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)


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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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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