Peter Capaldi, who plays the titular lead on Doctor Who at the moment, was asked at a recent convention why he thinks his alien character keeps coming back Earth. Without a pause, the actor replied, “Budgetary reasons.”
It was an appropriate answer for a convention. It was probably true, and it was charming, and people laughed. Still, the person who asked seemed to have been left unsatisfied and a little hurt, at least to my eyes. The exchange triggered something for me; it seemed to be the avatar example for an argument I’ve been hearing for awhile in various places – about how people experience television, about how live theater should be performed, and, of course, how people read literature. Half the time, I think we forget that we’re arguing about it.
The Doctor Who question has an implied clause at the beginning of it: If the Doctor were a real person, why would he choose to keep coming back to earth? There is an awareness of that clause in the reply, a sort of unstated “He is not a real person, and you do yourself a disservice by pretending that he is.”
This is an old argument. At least old enough that its sides are named after ideas out of Sherlock Holmes. There are Watsonians and Doylists. If you are not familiar with the terms, Watsonians try to find story reasons for inconsistencies in the Holmes body of work (usually, that Watson is an unreliable narrator), while Doylists are content to say the reasons for any inconsistencies derive entirely from the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle made mistakes and wasn’t always super focused on the character he kept trying to kill off.
Like any system of categorization which in essence says “There are two kinds of people,” the Watsonian v. Doylist construct has its use in understanding human psychology but can be very, very easily abused and over-applied. I think its a lens we can stand to look through for a bit, though, and not just for what an actor says at a comic book convention about a genre show. It’s important to remember that while it is presented as a binary proposition, everyone is probably a little bit Watson and a little bit Doyle.
You are reading a blog about craft as it relates to novel writing right now, so chances are decently high that you, like me, are mostly a Doylist (please do not burn my apartment to the ground if I am wrong).
I like reading stories as literature. If a book has time travel in it (I always reach for time travel as my go-to example, I wonder why), my interest is in why the author chose to use a fantastical plot device, and I am less interested in the mechanics of how the time travel works (despite being a big baby who plays pretend all the time). What can they communicate about mortality or memory with time travel? How does the author engage with verb tense in complicated time dynamics which don’t exist in the real world, and how does that language affect how the reader understands the passage of time?
I do not find that I need to use phrases like “in-universe explanation” or “head-canon” very frequently. I am confused by questions about who I “ship” in the Harry Potter series. Engaging with the worlds and characters within novels as if they were real is something that makes me a little uncomfortable. Most of academia looks at fiction from a Doylist perspective. Universities aren’t asking students to theorize on the notion of a shared Dumas universe or whether Poirot had to retire more than once for the Christie timeline to make sense; they’re asking questions like “What is Dickens’s commentary on class in this novel and how does the cult of domesticity which is present throughout weaken his narrative for modern audiences?”
Writing workshops, and other places in which the craft of telling a story has instruction, are no different. By and large, you are not going to find an MFA program that wants you to make a chart noting which plot points are canon in a body of work.
All of that is fine. We should be focused on things like crafting language when we are learning. Our stories and characters are our own anyway, and nobody can invent them for us. I am, however, very worried that the dominant Doylist perspective is looking down its nose at poor Dr. Watson. I am worried that, for decades or maybe even centuries, the elite circles who discuss literature have been telling a huge part of the population that they are experiencing stories wrongly.
There’s the everyday bullying that goes on everywhere in which Watsonians are called “continuity spergs” (which is also an ableist term, but that’s another issue), but there’s a highbrow form of snobbery too, and I know I’m guilty of it. We refer to experiencing fiction that way as “escapism,” or “living vicariously through stories.” We call it “turning off your brain.”
Not only are we saying “You’re reading it wrong!” to Watsonian readers, but we are treating the way an enormous part of the population engages with fiction as if it is a form of diagnosable insanity. Besides that this tends to elevate literary work and look down on genre fiction, it is taking taste and wielding it as cultural capital. It is telling people that they don’t understand the purpose of art, and that their perspective on art is wrong.
It is dangerous.
There’s an extent to which all stories ask for us to consider the characters as if they were real people. It’s where the well-respected concept of “suspending of disbelief” comes from. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we just write an essay?
Sometime, I recommend going to fanfiction.net and browsing the stories there. They are littered with “what if” scenarios about “alternate universes” in which characters from different stories meet one another, or in which fantasy characters are instead just people in the real world, meeting in a coffee shop, or in which the story’s author gets to shake hands and have a conversation with a fictional person.
These people aren’t overly interested in how Stoker uses letters to tell the story in Dracula, or Jungian thought on how the myths deal with the sexual repression of the late Victorian/early Edwardian era. They want to know exactly what the rules are for vampirism in the Dracula universe (it seems he can go out in the sun for awhile, but how much does it hurt him?). They want to know if Dracula would win in a fight with Mr. Hyde. And yes, a whole bunch of them want to know how it would feel to fuck Dracula, or Mina Murray, or both of them at the same time.
It’s easy to read that kind of stuff and say that it sounds childish. There are times in which it’s the written word equivalent of kids smushing their toys’ faces together and making them kiss, sure. But does that make it wrong? Is it worth ridiculing?
Functionally, what purpose do stories have, besides allowing readers to understand something about themselves, society, the human condition, and so on? Maybe the Watsonian reading is often more micro than macro in assessing those things, but it is an assessment, and not a meaningless or even a less important one. Learning about identity through fiction is often addressed with the same sneering undertone with which I hear pundits say the word “identity politics,” but identity is important. Forming an identity isn’t something that just stops after adolescence. We all have stories we engage with this way, even if we dismiss it away by calling it a “guilty pleasure.”