Science fiction triggers ‘poorer reading’, study finds (well, maybe)

Via The GuardianScience fiction triggers ‘poorer reading’, study finds. Excerpt and then a comment:

It might feature such thought-stretching concepts as time travel and warp drives, but reading science fiction actually makes you read more “stupidly”, according to new research.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Study of Literature, Washington and Lee University professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson set out to measure how identifying a text as science fiction makes readers automatically assume it is less worthwhile, in a literary sense, and thus devote less effort to reading it. They were prompted to do their experiment by a 2013 study which found that literary fiction made readers more empathetic than genre fiction.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling.

Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

Readers of the science fiction story “appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself”, so “the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading”.

The science fiction setting “appears to predispose readers to a less effortful and comprehending mode of reading – or what we might term non-literary reading – regardless of the actual intrinsic difficulty of the text”, they write.

As the article notes later on, this reaction has more to do with the reader’s literary tastes than with any intrinsic stupidity in a story about airlocks and androids. It’s a bit like thinking leopards are less serious than zebras because you’re a vegetarian who likes to wear stripes.

Case in point: I’m not an eager reader of romance novels for women. But when I taught a course in writing commercial fiction, some of my students were eager to succeed in that genre, so I read their work. My goodness! It was pretty steamy stuff, but utterly unlike sexual tensions in male-centred fiction. And one of my students, at least, went on to a successful career publishing such romances.

Literary genres, like leopards and zebras, coexist in a literary ecosystem. Last century’s downmarket pulp dystopia is this century’s prophetic vision. And last century’s monumental literary triumph is now remembered, if at all, only by Ph.D. candidates desperate for a dissertation subject.

Aspiring writers in any genre need to ask themselves why that genre interests them: what is it about its conventions, settings, and themes. Otherwise they’re imitating far more than inventing. When they do understand their genre—SF, fantasy, romance, whatever—they can explore it more fully, and perhaps find something it can do, find a variation on its themes, that no one has found before.

They might even break through the walls of that genre, and build a new one…neither better nor worse than any other, but creating the taste for a new way to portray a brave new world, and all the people in it.

You may also like

No Comment

Comments are closed.