In a recent episode of I Should Be Writing, Mur Lafferty talks about her experiences with audience members approaching her after her reading sessions to challenge her on what they thought was wrong or not working in what she’d just read. Lafferty argues that gender plays a role in this, as the pattern she and others have noted is that male audience members challenge female authors. This follows other similar patterns in (ostensibly) male-dominated spaces. But I do wonder why they engage in this particular behavior, and not, for example, posting a critique online. I think this has something to do with the ever-increasing control we have over the media we consume and with assumptions about the role of the audience in various live events.
Reading, Listening, Watching, and Control
As readers, we have a fair amount of control over our experience of what we read. Two aspects of this control are of concern here: time and intensity. We can control the time readily by lingering over passages or skimming through them, setting aside an afternoon to read a book or setting the book aside for a while. By intensity, I mean the level of personal involvement in the consumption of the story. If I really enjoyed a passage, I can reread it. If I know there’s a scary bit coming up, I can skip it altogether if I choose to reread a book. This extends to the way I choose to read: print or e-reader, and if the latter, which device, font, and so on.
Similarly, we can control time in movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, and the like, though in a less fine-grained manner. Even in situations where we can’t control the time in a given sitting, like watching a movie in a theater, we know we can go back and watch again if we want to revisit a scene. Same for intensity: we can choose the mode of presentation that best suits our desires for consuming the story, whether watching a movie in a theater or streaming it on a phone.
The upshot here is that we have the ability to assert ourselves in the media that we consume. And we do assert ourselves. For the most part, this is a positive: I’m certain most creators of media want us to think about how we’re consuming media and to do so in such a way that we’ll get the most out of it that we can. That said, we in turn have an obligation as consumers to think about how our preferred methods of consumption—how we manipulate time and intensity—affect what we’re consuming. In other words, if I skim, I’d better know that I am likely to miss something important.
Some Underlying Assumptions about Live Presentations
Let’s hold on to the idea of our control over time and intensity for a moment and look at some underlying assumptions about live presentations. Specifically, I’m thinking about conferences and conventions, and these assumptions should hold for panels or single presenters. If I go to a convention and attend a session, and that session involves an argument for some thesis, I can assume that the presenters are open to a back-and-forth regarding the thesis after the session. Usually this exchange takes place in a Q&A format, but if the situation warrants and the presenters are up for it, I can speak to them after that.
If, on the other hand, the presentation does not explicitly put forth a thesis and defense, we can’t make the assumption that the presenters intended for an exchange of ideas after. They might be open to this, and they might express this openness. But they might not be. As audience members, we have to be cognizant of that. Granted, you can argue that any narrative puts forth an argument for what happens in the story. But I see literary readings as closer to concerts or theater than this presentation of a thesis. We don’t expect a Q&A with musicians after a concert. Should we do the same for authors?
Critical Comments: The Right Place, The Right Time
So, we have the idea that consumers of media assume that they can and should control the time and intensity of their experiences, and that audiences attend convention sessions with the assumption that there will be the opportunity to challenge the presenters ideas after the presentation. Here’s where things can go awry. Let’s step back and look at live readings with regard to time and intensity. Really, audience members can’t do anything about time. These are one-off events, and though you can watch or listen to recordings after the fact, you can’t relive that specific reading again. And audience members can’t do much about intensity, except maybe change seats to be able to see the reader better or ask for the volume of the microphone to be adjusted if needed.
Take this desire to control some element of the experience and add the mistaken assumption that presentations at conventions automatically mean an entitlement to an exchange, and we get one possible motivation for the sort of thing that happened to Lafferty after her readings. (There’s a whole other layer of gender-based issues in the mix, but this has been written about by others elsewhere.)
I’m not arguing against criticism at all—rather, just that there’s a time and place for it. So why not critique an author then and there on what we see as factual errors or what we think may be structural issues in a story? Lafferty answers this in the podcast episode: we as readers should trust authors to a.) be able to do their research and incorporate this in their fiction as needed and b.) follow up on what they’ve promised in the beginning of the story. We’re not obligated to read anyone’s work. So, I’m arguing that if we do choose to read authors’ work, we need to give authors the room to explore possibilities to get to the human truths in SF. These human truths are far more important in SF than any fact could be. If fact is our major concern, then why turn to fiction? Speculating on trends in future tech could be done just as well in essay form. And some of the best hard SF from decades past that predicts this future tech accurately places it in the context where not much has improved for the non-white cis-male over the context in which it was written.
Criticism is essential. We absolutely need to call out authors when larger missteps are taken—those that belittle or dehumanize. We especially need to call out authors when these missteps are a pattern in their work. But for everything else, we need to ask first if the point of challenging an author one-on-one after a reading is for the benefit of the story or simply to assert ourselves more deeply in the experience of it.