Sunday, November 28, 2004

Suspending disbelief

I noticed many students were completely lost. Not because they had trouble keeping up with the reading (a few did), but because they had trouble figuring out how to read a fantasy novel. It was a minority of my students that knew how to read a novel that mixed reality and fantasy, history and fiction, myth and the mundane. The handful of kids who had read other fantasy novels did fine... But the majority of students, kids who would have no trouble suspending their various disbeliefs for the most fantastic products of Hollywood, told me again and again that the book was nearly incomprehensible.

This comes from Matthew Cheney of The Mumpsimus, telling about teaching Neil Gaiman's American Gods in high school. He also talks about teaching science fiction in general.

(Via a post from Scribbling Woman that you should check out, and click on all the links cuz they're very cool.)

The above quote jumped out at me because I know people like this, people incapable of suspending disbelief, who just don't "get" it. The first such person I knew was my mother; I assumed this trait had something to do with age, a generational thing, maybe limited cultural experience. But there were others. Was it simply lack of exposure? Could they learn to grok?

I think the answer is no. Some people are just wired that way.

This is a trans-media phenomenon, although with the strong movie culture we have, it may be easier for some to fake literacy in this domain than in others — but on some essential level, they still don't get it.

Sometimes the trigger is a "technology" like time travel. It can be the presence of elves. Talking animals. Anything claiming to be set in the even not too distant future. Cartoons.

Some of these people will claim that this is not a shortcoming, simply their expression of personal preference for reality-based drama, but when pressed, greater philosophical differences in how we see the world emerge. Many people can fully appreciate fantastic elements and do prefer other modes, but there are many more non-grokkers than I ever thought possible.

Some minds encompass a vision of the future, grasp the impossible. Others cannot.

Has it always been this way? Do our brains adapt with each generation to be able to fathom the next big idea, the logical extensions of existing concepts? Is this evolution in progress?

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