The Care and Handling of (Dis)Belief
In discussions on the literature of the fantastic – science fiction, fantasy, horror and such – you sometimes hear the term ‘suspension of disbelief.’ The idea is that the writer makes the reader accept things that (most) would assume to be impossible, such as dragons, ray guns or a working postal system. So far so good, but it turns out that this apparently innocuous little term is enough to cause trouble.
At two separate occasions, I have been told that I shouldn’t say ‘suspension of disbelief’ but rather ‘creation of belief.’ According to the proponents of this view, ‘suspension of disbelief’ assumes that the reader is constantly wary of all the dragons, ray guns and postal systems, and needs to be tricked by the author into accepting them. ‘Creation of belief’ assumes that the author works with the reader to create belief in his or her made-up world, which is how the process actually works. Tolkien himself is supposed to have said something along those lines, and not wanting to argue with Tolkien, I have accepted the argument. A pub conversation a few weeks ago made me think again.
My counterpart in this conversation was Mr. Chapel, the nom de guerre (nom de web?) of Lennart Guldbrandsson. He had the idea that creation of belief and suspension of disbelief are two different things, useful in different circumstances. (Any mistakes below should be attributed not to Lennart, but to the fact that I was well into my second glass of whisky at this point in the discussion.)
According to this line of thought, creation of belief is the main work that the author performs to convince the reader that the events described in the text are taking place – for the reader to get into the story, some part of her must take it seriously even though she is fully aware that she is reading a novel. Vivid details create a sense of place, psychological verisimilitude makes us think of the characters as real people, and so forth. Creation of belief.
Suspension of disbelief, if we take the term literally, becomes a remedy to a problem that threatens the already created belief. Three quarters through the novel, the writer realises that her main character needs information that only the character’s grandmother has. The only way to impart it is to have the grandmother come along and provide it. Really, the reader says. The grandmother? And she just happened to be passing through, was she?
Disbelief beckons. But if we give the grandmother a good reason for being where she is, and for imparting the information, things aren’t so bad anymore. The disbelief has been suspended.
This probably isn’t the last word on the subject (especially if you, gentle reader, use the commenting function below). Still, making people believe the impossible is no easy thing, and I think there is room for more than one term here. What should we call the methods used to correct readers who have formed crystal-clear but hopelessly wrong ideas of the fantasy world? ‘Cursing and starting over’ springs to mind …
Fantasy writer Stefan Ingstrand has published short stories, articles and more. He finds pub crawls that generate blog posts a delightfully efficient use of his time.