My mind has been getting quite the workout over the last two weeks. Over at SF Signal I have begun a series of columns on the practice of reading (and writing too). In the first I discuss some of the cognitive aspects of reading, and this week’s installment begins a broader examination of social, cultural, and linguistic issues. The goal is to discuss the reading of fantastika specifically, but to grasp what reading is generally, how it works, and what we do with it has become a very complex object of study to understand, and I find myself having to look at a number of larger issues and subjects to contextualize my focus on reading the fantastic.
I am in awe of the ability to read. I count myself lucky that I learned to read around the age of three and that by the time my first-grade peers were struggling with Dick and Jane books I was reading Dickens. I took to reading with eagerness, and with a bit of desperation; I was socially inept (even for a 6-year-old), volatile (I cried when a pet frog died, but days later stabbed a classmate in the hand with a pencil, somewhat accidentally), and already searching for something different than what the world was presenting to me. I have never been comfortable with the world-as-presented by others, and reading gave me an early. . . if not escape, a respite and a temporary refuge.
When I began to seriously research the practice of reading (really within the last month), that sense of awe was rekindled. The more that I learn about the process of reading, how we have repurposed parts of our brain to do it, and what we have done with this self-made gift, the more that I am astounded by its power and versatility, even though I have only begun to comprehend its workings.
As I began to write about reading, I noticed that my astonishment, and my deep love of the act, was skewing my writing about it. It is very easy to fawn over the amazing ability to make meaning out of marks, especially when your life has been made better (if not saved) by the employment of it. But it is easy to forget, particularly in the contemporary moment, that reading is power. It may be nigh-ubiquitous in American (and many other) societies, but we do not all read the same way, see the same things, or even have access to the same material. Reading is not just a cognitive process or social practice, but an active generator of many fields of cultural production.
Reading is the fantastization of the meaning implied by symbols. Whether you are perusing the most prosaic note or the most surreal cut-up of words in a hurricane of notions, to read is to create a fantasy of what the words symbolize to the reader. Even when we strive to be as direct, basic, or realistic as possible, we commit to the page, and interpret from that page, through a visualization process that we compare to our knowledge, emotions, and agendas.The world is translated through our ability to fantasize. This is what I was trying to get at with my column on phantasy and the imagination. I don’t mean that we are fantasizing in the sense of “to conceive fanciful or extravagant notions, ideas, suppositions, or the like.” To an extent we are imagining, “to form a mental image of” but in the sense of “to portray in the mind.” This may seem like an unnecessary semantic distinction, but the difference is between a conceit of certainty and an idea of process.
When we read something “realistic” we think that we are forming an image that is concrete, not subject to variances of interpretation. Deconstruction, whether you like the theory or not, has certainly demonstrated that meaning is more multivariant and plastic than many of us might like it to be. In briefly looking back at some of its tenets and excesses, I’ve come to realize that it also shows me two things to watch out for in studying reading, particularly the reading of fantastika. First, even though scientists are finding out more about the mechanics of the reading process, it is not a mechanical process. The cognitive actions we take are only one part of what entails reading. Second, to see reading as constantly amazing is to lose sight of much of its complexity and the many ways it can be used, tricked, or even marginalized.
I have come to realize two things in my pursuit of better understanding reading: first, that science can only teach us so much about reading, and that to allow the discourse of science to excessively influence my project will weaken it. Second, I have to remember, and frequently remind myself, that realism is an interpretive scheme that colors, and sometimes constrains, how I examine and analyze what I read, how I fantasize and imagine, and what I might learn from studying reading and writing and the fashioning of stories and genres and texts. Realism is a capitulation, a submission to a paradigm, at least ostensibly, grounded in empirical proof or, more often, consensual reality. Remaining within those constraints is difficult when dealing with the life of the mind, or with the social webs we spin. I have to be unrealistic to obtain a more productive and rewarding perspective on the topics that I want to learn more about and that I present to others.
This applies to my fiction writing as well. I have found myself often stymied as I write because I am concerned that what I write will not be accepted because it is unreal. Even though I write fantastika, I can feel anxiety swell up when I create something unreal. It’s ridiculous, but it is because I think that everything has to make sense, be utterly believable, and have no flaws whatsoever. I feel hesitation when I make a social or political conjecture or conjure something truly weird because I worry that it will not be accepted. Even as the idea of what is real is being unraveled in so many ways in our lives, I find that the spectre of realism haunts my fictive visions. But writing about reading, which I have really been doing since I started my SF Signal column, is showing me that I have to not be realistic in order to write, in order to understand myself.
This does not mean that I am a rabid fantastizer in the crude sense of the term. For me, it is a step in understanding how to look at the world with a more critical eye and how to discuss its workings and productions with more evocation and emotional authenticity. It means coming to grips with what reality is and is not, with the fact that there is no one reality, but billions of them, one in each person’s head. Saying that I am not a realist is not rejecting those realities, but figuring out how to live with them, how to write about them, how to read them and continue to learn how to better live with them.