Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Maybe It's That Simple

I'm having more of a slog through the latest issue of Helix than usual, partly because of a recurrent back spasm that renders me intermittently immobile, but also because I usually start with the John Barnes column, The Well-Bitten Hand, and there's a lot to gnaw on this time. To begin with, Barnes is telling us what being a semiotician means to him, and since he gets paid to be one, it's a good thing to pay attention to what he says, money being what it is and all.

Also, in the first part of his essay, he's dealing with some of the issues that are often trotted out when people discuss science fiction, and, more specifically, why some people don't like science fiction, and perhaps why some people have trouble reading science fiction. This is often summed up in the phrase, "The door dilated," which is supposed to signal the savvy SF reader that we're not in Kansas anymore, but which troubles the regular reader, because, perhaps, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I'm actually giving away a bit of my own argument here with that last sentence, because the sort of literary analysis that Barnes is critiquing calls these things "reading protocols," and suggests that non-sf readers either do not possess the protocols that make sf readable, or they do not enjoy using those protocols.

My own suggestion, which Barnes does not really mention (though I'm sure he's considered it), is that some people just don't like science fiction. It's not as if this is a feature of the landscape that is confined to literature; there are plenty of sf movies, tv shows, comics, etc., and there are many, many people who simply don't care for them. The same is true of various sorts of fantasy. A friend of mine had a long-running (and joking) argument with his wife and daughter about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. They loved it; he refused to even watch it. He preferred The Sopranos, which is a different kind of wish fulfillment fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. He even agreed with this when I pointed it out. However, he still preferred The Sopranos.

Similarly, there are currently entire genres that are, by classical standards, science fiction, but which regular science fiction readers disdain because they don't speak to whatever said sf readers really want. I'm thinking here of the cross-genre romances, the paranormal romances, the time-travel romances, and so forth, which spoil all the good sf action with that "chick lit" stuff.

In any case, I'm pretty sure that Barnes skips over this part of the argument because he wants to get on about reading protocols generally, and what he calls "dip and flip," as a result of a series of observations he's made of people reading in public places:

One thing stood out vividly: about half the observed readers who appeared to be under 35 began each new page by looking at the center, scanning outward from there in a sort of loose clockwise spiral, and then beginning to read left-right-diagonal-down once they had found something of interest. From eavesdropping I could tell they were looking for a word or phrase to catch their attention, checking back to contextualize it, and then reading only as long as the text was still about that word or phrase (or until another word or phrase took over as focus of interest). And like many of the ad-readers and sentence-excerpters, their conversation indicated that for them, that word or phrase was what the article was "about."

(I put "about" in quotation marks because in different reading protocols "about" seems to mean something different to some readers than it does to others.)

Barnes correctly notes that the "dip and flip" protocol screws up any attempt to convey ordered information, so it is particularly vexing to technical writers and the writers of clean, linear fiction. Indeed, as a card carrying member of both groups, let me suggest that Barnes is being very kind by not suggesting the traditional label for such reading protocols: functional illiteracy.

Of course this is an argument that goes back forever, and includes the Evelyn Woods "Speed Reading" controversy of decades ago.

"What is astonishing is that they think that 80% comprehension is enough. Kennedy was a speed reader. 'Bay of Pigs?' That must have been in that other 20%." –The Firesign Theater.

Barnes spends the rest of the article on providing some tips for how stodgy old linear writers can tap into the "dip and flip" market, primarily by telling their stories in small, bite sized chunks, each of which must have a sugar glaze and a crunchy center. And, truly, I'm pretty much fine with that as far as it goes. Make the scenes shorter, put in some self-contained vignettes, make both geography and point-of-view less static, and more energetic, sure. I'd have done even more of that in SunSmoke, if I'd thought I could get away with it.

But, ultimately, I don't think that there is as much gold in them thar hills as we'd like to think. It's true that the number of casual readers dwarfs the number of dedicated ones, but it's not obvious that one can make all that much of a cake from crumbs. And if I want to really connect with a readership, I think I'll go after readers who want to connect back.

5 comments:

black dog barking said...

Apropos the Chinese curse, these are interesting times for the print media writer. The Block of Text paradigm has several centuries of public practice behind it and its best of class products are stunning — they literally get into one's head and take over, entire world views can be downloaded.

"Reading protocols" is a nice articulation of the contortions we readers put ourselves through to open the portal into a block of text. I think it would be a worthwhile and interesting to examine and weigh these protocols in light of the changes both to the pace of life around us and changes in the technology of text reproduction and dissemination. (We'd get to revisit the irony of science fiction made obsolete by technology.)

James Killus said...

One irony that I've often remarked upon is how rarely science fiction contains references to the existence of science fiction, as if the achievement of one real future destroys all past images of the future.

That may be part of the point, of course, with sf being just another part of the ongoing war for the future, with some hell bent on turning the boat around and marching forward into the past.

James Killus said...

Of course, if you turn the boat around and begin to march, you will get wet.

(signed), the Mixed Metaphor Police

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> One irony that I've often
> remarked upon is how rarely science
> fiction contains references to the
> existence of science fiction

Which reminds me: from someone's signature, long ago and far away (paraphrased from memory):

"Television gives us a window onto a workd where people don't sit around and watch television at night."

HANNAH'S DAD said...

oops - "world", not "workd"