Genre Bias Rears Its Ugly Head – It’s Science!

While I was of NaNoing last month an interesting bit of news came out with regards to science fiction and other types of fantastic literature. Put simply – people don’t put as much effort into reading those stories as other types.


The study went like this:

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.

The results were, on the face, disappointing:

‘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.’

Readers of the science fiction story ‘appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself’, so ‘the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading’.

In spite of some of the breathless comments I saw online the study does not, as someone points out, imply that reading sci-fi makes you dumber, but implies that people who don’t like sci-fi won’t give it its full attention. It’s nice to have some science to back this up, I guess, but is that any surprise?

That’s the whole reason literary writers, whom I’ve complained about before, don’t like admitting that they write sci-fi or fantasy. This came up against just recently after I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s really excellent Station Eleven (Weekly review forthcoming). It’s a story about survivors of a global pandemic striving to maintain a life that’s something beyond mere survival. It’s a quintessential piece of sci-fi (or, more broadly, speculative fiction), although the author is having none of it:

Thus when Station Eleven was nominated for the National Book Award – it also won the Arthur C. Clarke awards, so take that! – some eyebrows were raised. But when something that is “literary” is it prevented from being something else? I tend to agreed with this:

And yet confusion reigns in this debate, which feels strangely vague and misformulated. It remains unclear exactly what the terms ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ mean. A book like ‘Station Eleven’ is both a literary novel and a genre novel; the same goes for ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Crime and Punishment.’ How can two contrasting categories overlap so much? Genres themselves fall into genres: there are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres (“chick-lit”), mode genres (satire), and so on. How are different kinds of genres supposed to be compared? (‘Literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction,’ one senses, aren’t really comparable categories.) What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre? The debate goes round and round, magnetic and circular—a lovers’ quarrel among literati.

Listen, I get the concern of writers like Mandel – slap a “sci-fi” or “detective” genre label on a book a certain group of people won’t take it as seriously. But rather than run away from the tag and deny the reality of what you’re writing, why not embrace it? Doing so would help smash conceptions about what genre fiction is and can be. Stand up for the slighted genre kids, rather than lean into the bully who just wants to put them down.


3 thoughts on “Genre Bias Rears Its Ugly Head – It’s Science!

  1. Pingback: Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction | JD Byrne

  2. Pingback: Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy? | JD Byrne

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