Nov 14, 2011

Reading as a kind of believing

Imagine if J.K. Rowling were to try to make an argument that Harry Potter existed. It would be very hard to convince anyone. Even if she had a lot of logic and history, and good arguments, even if she said it was revealed by God to be true and that many serious and smart people believed in Harry Potter, most of us would remain skeptical.

We wouldn't actually believe.

More, we probably wouldn't even actually engage with the idea. It's just so implausible, we wouldn't even weigh the arguments and consider the claim.

Imagine, on the other hand, that she didn't give us an argument, but a novel, a story, which started with an invitation to suspend disbelief. Imagine if she said, essentially, "you don't have to really believe in Harry Potter, just pretend." She might have started out, if she were going to do this, with the opening, "imagine ...."

Or she might have begun,
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense."
That's not an argument to believe something, but an invitation to suspend one's normal disbelief. The text isn't asking you to believe -- since, "of course" it's not true -- but to just not not-believe for a little while.

The opening, which she really does use, is brilliant too in how it stages not-believing, stages exactly the type of person the reader should not be if he or she is going to read this story and enjoy it. By the time you go from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley" to "such nonsense," you have already had one kind of response to the story exposited, that of disbelief, but, even in accepting the terms of the exposition (e.g., in pretending or "just suppose"-ing there is or was a Mr. and Mrs. Dursley), you have already allowed yourself to enter into a different response, one of being willing to suspend exactly the kind of disbelief on display in that very first set of sentences.

This "suspension of disbelief" should not be confused for belief, though. Part of the reason suspension of disbelief comes so easily is that it's less of a commitment than actually assenting to any claims.

The difference might be understood as the difference between accepting a claim and assenting to it, if that's not too subtle. Or, to use a legal term, a difference between holding that a fact is true, and stipulating that a fact can be taken as true.

The idea is that readers are allowed to still be skeptical, and disbelieve, but they agree to put that not-believing on hold for the time they read. They can, with this agreement, go back to disbelief anytime they want. They can put down the book, they can scribble "unbelievable!" in the margins, and if someone says, for example, "do you really believe in Harry Potter?" they can say, "of course not, it's only for fun." But, even in all that, they're entertaining the idea.

Which is a kind of believing, a tentative or provisional belief. One kind of believes. One believes, that is, on the condition it will always be possible to latter revise that belief, to rescind it, take it back. One believes, but with the caveat that this belief can always be disavowed. One engages as if one is believing, while always having recourse to the position "it's not real."

One always has one foot out the door, here, so to speak, but, then, that leaves the other foot.

At the self-reflexive level, where the reader is thinking about the book as a book, and the characters as characters, the reader has not suspended disbelief, of course. At the level of reading, though, where one engages with the plot as an unfolding of events and with the characters as people with psychology and motives and goals of their own, and at the level of accepting the universe of the story as a universe with certain rules, one has "suspended disbelief."

This can happen fully and totally, or only a little bit. With a poorly written book, part of what makes it poorly written is it's hard to suspend disbelief for very long. Every few pages, something interrupts and our skepticism cuts in again.

With Left Behind, for example, many many readers find it hard to suspend disbelief for periods of time lasting any significant length. There's too much that's unbelievable, or at least very strange and implausible, and also there's this lurking sense in the novel that it's not all "just pretend." Readers often seem to feel like the fact this novel is a novel, rather than a sermon or a pamphlet, is really just a trick. This is one of the ways in which it is a poorly written novel -- its fictionality is fragile, and often falls to pieces mid-reading.

This can actually easily be seen when critics engage with Left Behind as if it weren't a novel. The form gets treated as if were an empty and transparent container of content, and the content is taken as not being novelistic, in nature, but as a series of arguments. That is, it's treated like a staging of theology, but where the staging part can be easily set aside, so the theology can be looked at directly.

It is a novel, though, and the form needs to be attended to.

On at least one level, readers are not being asked to evaluate arguments and weigh evidence, but merely to pretend and suppose, to try and at least imagine that the story being told is plausible.

It may be the case that this books is proselytizing, and thus asking readers to believe, but, on a more basic level, as a novel, given that it's in this form, there are these invitations to simply try and suspend disbelief.

One of the really interesting moments in the book is one where this invitation is made explicit. The text, in a sense, pre-supposes the objections and criticisms of the reader, and nearly overtly makes a plea that those skeptical responses be put on hold.

Bruce Barnes, telling his conversion story to Chloe Steele (his "testimony"), says,
"Could you let me tell you my story briefly, without interrupting or saying anything, unless there's something you don't understand? .... I don't want to be rude, but I don't want you to be either. I asked for a few moments of your time. If I still have it, I want to make use of it. Then I'll leave you alone. You can do anything you want with what I tell you. Tell me I'm crazy, tell me I'm self-serving. Leave and never come back. That's up to you. But can I have the floor for a few minutes?"
Part of what I think is really interesting about that moment is that he asks them explicitly to suspend disbelief, which works in the novel (where we, the readers, have already suspended disbelief, but might be finding that hard with all these arguments that work like arguments instead of invitations to pretend) and on the meta-level (where we, the readers, are thinking about our own reading, and what the text is doing as an argument, and what the author's agenda is, and all of that stuff).

In both cases, it's an invitation to not not-believe (i.e., suspend disbelief), and just see what happens.

I suspect that it may be the case with "faith fiction," and especially with faith fiction where that particular faith depicted in the fiction is also one we feel we could choose in our own lives, that we often think there's a "hard sell" happening. We seem to miss that the soft sell, which isn't an argument at all, but an invitation to "try on" a faith. What's at stake, in the way faith fiction works, may not actually be believing or not believing, but plausibility and implausibility.

There's this invitation that happens, in the fictionality, in the reading experience, which is on par with a free trial offer.

It's "no strings attached." Just try belief, on a temporary basis, and see how it feels.

The injunction of faith fiction is not "believe!", but rather, "imagine ...."

To push it just a little bit further, on the issue of "see what happens": I read there were people who were going to King's Cross Station, finding J.K. Rowling's platform 9 3/4, or anyway where that platform would be, and running full-speed into the wall.


What was going on there?

Did they just "really believe" the novel, or somehow get so caught up in it that they forgot it was fiction?

Were they just stupid?

Remember that if you were standing there as they were about to run and were to say something like, "that's rubbish, there's no such platform," they'd have already heard that objection in the book. That's what Uncle Vernon says, in the novel. So, in a sense, the skepticism one would naturally have towards running into a wall is already written into the story, and the right response to that criticism is written into the story too. From the very start, the choice to disbelieve was held up alongside the invitation to imagine, that is, to act like one believes. In a sense, then, the reader, by reading, has already made a "leap of faith."

The reader might stop at this moment and say, "that's ridiculous!," but the text is set up in such a way so that that objection is taking into account, and we're not given a counter argument about why one should run into walls. Because, really, what argument would convince someone to do that? Instead, the text works to say, "can you imagine a world with this kind of secret door between the normal, apparent world, and a better, more fantastic world, but to pass through that door you'd have to take a risk and do something that looks a little crazy?"

The answer, of course, is yes, it is possible. The fact we can read the novel and engage it as fiction (with disbelief suspended), shows it's possible.

It's granted, then, in the text, that it's a silly thing to think is true, and we're not given any arguments, but, instead, another invitation to pretend, to imagine, to (kind of but not really) believe.

So what about the people who did it in real life? Did they "really believe"? Or were they maybe doing the same thing we do when we accept the universe of a novel, and just saying, "what if?"

I suspect it's the latter. I suspect they were caught up in the potential of suspending disbelief, and looked at that wall, and just said "what if?" They "knew," "of course!", that the wall was a wall, but at the same time heard Rowling in the back of their heads inviting them to imagine the possibilities of a better world, and inviting them to just try out not not-believing, and "see what happened."

"What if?" the novel says, and some people get so caught up in that imaginative process, they keep asking themselves that after they put the story down. What if? What if? What if? Looking at that wall at King's Cross, the invitation to imagine is almost irresistible.

And really, the worst that can happen if you run into a wall is you run into a wall. There will be bruises, bumps, but not likely any serious damage.

Even if one makes a total fool of oneself, by suspending disbelief to the point of bruises, there is a certain romance to a willingness to wish with that abandon. It's a romance that novel readers often are quite prone to and fond of anyway. "Getting lost" in a book -- "lost" meaning, basically, forgetting reality and what one "really" believes for an extended period of time -- is thought of as a good thing.

Think of Don Quixote, the first among romantic hero-readers. We might think of fiction readers as those who take as a motto the Queen in Alice and Wonderland, who has sometimes "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," rather than Goya, and his proclamation that "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters."

I suspect that this is what Left Behind is structured and designed to do, too. To just get readers to the point where they take the natural suspension of disbelief that comes with fiction (that makes fiction fiction, really) and extrapolate it to their real life. To take that leap into the wall.

After all, praying a little prayer to Jesus -- what's the worst that can happen? Maybe you look a little silly, and you get a big bump and bruise of disbelief. You don't have to believe, Bruce Barnes says, but can you just hear me out. Can you just imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if this were the way things really are?

The text isn't an argument -- and if it were, most of us would likely ignore it. It's just too implausible. But it's easy to accept the invitation to try the belief on (almost like a pair of clothes), especially since we know we can take them off at any time. It's "just pretend." That's why this is a novel, and not something else.

The text is structured to work further, I think, just to try to get the readers to that point of "what if?" in their own "real lives," where they're maybe looking at the religious equivalent of platform 9 3/4, thinking, "what if it were true? Shouldn't I at least try to give it a good running leap?"