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"Why I Read Canadian Speculative Fiction:
The Social Dimension of Reading".

by Robert Runté, PhD

Scholar Keynote Address
Academic Conference on
Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy
June 8, 2013

Winner of an Aurora Award (2014)


The author uses his own experiences to illustrate the social dimension of reading. Although a 'reluctant reader' in elementary school, he felt pressured by friends to read particular books to keep up with conversation within the peer group. The shared experience of reading the same titles greatly enhanced the enjoyment of reading, however, allowing the author to develop into an 'enthusiastic reader'.

In upper elementary, the peer group discovered science fiction, which became a lifelong passion. In the early 1960s, it was almost possible to read all the SF there was, allowing group members to explore the entire genre while simultaneously ensuring sufficient overlap with peers to maintain a shared experience.

Graduating high school, the friends went their separate ways. The author sought to recapture the experience of shared reading by immersing himself in SF fandom. The experience was not quite the same, however, because the explosive growth of SF in the 1970s meant it was no longer feasible to read everything being published, and therefore to ensure a shared reading experience. Even focusing on Hugo and Nebula award-winners--as the most likely titles to be read by fellow fans--did not result in a sufficiently coherent, shared canon.

Discovering that a distinct genre of Canadian SF existed, the author switched to reading all the Canadian SF there was, a project still feasible in the '70s and '80s. Because there was only a relatively small selection of Canadian SF titles, Canadian fans could access the entire canon, again creating the unique satisfaction of a shared community.

Further, many Canadian fans found that Canadian SF often dealt with tropes or themes that had particular resonance for them. Seven characteristics are summarized: a focus on the environment / the subordination of man to nature; a distrust of technology and progress; the alienated outsider / uninvolved bystander; the average citizen as (bungling) protagonist/the protagonist as 'nice guy'; ambiguous endings; a tendency to more 'literary' SF; and less rigid genre boundaries.

In spite of the greater appeal Canadian SF theoretically has for Canadian readers, consumers tend to buy American or British mass-market titles, such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games. The author argues that Canadians choose these titles because these series have the advantage of offering a (universally) shared reading experience, quite apart from their inherent value. Most consumers will choose to read what their peer group is reading even over their own preferences.

Canadians are therefore unlikely to read Canadian writers unless and until readership for particular titles reaches the critical mass necessary to become a 'talked about book' within one's social network.


Full text in "Why I Read Canadian Speculative Fiction: The Social Dimension of Reading", The Canadian Fantastic In Focus: New Perspectives. Allan Weiss, ed. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2014.


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