Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

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.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.

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