a protocol than what Gunn describes, but the implication is that to be a real SF/fantastika reader you have to know the proper method of meaning extraction. To be an SF reader is to pick up that toolkit and use it to make texts sensible, within the intentions of the author and the genre conventions deployed. We again return to an idealized reader who must become versed in the proper techniques of reading before the unique genre of fantastika can make authentic sense to them. It is not about reading style or proclivities or cultural factors; it is that they lack the knowledge that allows the text to speak to them.

But there is another explanation for what Walton finds in these examples via John Barnes’ discovery in his research on reading. “[R]ather than a property of individual signs processed by individual protocols, I think the resistance to sf is probably an emergent property of a population of unpleasant sign/protocol interactions.” He explains this through the survey he did on reading habits and interpretations regarding a small-town magazine. What he found was the many readers employed a sort of dyspraxia when reading, scanning a page not in a strictly linear fashion, but in a spiral from the center, often looking for a particularly relevant term or idea to leap out that they could refer to as they read the page “normally.” As he notes, this is effective for some sorts of reading, but can lead to misreading in fantastika (science fiction more so, perhaps) and thus to ongoing discomfort with reading the literature.

I don’t think this is THE explanation, but it points out a narrowness of vision in how we conceptualize both the reading of fantastika and who Those Who Get It learn how to “get it.” We frequently formulate our ideas with an implied idealized reader who learns to truly see fantastic texts for what they are, who unpacks their enigmas and wonders in the right way and gains full pleasure and instruction from them. As Damien Broderick noted in Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, even Samuel Delany makes “a great deal more use of an implied or encoded reader. . . than some of his more deconstructive remarks would seem to permit” (p. 72).  In all of these formations, SF/fantastika is so special, so particular in its subjunctivity, that it can only be read by someone with the proper “preconditions of intelligibility” as Karin Littau put it in Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies, and Bibliomania (p. 111). But these are not just conventions that aid our reading; they are definitive frameworks of translation that only work when the reader applies them suitably to a text. Because fantastika is constructed as simultaneously unique and universal, abstruse and escapist, a special reader must also be constructed. My thinking now is that we need to reconsider this idealized reader and not look at the literature through a single lens that may flatten not just our understanding of how we read, but of what we can do with the literature.

12 Comments on The Problem of the Idealized Reader in Fantastika

  1. To complicate your thesis, here, John, I think that certain works of fantastika, or to broaden it, certain strata of fantastika are more amenable to being read with no protocols or minimal protocols.

    I would not give a first time reader of genre Greg Egan or (most) Gene Wolfe, for example.

    I think of Fantastika as a pool with gradations, and certain authors or books are closer or further from the shallow end of that fantastika, depending less or more on readers being already immersed in the pool to appreciate the book on a fantastika level.

    And I see this John not only in terms of being familiar with the tropes and furniture of fantastika, but also the ongoing conversation between works of the genre–for example, Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER.

  2. Splicer // May 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm //

    I have never felt more stupid than I do after having read that piece. I know the words are in English but for the life of me have no idea what’s being discussed.

    • Well, as the essay itself explains, it’s not because you actually are stupid — it’s that, evidently, you lack the proper reading protocols for understanding it.

      • (Or, contrariwise, it’s that you are not [yet] the ideal reader the essay is aimed at.)

    • Don’t feel stupid, Splicer. The article is terribly written, and uses gobbledygook “scholar-ese” language to make a few simple ideas as difficult-to-understand as possible. Every time I read one of Stevens’ pieces I just end up getting infuriated at the incredibly pretentious language that’s slathered like vomit-flavored frosting over some remarkably mundane ideas. And then I get infuriated at myself for being stupid enough to bother reading him.

      Must… stop… reading… Stevens…

    • David Howarth // May 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm //

      Yeah, don’t feel stupid. I hold a Masters in sociology, my advisor was a critical theorist who graduated from the New School for Social Research, and I wrote my thesis on cyberpunk science fiction under her guidance utilizing the methodological tools of cultural theory, and I can only just barely follow the obfuscatory Clutean mumbo-jumbo that passes for thoughtfulness in these entries. The point of the jargon isn’t to make you feel stupid; it’s to make the author feel smart. While I can appreciate that specialized terminology is useful at times in order to define concepts and make arguments with precision, at some point it just becomes insulting to the uninitiated. Stevens jetted past that point at near-lightspeed some time ago. Frankly, he lost me at “fantastika”, a catchall category that persumably could include anything and everything, from the latest Sookie Stackhouse vampire lifestyle novel to the most inscrutable fiction of Borges–and hence ultimately is meangingless.

      • Yay, a fellow voice of sanity.

        It would be an interesting exercise to go over one of these articles with Stevens word by word and sentence by sentence: “How do you justify the use of this word? And this phrase? Isn’t this convoluted sentence really just making this simple point? So why didn’t you word it that way?” and so on.

        To an extent, one can forgive Stevens’ on the basis that this sort of horrible writing is encouraged in literary theory and related fields. But only to an extent. Contrary to the opinion of many, literary theory is a real field of study that has meaningful things to say. It isn’t just a puffed-up meringue of highfalutin words that mean little or nothing. And that’s exactly what Stevens’ articles are.

  3. Thanks for diving into this issue this week, John, and for pointing us to John Barnes’ piece (I hadn’t seen it yet, and it’s given me a lot to think about).

    While I am fairly sympathetic to Barnes’ overall conclusions, I’d like to caution about basing them too heavily on his magazine reader “research”. A near-century of media research teaches us that media consumption is contextual, depending on location, time, the medium in question, etc. In other words, consuming a magazine (or even a local magazine in particular) is a completely different behavioral activity than consuming a book (regardless of its genre). Which means that the cognitive strategies used for one may not translate to the other. I don’t read brochures, for example, with the same level of attention that I read books. That being said, I think Barnes’ conclusions about the weaknesses inherent in the ideas of reading protocols are pretty accurate.

    Which brings me back to the concept of “casual fantastika readers” or readers Who Don’t Get It. Often, many of these same readers will happily consume speculative content in non-written media: how many people who “don’t read/like to read science fiction” saw Inception? How many saw Avatar? It strikes me that today’s audience has the “SF modules” in place: they know how to decode fantastic content because they already do so across multiple media. But why does their enjoyment of/willingness to engage these “SF modules” vary across media? Is the process by which we decode written fantastika more cumbersome than that of audio/visual fantastika? Is the experience really that different across different media? And if the broader community has such “SF modules”, how does that affect our conception of the field and the audience? How does it affect creators/community-members’ relationship with that audience?

    • I agree that caution is required when using research that has a different context and focuses on a different genre (in terms of form) of reading material. I am looking for more research on novel reading to see how Barnes’ idea holds up. But I was surprised to notice that some of Jo Walton’s examples in her discussion of reading protocols fit what he was describing in terms of reading effects. I am very interested in pursuing this further and seeing what else I can learn.

      I also agree that more people DO like SF, but in other forms. There have been a few books written about SF film that I think might hold some useful information about this. They are also on my list to look at. Genre is not just about the literature itself, and it may be that differently skilled or invested readers engage and use genre in different ways. SO much to look at!

  4. As a general response to comments here:

    If a commenter points out something specific that is unclear, I am always willing to elaborate on it further. The goal here is not to obfuscate the topic but to consider other angles of inquiry. The objective is not to inhibit understanding but to consider different approaches to understanding ideas and issues. Sometimes the idea work, sometimes they don’t. It’s an ongoing effort to think more deeply and hopefully with more sophistication about fantastic literature.

    • Offering to elaborate on specific points that are unclear in any of your articles is like offering to fix the dents in a car that’s been crushed down into a two-foot cube.

      Like I said above, it would be an interesting exercise to go through an article with you word by word and sentence by sentence, but that would also be a months-long process. It wouldn’t be THAT interesting, for either of us.

      I suppose it’s unfair to accuse you of deliberately trying to obfuscate. But you have adopted a style of writing that has that effect, and I firmly do not believe that there’s anything inherent to the ideas you’re trying to convey that requires such a style of writing. I think, rather, that your writing is simply bad, awful, wrong, and not fit for public consumption.

      But I’m sure it’s far beyond my meager powers of persuasion to convince you of that. I’ll just have to renew my resolve to avoid reading your articles.

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