Fantasy Lit Changes How We Behave

Julie Dillon, "The Archivist" {cover art for program of 37th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts)

Julie Dillon, “The Archivist” {cover art for 2016 IAFA conference)

Monday

Last week I attended the conference on International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts (IAFA) and came back buzzing with ideas that I want to share with my British Fantasy students. Sociologist James Holmes gave a particularly useful talk on “The Fantasy Reader: An Empirical Sociological Approach.”

Holmes began his talk by summarizing many of the reasons that readers turn to fantasy literature. Amongst these are:

–to escape life, imagine a world beyond capitalist possessiveness, deal with sorrow and failure, recover joy, and get in touch with the numinous;

–to develop a spiritual vocabulary for a secular world;

–to learn moral lessons and develop ethical capabilities;

–to reassure themselves that their lives and actions have meaning in an alien world; and

–to subvert social institutions that inhibit human possibility.

As a sociologist, Knowles was interested in how readers use fantasy to negotiate social challenges. How, he wondered, do readers concretize possibilities opened up by the imagination? He talked about the way that, when we read fantasy, we imagine other possibilities for ourselves and essentially rehearse them. If we are stuck inside certain constricting narratives about how society operates, a good fantasy work can help us break free from those narratives.

Knowles wants to develop ways of measuring (1) how readers use fantasy to reimagine different paths their lives could take and (2) how they translate that reimagining into action. He acknowledged these areas are  difficult to study since different readers will have different experiences with works.

He mentioned two studies that have grappled with the impact of fiction. One is Janice Radway’s 1984 Reading the Romance, which studied how women use romance novels in their lives. The other is Henry and I, which is an ethnographic account of a literary society dedicated to Henry Williamson, a World War I veteran who wrote social novels. This 2002 study, to quote from an abstract, studied how

the activity of solitary reading is linked to … conceptions of self and masculinity. In particular, [Williamson readers’] accounts of the passions or rapture of reading are understood through a theory of possession. Members of the literary society regard the event of fiction reading as crucial to their life development, allowing them to experience a self that is not their own while at the same time gaining self-recognition.

In the question and answer session afterwards, audience members suggested a couple of other ways of studying the social impact of fantasy, including using the tools of “cognitive narratology” and “symbolic interactionism.” Both of these are new to me so I looked into them. For cognitive narratology, I came across Maria Nikolajeva’s book Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children’s Literature. The book has been summarized as follows:

It explores how fiction stimulates perception, attention, imagination and other cognitive activity, and opens radically new ways of thinking about literature for young readers. Examining a wide range of texts for a young audience, from picturebooks to young adult novels, the combination of cognitive criticism and children’s literature theory also offers significant insights for literary studies beyond the scope of children’s fiction. An important milestone in cognitive criticism, the book provides convincing evidence that reading fiction is indispensable for young people’s intellectual, emotional and social maturation.

Someone else mentioned the work of Shelby Heath and Sidney Wolf about how children use stories to work through their issues.

Symbolic interactionism, meanwhile, asserts (I quote from Wikipedia here) that people do not respond to reality directly but “rather to the social understanding of reality; i.e., they respond to this reality indirectly through a kind of filter which consists of individuals’ different perspectives.” If one of those filters is fantasy literature, then according to symbolic interactionism, an author like J. K. Rowling can have a tangible influence on how readers behave.

In a final question, a woman asked why Knowles focuses on fantasy literature since his observations could extend to literature in general. Knowles answered that fantasy, by making a dramatic break with reality, offers a particularly powerful spur for imagining other life possibilities.

While academic literary conferences can appear fairly abstruse to outsiders, they open up rich lines of inquiry for those of us who teach these works. I see many ways that my Theories of the Reader class as well as my fantasy literature courses will be enhanced.

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  • Merrian Oliver-Weymouth

    As a romance reader active in online romance reading and reviewing communities, I have to tell you that Radway’s study is hated with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. At the minimum there is a lot of classism in her approach to her housewife readers. While there is value in Radway being amongst the first to focus on the reader experience the many years that have passed and the ways in which the romance reading community has changed and grown especially in and through the online world where readers review and discuss and construct meaning themselves, makes it grating that people and academics outside the romance genre still use her work as their first port of call and the final say in who romance readers are and what we take from our reading. I believe in the late ’90’s Radway also had a changed response to her own study. Twitter says; “Romance and the Work of Fantasy” in Feminism & Cultural Studies, OUP 1999 (chapter 20) …”My account unwittingly repeated the sexist assumption that has warranted a large portion of the commentary on the romance”…

    A tongue-in-cheek exercise program from the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog written in the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, allocates 25 leg lifts to any mention of Janet Radway (when there is the usual drive by article on the romance genre) .

    http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2014/04/romance-novel-reader-workout-xvii/

    My personal thinking over the years is that of all genre reading, romance needs to be understood in the social context in which romance genre books are written and read. The books I read in the 1980s would not be written today.

  • Merrian Oliver-Weymouth

    My oops, Janice not Janet Radway. This discussion by romance readers from 2013 might interest you as well. The comments give some depth to the points made by Laura in her article: http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com.au/2010/03/reading-radway-reading-romance.html

  • Robin

    This is very useful, Merrian. I haven’t looked at the book since it came out. It was an advance at the time because it took these readers more seriously than they had been taken before and paved the way for more sympathetic readings of the genre. Radway was taking a real chance in academe by doing so. But it sounds as though it is dated (not to mention classist) and that scholars have moved on.


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