I was recently talking with a student about the idea of absorption in fiction.
As far as I can tell, absorption is a semi-academic term which refers to how far we’re leaning forward as readers, how engaged we are with a piece of fictional writing and how much it seems to represent a hermetically sealed, believable world.
To return to one of my favorite writing metaphors—John Gardner’s idea of good fiction as a “continuously unfolding dream”—absorptive fiction brings us further into that dream, overwhelming our senses until the dream seems real. Anti-absorptive fiction, on the other hand, reminds us that we’re dreaming.
Sometimes when we remember that we’re dreaming, we decide to wake up. Sometimes this is because we realize we’re having a nightmare. But there are also those dreams in which we know that we’re dreaming, but yet we are perfectly happy to remain dreaming.
To the student, then, I made sure to explain that not all anti-absorptive fiction is bad fiction. Just because a reader suddenly realizes that they’re reading a book does not mean the gig is up: for many writers, particularly the self-referential postmodernists, anti-absorptive fiction is the standard mode of storytelling. Authors such as Tom Robbins have made self-referential, you-are-reading-a-book fiction more than just an experimental mode of telling but have elevated it to popular literature.
Where anti-absorptive fiction becomes problematic is when that jarring lack of absorption happens because the writer lacks skill. The literary equivalent of nightmare, in other words: terrible (and unintentional) grammar and spelling, which Gardner notes in his book On Becoming a Novelist is sure to spoil the continuously unfolding dream; predictable and corny plots; too much ambiguity; failure to adequately foreshadow or mitigate the impact of strange twists and plot moves… the list goes on.
Readers who are too frequently brought out of the continuously unfolding dream based on a writer’s apparent lack of skill will not want to invest any further time in the work because it predicts that their reading experience will be unsatisfying. Thus, a lack of absorption in fiction is not always a bad thing—but if the reader perceives this lack of absorption to be rooted in a lack of skill, they might not stick around to finish reading.