But that’s where a magazine of fantasy and science fiction is at a distinct disadvantage.
At the end of 2017 the results of a research project called The Genre Effect study were published in the journal Scientific Study of Literature. It was undertaken by Professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson from Washington and Lee University.
Around 150 participants were given a text of 1000 words to read. Half were given a ‘literary’ version of the text and the other a ‘science fiction’ version. The texts were identical except in the literary version, the main character enters a diner while in the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans. The only differences between the two were setting-related. For example, the literary version used the word ‘door’ and the science fiction version used the word ‘airlock.’
After the reading, the participants were asked to comment on the literary merit of the story they had read. They were asked how much effort they spent trying to work out what the characters were feeling, and how much they agreed with statements such as ‘I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story.’
The study exposed a self-fulfilling bias among literary readers against science fiction, demonstrating that science fiction is currently still unfairly viewed in academia.
Here are some of the results from the study:
‘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.’ The readers of the science fiction version generally scored lower in comprehension. They ‘reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters.’
The professors also reported that readers of the science fiction version of the story ‘appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself… the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading and appears to predispose readers to a less effortful and comprehending mode of reading—or what we might term non-literary reading—regardless of the actual intrinsic difficulty of the text.’
Professor Gavaler says, ‘those who are biased against SF, thinking of it as an inferior genre of fiction, they assume the story will be less worthwhile, one that doesn’t require or reward careful reading, and so they read less attentively… It’s a self-fulfilling bias—except we can now show objectively that the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself.’ He adds, ‘if you’re stupid enough to be biased against SF you will read SF stupidly.’ He is interested in exploring this Genre Effect further and discovering whether fantasy tropes such as a sorcerer’s wand would have similar effects on readers.
These results are not a surprise to those of us who have been involved in science fiction publishing over the years and explains the issues we had when applying for grants in the past. As Professor Gavaler says, while it’s disappointing that these biases exist, at least now they’ve been exposed.
A version of this article appeared in Aurealis #114.