08 September 2004

As Librarians See Us

Dave Langford's Ansible often has a section titled "As Others See Us", about non-science-fiction people saying things about science fiction people that seem kind of funny to those of us in the know. That's immediately what I thought of when I read this article from Library Journal about a study of 32 science fiction readers to determine how, why, and what they read so that librarians who are not, themselves, familiar with science fiction can better serve patrons who are.

I don't know if the article will be at all useful to librarians (it's a bit vague), but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It's reductive and odd in some of its analyses, but amusingly earnest in the way that attempts at statistical analysis can be. It might even be thought-provoking. For instance:
The strategic, or functional, reasons for reading sf have little to do with the book's content or the reading experience. According to the study, four strategic reasons for reading sci-fi are habit, using category as a filter to make the selection task a manageable size, influence of the reader's social network, and domain knowledge. Domain knowledge includes information and techniques used both in reading the genre (such as expected plot devices) and in making selection decisions (such as reliable reviewers). Domain knowledge comes into play in all genres, but in sf, which specializes in difference and takes place in an unreal world, it seems to play a much greater role.
Odd that the most common, most cliched reason for reading SF isn't raised: "sense of wonder". While that element can at times make SF little more than emotional pornography, it is nonetheless the factor most frequently cited by devoted fans as what keeps them coming back, like flies to blood or addicts to heroin.

Which brings me to some thoughts that have been clanging around in my brain, thoughts about "entertainment". Again and again, I hear people say they don't care about X or Y in fiction, that all they want is "to be entertained", as if that phrase explained itself. The problem is, of course, that what is entertaining for one person may be soporific to another. Plenty of people over the years have found E.E. Smith's books entertaining (full of that good ol' sense of wonder); I'd rather spend my time trying to memorize the Manhattan phone book than read them.

However, when most people say they "just want to be entertained" by a book, they're talking about becoming engrossed in it -- that wonderful feeling of the pages all but turning themselves. It seems that some readers and critics assume this effect comes from the plot, as, for instance, the success of John Grisham might suggest. But plotting is seldom enough to create entertainment, and some popular and entertaining books -- the longer Harry Potter novels, for instance -- are not shining examples of plotting.

One key to making a book read quickly is to end each chapter in such a way that the reader wants to glance at the beginning of the next chapter to see what happens. That's a simple, common trick, and one that is, on its own, annoying. For a book to truly be entertaining, other elements come into play: characters whose fates the reader cares about, strange and compelling settings, engrossing ideas. All of which work together with the events in the book, of course, but cliffhanger plotting alone won't do it.

Where, then, is the (perceived? real?) difference between works that are "simply entertaining" and works that are something more? If the most entertaining books balance a variety of forces, why do we -- supporters and detractors -- see them as shallow or needing defense? Where does "entertainment" end and "something else" begin?

I don't ask these questions rhetorically; there are answers, but I can't claim to have many clear ones of my own.

Perhaps we should banish the word "entertaining" from our vocabularies and speak instead of books that are "fulfilling" to some extent or another. Many of my favorite books are not ones that I could say are, exactly, entertaining, but I would never hesitate to say they are fulfilling. That's what I look for when reading, though what I will find fulfilling depends on mood and circumstance. There are days when John Grisham is fulfilling, though such days are few and far between. Most of the time, Grisham feels to me like empty calories, and by the end I have forgotten everything I read because it was the literary equivalent of watching something on TV but not paying any attention to it: it passes the time. On the other hand, I generally find Carl Hiaasen's novels fulfilling enough compared to the effort put into reading them; the humor and satire function as low-grade vitamins. War and Peace, on the other hand, may be the most fulfilling book I have ever read -- three years after reading it, its taste still lingers, it still provides sustenance. (The parts that I most vividly remember are the parts that were most entertaining. I disliked the last 150 pages tremendously, because they weren't even remotely entertaining, and were as fulfilling as chalk.) I know a few people -- smart, skilled readers -- who have never been able to get even half-way into War and Peace, but they are also, for whatever reason, not as interested in 19th century Russian life and literature as I am. Having a certain prediliction for the material, I found ways for the book to open its wonders to me. (This is, I think, what a great teacher can accomplish now and then for a student -- to provide ways of reading that allow a previously unfulfilling text to become at least potentially satisfying.)

What librarians who help patrons find books are doing, then, is looking for books that will be fulfilling for those patrons. The conclusion of the Library Journal article starts out by going in an interesting direction, but ends in emptiness:
Sci-fi has a great deal of flexibility, allowing readers to indulge in varying reading experiences at different times. A key facet of sf for many of the readers in the study was a characteristic that could be called either scope or possibility. Almost anything is possible in science fiction, and in reading sf over time it is possible to suit changing needs. Science fiction includes a broad range of story types, worldviews, ideologies, degrees of complexity, and degrees of challenge. The material ranges from highly formula serial fiction to rigorous scientific speculation to strongly stylistic border works. Hybrids like sf mysteries allow readers to test other genres while staying in the boundaries of the familiar.

To help a reader select sf, it is important to find out what the particular sf reader is looking for at the time. The reader may have goals that change from time to time, yet will still look for and be satisfied by science fiction.
Am I right in thinking that what these paragraphs say is, "SF can be just about anything, so if someone comes looking for an SF book, they need to know what they're looking for"? That's a clear enough statement, banal and a bit obvious, but what kind of help does it provide a librarian?

I must be missing something. Why not just ask a patron, "What do you find fulfilling in a book?" and go from there?

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