The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I

And we’re on to the first chapter of Stableford’s work.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter I, “Approaches to the Sociology of Literature”, Stableford starts by quoting sociologist Leo Lowenthal. Like so many others, Lowenthal emphasizes works of fiction as a product of a creative process and is not interested in the readers of that fiction. This type of sociological examination is interested in why the author chose the subject and method of presentation he did. Psychologists of literature followed Freud’s interest in the psychology of creation. For Freud, literature was an expression of neurotic tendencies.

Most of these approaches ignore literature as a means of expression. Madame de Staël was interested, so she said, in literature’s effect on religion, custom, and law, but she didn’t actually write much about that. Like her contemporaries, Hegel and Herder, she mainly saw literature as expressing a spirit of the age. In this view, all a writer can do is express that spirit, well or badly.

But this, argues Stableford, is hardly a scientific notion. It can’t be falsified. Twentieth century sociologists Georg Lukas and Lucien Goldmann were no better. The latter saw literature as expressing a “world vision”, the “whole complex of ideas, aspirations and feelings” of a class. Goldmann’s ideas led him to ignore large swathes of literature as “accidental” and not expressing this world vision. These theories don’t explain how aesthetically satisfying works are never created accidentally.

Both Lukas and Goldmann were Marxists and didn’t think great literature could be written in their times because literature had become just a commodity. Hippolyte Taine in 1863 held social factors caused the creation of literature, but, logically, this is little different than Hegel’s ideas. Taine thought a sort of Darwinian winnowing of genres that didn’t fit the public tastes took place. Robert Escarpit widened sociology’s examination of literature by examining the interactions between writer and reader, but his work mostly consisted of stats about publishing. 

All these “literature as product” approaches explain little about why readers chose what they do.  It was the “literature as communication” approach that was more useful. Aristotle started this with his theories on didactic poetry and the catharsis of drama.

In modern times, I. A. Richards’ 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism noted that writers have a narrow interest in the creative process. They mainly think about the process and how “right” it is to make their visions concrete. For Richards, artists were exceptional people because they discover new possibilities. Stableford notes that Richards rejected claiming a work of literature was great because of its aesthetics. It was great because it passed judgement on society. He was of the opinion that people who can’t appreciate good art are degenerates. Commercial art was bad art.

F. R. Leavis took up this approach and claimed only a tiny elite could appreciate great literature. The spirit of the age is defined by what literature is appreciated. Leavis and Richard Hoggart were interested in what good and bad art said about the age it was produced in. Raymond Williams looked at “structures of feeling” in literature. Leavis developed Richards’ ideas as a way of making personal judgements about a person based on their literary tastes. Williams toned this down a bit when he conceded that the novel was once a “vulgar” art form. He also noted that books, good and bad, circulate more in the modern age.

Stableford notes the surprising number of sociologists of literature who have just accepted the theories and values of literary critics. In 1962, Hugh Dalziel Duncan’s Communication and Social Order started a more useful method of analyzing literature. He broke literature into three categories: “literature as great art”, “literature as magical art”, and “literature as make-believe”.

“Literature as great art” isn’t just about novelty. Insane people can have novel visions. It is about giving us a new way of seeing the world. “Literature as magical art” is there to preserve attitudes, values, and social norms. “Literature as make-believe” is art that provides catharsis, a release of emotions which society must repress; it is imaginative wish-fulfillment.

At last, Stableford finds a methodology and classification he can work with. It explains popular fiction’s repetitiveness. Its categories are recognizable and match discussions the public has about literature, and it clearly puts “escapist” reading in its own category.

However, Stableford ends up using terminology from Gerhardt Wiebe’s paper “The Social Effects of Broadcasting”. Similar to Duncan’s classification, Wiebe has three categories: directive, maintenance, and restorative.

In terms of broadcasting, directive messages

come from authority figures. They command, exhort, instruct, persuade, and urge in the direction of learning and new understanding that represent progress in the estimation of authority figures.

They call for “substantial and conscious intellectual effort on the part of the learner”.

Maintenance messages require “little conscious intellectual effort on the part of the learner”.

Restorative messages have fantasies which relieve a listener from the weariness of conformity and adapting to society. 

Stableford notes this classification is way more useful than Marxist critiques. Any work of literature can be put in one of the three slots.

However, there is a problem with whether popular literature really serves a communicative function. Quoting C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, Stableford notes Lewis reversed the process by distinguishing between readers and the books they read.

First, Lewis noted, most people don’t re-read books. Those who read “great works” often re-read them every few decades. Second, most people don’t read much. People who view reading as their primary leisure activity are not in the majority. Third, the readers of some great literary work experience strong emotions, comparable to love, religion, grief, when finishing it. But most reading doesn’t produce those emotions.

Finally, only a few of these individuals have a prominent place in their minds about what they’ve read and are reading.

Stableford sees Lewis as partly following Richards in thinking the “literary elite” and masses read in different ways. Lewis even says most people can’t read properly. Literature, says Lewis, should be a way of having experiences other than our own. While Stableford thinks Lewis’ division of the world between the literary and non-literary world is too much, he thinks Lewis at least distinguishes between types of reading.

Robert Escarpit distinguished between “connoisseur” reading and “consumer reading”.

Connoisseur reading does not think there is such a thing as an aging or obsolete work and tries to reconstruct the system of references and aesthetics at the time the work was written. Consumer reading is present oriented. The consumer reader either reads or doesn’t. That does not preclude “intellectual lucidity” on the part of the reader nor does it exclude the reader examining why he reads what he does. The two modes, though, can exist in the same reader, even at the same time.  Stableford likes this approach because it acknowledges the two modes can exist simultaneously in the same reader.  It doesn’t divide readers into two camps. 

Stableford says the range of relationships between a reader and a work vary on a continuum of “disposability”. Using a food metaphor, we sometimes read solely for taste (consumer reading) and sometimes for nutrition (connoisseur reading). Lewis can’t understand reading simply for taste. Directive reading is connoisseur reading. Maintenance reading is consumer reading. 

The category of restorative messages in reading is more interesting. It is like consumer or maintenance reading, but, by necessity, it is transitory. The escape it involves, unlike directive reading, cannot be permanent.

“Literary people”, connoisseur readers, regard restorative reading as corrupting like the alleged corrupting influences of tv. They assume that those doing restorative reading can’t distinguish between it and directive reading. Little research has been done on escapist reading and what gratifications people seek in it. 

Herta Herzog looked at a related question in listeners of radio soap operas. There were a variety of answers. Listeners wanted emotional release, to experience the sadness and joy of the characters, or the troubles of the characters made them feel better about their own lives, or a way for some listeners to express their superiority over others who haven’t had those emotional experiences. A second reason was wish fulfillment through listening to those shows. It was a way of filling in the gaps in their own life. A third reason for inarticulate listeners was they thought the shsow explained things about life and that they teach “appropriate patterns of behavior”. 

Stableford notes that, again, this restorative listening provides emotional release as per Duncan’s classification. He then cites a study of readers of Mills & Boon romances. The questionnaire clearly showed that the readers were aware of the stories’ unreality and enjoyed that. 

Contrary to Lewis, Stableford believes all three modes – directive, maintenance, and restorative – are necessary to our well-being and that literature, even popular literature, can work in all three modes. Lewis only thinks directive literature is valid.

Additional Thoughts

I think Stableford’s conclusion that all three modes of reading can be found in many readers to be spot on. Also, I am suspicious of both the denigration of the idea of literary classics and the idea that popular literature can’t possesses, in certain cases, the grandeur, skill, and value (however, it’s determined) of “great literature”.

But I’m spending so much time on Stableford’s thesis because I think this chapter in particular is applicable to the many debates in science fiction.

There are some who see science fiction’s purpose as properly directive: to educate the public about science or the future or the merits of some political notion or the horrors of some other political notion or to propagandize for currently fashionable (at least for now) political ideas or identities.

There are others some who to think that a certain social or political perspective is already accepted but needs to be reinforced and celebrated. This is maintenance mode.

And, finally, there are those who think (I’m thinking of some of the practitioners of the new pulp revolution) who abjure any directive function – or, at least – the predominant directions being handed out by science fiction from commercial publishers. Yet, they also seem to think their work can work both in the directive and restorative modes. And, as per Stableford, there is no reason a work can’t work in a variety of modes at once or, at least, be reset for different readers.

If you try to analyze these debates using this classification, they make a lot more sense. You can ignore questions of aesthetics (which Stableford gets to in other chapters) or how science fiction should somehow always be progressing towards . . . well, something. This type of critic and reader will recognize it when it happens.

The long-time reader of science fiction reader, for instance, now finds his reading of space travel, once surely a call for real-world action, now just escapist fare.

I think the connoisseur and consumer distinctions also point how why some people simply can’t stand old science fiction. They can’t or won’t reset their mind to decades ago (or, in some cases, five years ago) to accept an old work. They may claim to be connoisseurs, but they are really searching for a constant novelty of vision or a reinforcement, a maintenance, of their current identity and beliefs.

And novelty is a big part of the sociology of science fiction as we’ll learn in future posts.

2 thoughts on “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I

  1. Brian Stableford April 1, 2021 / 3:05 am

    David Hambling sent me this link. I had been sent links to specific reviews before, but had not previously realized the extent of your coverage of my work, for which I’m very grateful. If I can assist your research in any way, please let me know.

    • marzaat April 1, 2021 / 5:03 pm

      Thank you very much for the kind words, Mr. Stableford. I’ve been reading your criticism since the late 1970s. I’ve made a very small dent in your large output as author, translator, and critic, but I do plan to be covering more of it in the future.

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