Trivial Lit?

In a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that science fiction seems to have a deleterious effect on intelligent reading among certain test subjects. In a study conducted by researchers, the appearance of certain words—like “airlock” or “alien” or related descriptors having to do with setting—acted as signals that the story concerned lacked merit and thus could be dismissed as “not serious.”  Consequently, less connection with character occurred. Worse, even the basic recognition that the story being read was in all other respects identical to the “literary” version they had just read to which they had paid due attention.

I was reminded of an essay by Samuel R. Delany in which he noted the disconnect in decoding SF texts among certain adults whose children navigated those waters with ease. In this case, Delany was describing an interpretive failure, that when encountering a phrase like “the asteroid minding operation” there was a loss on the part of certain readers. They simply could not visualize that which was being described. Delany was noting that reading protocols are constructs and we have to learn them, the earlier the better. In other essays he went further and showed how a literary reading of a sentence could differ strikingly from a science fictional reading of the exact same sentence ( “she turned on her left side”, for instance ) and that, for the SF reader, that tension between the mundane and the speculative was a significant part of the pleasure of the SF experience.

But this study is different. It does not demonstrate a failure on the part of readers to decode the science fiction story—it shows a dismissal of the story as trivial because it is science fiction. Hence, no attempt is then made to find its other merits or even to recognize that such merits are even present. That the “trigger” words allowed the reader to simply recategorize the story as shallow and insignificant, because, I assume, its all that “space nonsense” and “kid stuff.”

Which is sadly unsurprising, even today, long past the time when this was the reaction on the part of the vast majority of readers.

However, it is new—or newish— in one respect, which is the a priori assumption not that the SF text makes no sense but that it is necessarily trivial. An assumption that, well, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s just not worth comprehending as anything other than…

So all the usual qualities of literary fiction which may be present are missed because the effort to find and respond to them is not made due to the shift in setting and æsthetic.

We might call this provincialism.

It occurred to me that the reverse happens for possibly the same reasons. That the seasoned SF reader may well dismiss a literary work because all those trigger words are not present, and therefore the expectations encoded in the story are weighted toward those literary values which the provincialist assumes cannot be present in a science fiction story.

Or, at least, those words are not present in sufficient degree to counter the presence of those other qualities and thus make it obvious that the story in hand requires attention to all those other things. Which may well be the very reasons a given reader has abandoned straight up literary fiction in the first place.

We might call this parochialism.

(I recall as a stridently biased youth having arguments about such things and declaring, quite seriously, “I don’t give a damn about character, I want event!” In other words, all the things that make a work of literature valuable having to do with empathy and pathos and the possibility of learning something about life just got in the way of what I considered the genuinely worthwhile aspect of a story, namely the gadgets, the setting, the plot, the novelty. This is a response to exoticism.  Partly this is an indication of immaturity, the inability to step outside yourself and into someone else’s head, and partly this is inexperience as  reader.  But largely I think this is a consequence of the insularity of an inferiority complex.  Who gives a damn about people who don’t give a damn about you? Which, when you think about it, in terms of fiction is kind of absurd.)

The recent raging against change within the SF community strikes me as a species of this syndrome.

For the most part, this problem erodes with exposure and experience. But one has to know what the problem is to begin with.

SF has become more accepted among the so-called mainstream, but it would be a shame if it had become accepted not as an equal to mundane literature but only as comfortable novelty with no real merit.  I doubt that’s the case and I have reservations about certain aspects of the study, but it would make for a worthwhile colloquium—or maybe just a good panel at a science fiction convention.


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