Do you know how some look down on science fiction and other genre fiction as being less serious or literary? It turns out that they might not be seeing what's actually in front of them.
New research shows that a reader's biases about SF influence their ability to comprehend a work. In what is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy, the reader finds exactly the work they expected, whether it was actually there or not.
From the Guardian:
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.”
Gavaler said that he was inspired by that 2013 study because (in my words) it lacked rigor, that the sample texts used in the 2013 study were arbitrarily labeled as either genre or literary. “I think their study has so many problems. I also teach creative writing and contemporary fiction with a particular interest in hybrid ‘literary genre’ works, so I was especially annoyed by how their category divisions weren’t accurate. For example, my short story Is was published in the literary journal New England Review and then later in the genre anthology Best American Fantasy.”
In response, he developed an experiment which isolated and tested the impact of a single variable: a handful of words that defined a text either as narrative realism (non-genre fiction, essentially) or SF.
The study found that readers got the story they expected.
“While this wouldn’t be true of all readers, for those who are biased against SF, thinking of it as an inferior genre of fiction, they assume the story will be less worthwhile, one that doesn’t require or reward careful reading, and so they read less attentively. This then lowers their scores on objective comprehension tests because they miss so much. Interestingly, they don’t even realise it, because they still report that the story required less effort to understand. It’s a self-fulfilling bias – except we can now show objectively that the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself,” said Gavaler.
“So when readers who are biased against SF read the word ‘airlock’, their negative assumptions kick in – ‘Oh, it’s that kind of story’ – and they begin reading poorly. So, no, SF doesn’t really make you stupid. It’s more that if you’re stupid enough to be biased against SF you will read SF stupidly.”