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Six Fervently-Held Hypotheses Regarding “Willing Suspension of Disbelief”

“He could not map the alterity he felt.” – China Miéville, Iron Council

“I don’t really think that ‘disbelief’ is an action, anyway. I don’t think it can be ‘suspended’. It suggests that we exist in a constant state of disbelief that we have to suspend in order to respond to fantasy. This is . . . odd.” – Harry Dewulf

By the time you read this I shall be at (or have been to) Readercon, where I am giving a talk on the problems inherent in the idea of “willing suspension of disbelief” and the ways that different disciplines (from neuroscience to literary criticism) address those problems. The term is used as  a way to understand the experience of reading fiction, but in its common usage it misconstrues our relationship with fiction and how the act of reading works. What I hope to demonstrate in my presentation is that “willing suspension of disbelief” needs to be re-conceived (as a number of analysts and critics have already noted) into an idea that more fruitfully characterizes how we read fantastic literature.  Given that I am finishing the presentation as I write this, I thought that I would share some of the ideas that I’ve been mulling over as I examine the concept.

  1. You keep using  that term; I do not think it means what you think it means:  Coleridge’s original formulation of the term is not concerned with the unrealness of what is presented, but with an idea of the truth that the unrealness might contain for the reader to discover. You can read the term in context here. What Coleridge primarily wants the reader to consider is that a fantastical or supernatural moment can contain a potent understanding and illumination of the human condition. I think the key phrase here is not ‘willing suspension of disbelief,” but “awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom.” The concern is not the suspension so much as the willingness to be open to what awaits the reader in the text.

    The term is used today to describe a negative action: to withhold disbelief as if our default setting was to not accept anything “unreal.” The focus is on the use of will to suspend disbelief, a very literal application of the term. But Coleridge is after more than that, as indicated by the additional phrase “which constitutes poetic faith.” This is part of a larger act of belief. Coleridge is not counseling for the holding back of something, but for creating that effect in the act of accepting what one is reading. In that moment of faith a reader “procures” that effect of disbelief “for these shadows of imagination.”  And does it not grudgingly, but openly.

  2. “Imagination…does not need to be redeemed by a dissociative framework providing for suspension of disbelief“: This is a quotation from Richard Walsh, who wrote a fascinating chapter on dreams and the imagination in the book Toward A Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts. Walsh points out that human beings two do things constantly: they narrativize their sensory intake and imagination, and these narratives do not require this dissociation because the act of representation does not need some kind of verification. We believe, if only partially, for a short time, or in a limited fashion.  We do not have to somehow make something truthful –certainly not through some kind of self-deception — for it affect us. Coleridge might approve of this idea given his own distinction between “fancy,” a dull, debased imagining, and “imagination” as a vital force that animates the world around us.  The point is, the literal notion of “willing suspension  of disbelief” is unnecessary; we don’t need that suspension to engage a fantastic text.
  3. “[T]he notion of suspension of disbelief cannot coherently be used to explain or account for our reactions to fictional characters and events.” Eva Schaper wrote this in 1978 in a critique from a philosophical perspective.  Schaper was interested in dealing with “the paradox of fiction” as something we know to be unreal but that we react to, on some level, as real.  Her argument was that an idea of conjured, faked credulity does not tell us why fiction stimulates the responses that many readers have to it. We cannot presuppose that there is only complete belief and utter disbelief, but that there are gradations. We have to mix belief and disbelief to both apprehend fiction and to process its effects on us.  A simple notion of withholding disbelief is useless because we engage the world with a combination of believing and disbelieving.
  4. Reading is an act of believing. From the moment we start to process words we have begun a process of belief and understanding. Reading is, in its first micro-seconds, an act of accepting, of making sense of little marks and unpacking meaning, not of disbelief. In order to read, we have to decide affirmatively to take in the information represented by those little marks. Sometimes with do this without thinking, but it is always a positive action, one of recognition. It is not a complete embrace, but a believing-in-progress. Before we can assess what we believe or do not believe we need to at least provisionally interpret and construct meaning from what we read. Even if we quickly dismiss or critique what we read, the first we have to do is accept the words and the information they represent.
  5. “[F]iction emerges as an experiential category not through a passive and wholesale sense of disbelief but, rather, through active scrutiny”: The psycholinguist Richard Gerrig has written extensively on the problem of “willing suspension of disbelief.”  He notes that the idea that we have a “toggle” in our heads that lets us turn disbelief on and off is at odds with our understandings of human consciousness and cognitive processing, and instead characterizes reading fiction as the “willing construction of disbelief.” Gerrig’s case studies have, he asserts, demonstrated that readers must expend effort “to disbelieve the story.” We are cognitively inclined to believe what we read and have to find reasons to not believe. He also notes that “Texts transport readers unequally” and readers have a range of techniques, usually based on individual experiences and desires, that they use to create disbelief.  It is not the same process for everyone, and how much we believe –and how quickly we disbelieve– is not based on whether we have flipped out disbelief switch, but on our own proclivities.
  6. Reading the fantastic requires understanding, not disbelief: As I’ve noted before, reading is a process of generating and processing understanding. As Adam Roberts, quoting Gwyneth Jones, noted: “‘what is needed’ with SF ‘is not a suspension of disbelief, it is an active process of translation.”  We do not disengage our critical faculties when we read fantastika (or really any other sort of fiction); we adjust them to the text. We search for elements to believe in, for details and tropes and trends that we can embrace and integrate into the experience of reading. Sometimes they ring true and other times they seem to be inert illusions. It is an ongoing process that requires us to be active and probing. This is a far cry from an act of suspension, of somehow putting away our discernment to let ourselves be tricked by a text. Reading fantastika is about much more than that.

8 Comments on Six Fervently-Held Hypotheses Regarding “Willing Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Athanor // July 11, 2013 at 6:57 am //

    Very valid points and I agree with regards to most of the fiction I read. But if I go to one of the big blockbuster summer movies, “suspension of disbelief” as defined in here is the most accurate description.

  2. I enjoyed this thoughtful article, as I have always been curious about the nature of ‘suspended disbelief.” (Mine tends to be weak.)

    Dr. Charles Tart did an interesting experiment. He took a paper bag and, in the plain view of his class, drew a crude face on it. (I believe he also gave it a name as he presented it to the class, but I would have to go check on that to be sure.) He set the bag down in the middle of the floor, and resumed lecturing normally on another topic. He paid no more attention to the bag, just lectured his class for a while. And then, without warning, he walked over to the bag and stomped on it. Everyone in the class gasped or cried out.

    We have an instinct to identify, and having identified, we pull that object, person, fictional character (or, in a religious context, that spirit voice) into our own identity. Once it has become part of ourselves, it becomes ‘real’.

    • Michaele: That’s a great example of how we project onto and identify with things, imbuing them with our beliefs.

      Athanor: It may be that the prevailing idea does work better with film? There is a whole book about this which I have only read a few selections from.

      • Humans are a species more inclined to the visual than any other sense. So the bag experiment strikes me as being true, and an instinct to identify that reading only approaches in the most dedicated of readers.

        It’s the type of reader that dreams about characters that they read about that can approach the simple identification in the bag experiment. But its all of a piece. We put meaning and reality onto fictional constructs.

  3. Very interesting musings. But forgive me if I go all-biological on you.
    We all try to project our thoughts into the future, using special portions of our brains called the prefrontal lobes to mentally probe the murky realm ahead. These tiny neural organs let us envision, fantasize, and explore possible consequences of our actions, noticing some errors and evading some mistakes.

    Humans have possessed these mysterious nubs of gray matter — sometimes called the “lamps on our brows” — since before the Neolithic Era. What has changed recently is our effectiveness at using them. Today, a substantial fraction of the modern economy is devoted to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come.

    They are also the seats of empathy, where we do “gedankenexperiments” or thought experiments “what might she be thinking.”

    Fiction and most forms of play are about exercising such skills. We engage our simulation processes in ways that arouse pleasure, especially when the simulation is exciting, strong, plausible or otherwise satisfying. There is no “suspension.” It is a collaborative process of creation! In which the reader buys a pre-packaged simulation and decrypts an incantation of black squiggles on a page that she or he then turns into something vivid, engaging an important brain region.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

    • Yes, it is certainly true that the process of responding to an external narrative (I can’t tell you how hard I had to fight not to call it fictionalizing) is very old and deeply embedded in the brain. It could be argued that it predates anything else in human culture (except maybe fire?). Well, spoken.

    • Thank you for the detailed comment! It’s interesting to see how this process supports the idea of collaborative creation over some notion of “suspension,” and it is very illuminating to find out how pleasure coincides with the use of these processes. This is an aspect of how we read and imagine that I will have to explore in greater detail. This is good information to ponder regarding reading and its links to other cognitive processes. Much appreciated!

  4. Great article. I love the depth with which you have presented the topic. I also love the thoughts on “co-creation.”

    I think many times audiences are just looking for a reason to “co-create.” But, at the same time, I think they’re also looking for the set of predefined criteria by which we seek for truth. For example, we always want “time travel” to be real. We want to “co-create” a world where the Delorian can throw us through time. We “buy into” the world and co-create a scenario in which we can play.

    When I think of “suspension of disbelief,” I think, like Athanor, it frequently depends upon our own expectations with the work of fiction. Take Fast and Furious 6 (certainly a “work of art” – LOL). I thought the movie was ludicrous and while it is “fun,” there are stretches where it is so far and away ridiculous that I become unwilling to “co-create” this story. In my made up Fast and Furious world, cars do not fly farther than gravity would allow. But, in another person’s mind, he/she is certainly willing to “co-create” a world where cars and planes DO break the laws of physics.

    I think many science fiction fans know enough about physics to “doubt” shady logic. And that’s where they stop short of co-creating with the author.

    Excellent post!

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