Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ways of experiencing fiction

Via Grasping for the Wind, I came upon this interesting post by James Enge, in which Enge talks about the role played in each person by the “naïve reader” and the “sophisticated reader.”  As Enge describes it:

The naive reader wants the hero to kill the bad guy and marry the space-princess (or space-prince, or what have you). The sophisticated reader is muttering, “Yes, this is much like the plot Burroughs used, with overtones of Hamlet and the occasional oblique reference to postmodernism which is de rigueur for self-consciously retrogenerical pastiche, n’est-ce pas?” The naive reader just wants to sit back and enjoy the movie. The sophisticated reader is the guy sitting in the row behind who won’t STFU.

Each person contains both.  The naïve reader experiences the story directly- as Enge says, it is “the one for whom the reading experience is emotionally fulfilling.” The sophisticated reader, through deeper analysis and understanding of things beyond what’s up in the foreground, can augment the enjoyment of the naïve reader-or disrupt it, either by identifying issues the naïve reader would miss or running wild and nitpicking everything.

This made me think of a related question: What aspects of fiction are the primary sources of enjoyment, and what aspects are secondary or in the realm of peripheral details or nitpicking?  These categories don’t correspond precisely to Enge’s casual and sophisticated reader, but they are somewhat related.

I think one of the biggest and most common barriers to understanding when considering fiction is the assumption that all fiction is ultimately about, or at least ought to be about, the same things, and that likewise all readers enjoy or ought to enjoy the same things.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of science fiction, especially (but by no means exclusively) hard science fiction, is that it often moves issues of scientific and technical realism, along with things like creativity and logical consistency of background, from the peripheral/nitpicking realm to the foreground.

For me, and I think for many people who like science fiction (especially written), getting science and technology right isn’t just something that appeases my desire to nitpick or allows me to appreciate a story on an additional, supplementary level, it’s a source of pleasure in the same way that the plot and characters are.  Background and setting are similar. I enjoy it when a setting is put together well, when the extrapolated social and technological effects of the science presented makes sense-and again, this is front and center in my mind in the same way that character and plot is.  It’s primary, not supplementary.  Fantasy often does something like this too, with J.R.R. Tolkien being the most obvious and striking example.  This is quite different from most other forms of fiction, where the setting may have thematic relevance but is usually not an object of interest in itself.  (Historical fiction is an exception, since the historical veracity of the setting is often a significant part of the reader's enjoyment.  It would be interesting to know how much overlap there is between historical fiction readers and SF readers)

Indeed, some science fiction works more or less invert the normal hierarchy entirely, not only putting science, extrapolation of technology, and logical construction of setting up in front as sources of enjoyment, but pushing things that are conventionally considered the core of what good fiction should be about, such as characterization and prose style, into the background, or almost into oblivion altogether.  If I’m reading a science fiction book with imaginative and well thought-out ideas, the quality of characterization often becomes a nitpicky background concern to me.  A science fiction story is certainly not harmed by good characters, but often it isn’t much harmed by their absence either.  A lot of the complaints about characterization in science fiction often strikes me as sort of like hearing someone complain that magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez failed to explore the physical mechanism or social effects of the technology of the giant magnet that the gypsies had in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or about the improbable and melodramatic plots of many operas.

This is not an absolute rule, and it’s certainly possible to write science fiction that is primarily based on character or stylistic flair.  There are plenty of character-based stories I like.  I think my description captures the genre’s general thrust, however.  This has serious implications for other issues, such as the desire of some people for science fiction and fantasy to gain greater respectability, but this post is long enough for now.  I’d be interested in hearing how other readers experience science fiction, and if your take on the nature of the genre is similar to mine.

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SMD said...

"What aspects of fiction are the primary sources of enjoyment, and what aspects are secondary or in the realm of peripheral details or nitpicking?"

This is a question I don't think anyone can answer with any certainty. What you may deem to be sources of enjoyment may not be the same as someone else; what they may see as peripheral details you may see as sources of enjoyment. I'm led to believe that folks who pay attention to every nitty gritty detail when they read are still enjoying what they are reading even if their habits differ from my own (I don't tend to pay attention to nitty gritty details so much as the larger context of the piece, because I'm more interested in what a piece has to say about something broader than in what one sentence says about one minor point).

So, considering that most people read differently, I suspect it's impossible to say what constitutes nitpicky elements or enjoyment elements.

Adele said...

Sci fi is an odd one for me. Most books, esp fantasy I tend to let wash over me and just enjoy on a purely escapist level. Sci fi is not the genre I find easiest to read, I generally take longer to read them, going back over bits in case i've missed something. I find it less escapist and less immediate. I don't enjoy it any less though.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

A quote that I came across recently plays along the lines of this topic:

"The point is, an attentive reader is half writing your book along with you, which means you have to be three good steps ahead of him, not cantering along behind, shouting, “No, really! It's true! He can defuse one of those!”