Science Fiction Studies

#94 = Volume 31, Part 3 = November 2004

Tom Moylan

Reading Utopia, Reading Utopian Readers

Kenneth Roemer. Utopian Audiences: How Readers Locate Nowhere. Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 2003. xiv + 295 pp. $39.95 hc.

Ken Roemer ends his meticulous and thoughtful study of utopian readers with a fictional Afterword in which a “gathering of utopian audiences” meets at a preview of the exhibits on utopianism curated by Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent at the Bibliothèque Nationale and the New York Public Library in 2000 (225). Arriving by various utopian modes (sailing ships and starships, suspended animation and dreams), the visitors sort into several groups: “first readers,” or the utopian authors themselves; living descendants of the authors “who shared the legacies of their ancestors’ utopian worlds”; professional readers such as reviewers, illustrators, critics, and scholars; activists who put utopian words into utopian action; the 733 readers from Roemer’s own twenty-year reader-response research; and the “implied,” “ideal,” and “competent” readers inscribed in utopian texts by authors and scholars (225-31). The gathering opens into the exchanges, silences, tensions, arguments—and transformations—that come with the practice of reading utopias; but Roemer closes his account with some observations of readerly agreements that stand as key points that run throughout his book.

Generally, the assemblage affirms the estrangement effect that we critics associate with the utopian reading experience, but they further observe that it works better when mediated by a familiarity delivered by recognizable narrative conventions (as in domestic fictions or love stories) or by characters with whom the reader identifies. In other words, Roemer reminds us that a utopian reading experience, and perhaps transformation, seems to work best when it is made more comfortable, hence acceptable, in its very estrangement. Another common understanding amongst the group is the recognition that utopian writing is almost always hybrid, and invitingly so. With various textual ingredients (fictions and non-fiction, maps, constitutions, reports, and multiple narrative strategies) folding into the mix of a given text, a generous accessibility is achieved that allows readers to cut into the utopian pie at a place, into a mode if you will, where they find it to be most tasty and then work from there. Finally, the gathering agrees, with notable exceptions, of course, on the power of utopian literature to move and transform readers, even when those transformations open into an array of directions and possibilities within what Ursula K. Le Guin (as cited by Roemer) has called the expansive “living room” of utopia (230). This short fantasy ends as its author looks outside the library to the larger, general publics that have been there all along, those wider audiences that will continue to be open to, and indeed moved by, utopian writing.

Roemer’s Utopian Audiences is an extensively researched study (theoretically, archivally, and ethnographically) that will change the nature of utopian scholarship. Substantial as this study is, it comes to us in the open and sensitive style and sensibility that infuses its closing pages. Like the literary tradition it studies, Roemer’s work is challenging yet generous, giving us a fresh insight into how the utopian text can change its readers and perhaps the world.

Many of us who have followed Roemer’s work on his ongoing “utopian reader” study and on reception and reader-response theory have been waiting for the book to appear. We knew that it would be a major contribution to utopian studies, but the actual work has gone beyond expectations. It has much to teach all of us, those new to utopian studies and those who have been at it for a long time.

Utopian Audiences began in 1983, when Roemer decided to study the responses of readers to a utopian text that has long been recognized as generating a challenging and even personally and socially transformative reception: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). The decision led him into the realm of reader-response studies, reception theory, and studies of the book and literacy, as well as into broader cultural studies concerned with the production and reception of books. The work of Pierre Bourdieu, Norman Holland, David Bleich, Janice Radway, Michael Steig, and many others informed his ongoing study. With his pragmatic choice of students as his primary research population, he established a context in which he could carry on his research alongside his teaching but also invite other colleagues to contribute (leading to a research population that eventually encompassed seven US states and four countries). Along the way, he extended his field to members of a retirement community and a reading group. This book is the result of Roemer’s study of these 733 readers, his strangers in a strange land, and his tracking of how readers came to locate the nowhere of a utopian text, how they transformed it, and how they were transformed by their readerly experience.

If publishing his account of this study, his extensive appendices of the results, and his overview of the 733 readers were all that he gave us, Roemer’s book would be a welcome addition to utopian reader studies. As such, his book joins a slim but important body of volumes in an area of scholarship that many of us talk about but never get to. Utopian Audiences joins works such as Peter Rupert’s Reader in a Strange Land (1986) and Gary Saul Morson’s The Boundaries of Genre (1988), and nudges studies such as Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers (1992) in a new direction. Roemer takes seriously the claims about the process of utopian reading made by scholars such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Marc Angenot, Kathleen Spencer, Peter Fitting, Lee Cullen Khanna, Phillip Wegner, and many others (myself included), but he also takes the next step into the study of how actual readers read utopias.

In opening this field of scholarly endeavor, however, Roemer not only gives us the detailed account of his research project in the last third of the book but also, in the first third, delineates how reader and book studies can inform the overall study of utopian texts. In doing so, he urges us to include the reading experience as a crucial element of utopian textuality. He offers a new way to understand the utopian text as it is produced by its readers, and so he opens up a new apprehension of the power of the utopian text to challenge and to transform. Nevertheless, he carefully acknowledges the substance of the actual text and its author and does not reduce the text to its reading-effect. Thus, Roemer generates new coordinates for the scholarly, and readerly, location of utopia. He changes the paradigm of utopian studies in doing so.

In this general discussion of utopias and their readers, Roemer describes the theoretical and methodological constellation he developed to carry out this project. Refusing a reductive approach that would privilege any one aspect of the study of utopias over others, he develops a scholarly matrix that attends to the practice of reading, and he does so by including considerations of the nature of genre, the cultural production and dissemination of books, and the historical circumstances (of the society, the text, and the author).

One of Roemer’s compelling insights comes in Chapter Two, “Documenting, Visualizing, and Defining Utopian Reception.” In the section “Readers Defining Utopia,” he gives his most considered account of the general conclusions of this long-term project. He recounts many of the well-known assessments of utopian texts that are generally shared within utopian literary studies; to these, however, he adds his own finer, sharper, and often new commentaries. Yes, a utopian text can “invite perceptual or even behavioral changes” in its readers as it invites them to “visualize the nonexistent” and “transform no place into their own someplace” (60); but Roemer’s readerly analyses give us a better sense of how this can happen. He goes on to explore how readers work with the content of a given text and move on a continuum of visualization and ownership that ranges from passive reception, and even rejection, to an active role as “co-creators, or as powerful, even dominating, transformers of the utopian message” (62). He offers what I consider to be a valuable and fresh assessment of utopia’s transformative potential by focusing on the reading of utopia as a “hinge” experience as he discusses the process of readerly disruptions that lead to readerly re-visions. While others have spoken of readerly feedback in the process of imagining and engaging with the alternative world of the text, Roemer gives this assertion the substance that comes with an investigation of actual reading experiences. He takes what Jameson in “Of Islands and Trenches” (1977) famously calls the “fruitful bewilderment” of an engagement with utopia and traces how that response plays out in readers (11). Thus, Roemer not only redefines the nature and function of the utopian text (67), he also gives us a new way to work with it.

Roemer’s contribution to the utopian studies paradigm goes beyond theoretical abstraction, for he moves into close readings of several utopian texts to make his points (including some not usually named in the utopian canon). In the first section of the book wherein he sets out his theoretical matrix, he develops extended (re)readings of More’s Utopia (1516) and Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985). He also works from his well-established position as a scholar of Native American studies, offering a reading of John G. Neihardt and Nicholas Black Elk’s Black Elk Speaks (1961) that considers Black Elk’s own reading of this narrative and links it to the potential of reading the entire book, but especially the “Great Vision” chapter, as an ambiguous utopia for his immediate audience of Lakota readers, an audience that differs from the wider range of readers of this familiar text. Roemer’s nuanced readings of these selected texts, then, need to be noted on their own account but also in order to grasp the substance of the general theoretical insights he has developed over the course of this project.

Roemer does not stop, however, with his study of the 733 readers nor with his theoretical intervention. In the middle section of the book, he steps into his own area of expertise on the nineteenth-century utopia and discusses one of the key utopian texts of that era—a book that was received by a range of readers who were accordingly changed by it. Roemer’s study of Looking Backward stands as the third element in what could really be a trilogy of monographs. While he follows the approach used in his brief readings of Utopia, Always Coming Home, and Black Elk Speaks, his work on Bellamy’s book extends over several chapters. In this fuller demonstration of a reader-centered methodology, he identifies and explores the dynamics of the several categories of readers of which he speaks: the “first reader,” the author himself; the professional readers (book reviewers, illustrators, scholars); and the 733 readers of his recent study. Each of these “readers” is given a chapter that in its own way expands our understanding of Looking Backward in particular and of the utopian text in general. Before getting to his studies of specific readers, from Bellamy to the 733, Roemer ensures that his readerly studies are properly placed in a context that acknowledges the history of the period in order to understand the political and, even more, the perceptual origins of how this text was read and judged. He then considers the context of genre expectations that the early readers of Bellamy would have brought to his book. Again, each of these elements in his unfolding presentation offers an instructive model of how we might go about incorporating reader-oriented analysis into our studies of utopian works.

In Chapter Three, “Perceptual Origins: Preparing American Readers to See Utopia,” Roemer goes beyond any notion of the reader simply “creating” a text by developing his analysis of how readers are already socially constructed before they come to the text. Recognizing how little work in this regard has been done in relation to the scholarship on Looking Backward, and endeavoring to look beyond “traditional cause-and-effect studies of utopian literature,” he draws on cultural studies of the reader-as-subject and of the production and reception of the book to determine how American readers of the 1880s came to see Bellamy’s book as a utopia, so as better to understand “why utopian fiction became highly visible for thousands of Americans” (72). He describes the historical and political context and establishes the period as one of disruption and change; but—rather than simply noting that these circumstances “provided familiar topics that would both ground and energize utopian narratives”—he goes on to argue that they helped readers to be open to “the meaningfulness and usefulness of a literature that viewed the world as a cruel and senseless collage of contrasts—contrasts that spoke urgently for orderly resolutions to contemporary problems” (74). Thus, he traces how readers came to regard Bellamy’s book as a hopeful, transformative text, one that led to the formation of the many Bellamy Clubs and Nationalist Clubs that engaged in immediate political action at the time. Roemer does not stop there; for in the rest of the chapter he looks at how an “interpretive community” of new “utopian” readers grew out of the context of the development of Bellamy’s book as a major source of ideas, morals, and values in this period (to situate the power of didactic fiction), out of the interpellative mechanisms of middle-class value systems (to mark the tension between such values and the realm of utopian values), and out of American and European attitudes that fed into the conceptualization of what was to be increasingly seen as “utopian” writing. The chapter is a useful study, again one that constitutes a valuable contribution on its own, as it demonstrates how a book came to be read as a utopian book and to work as a transformative text at a specific historical moment.

Following this chapter, Roemer makes another contribution to our general understanding of utopian texts in Chapter Four, “The Literary Domestication of Utopia,” as he argues that the highly popular nineteenth-century genre of domestic or sentimental fiction provided a nurturing ground for what was to become utopian fiction. By reading utopias in light of their hybrid inter-relationship with a genre not usually associated with them, he gives us a new sense of the nature and value of each fictional mode. This reconsideration of the literary conventions of domestic/sentimental writing gives Roemer a way to evaluate how utopian fiction was taken up by its readers, showing us how the sentimental or domestic elements within Looking Backward (e.g., the love story, the evocation of the coziness of home, the sentimental heroine, the androgynous narrator, the moral didacticism) enhanced the text’s utopian function as they invited readers “to read their worlds as continuations of the narratives and, empowered with the right feelings, to articulate their readings in acts as private as helping orphans or warning young women about untrustworthy men, or as public as joining temperance or abolitionist groups” (97). Indeed, it is in this chapter that Roemer best illustrates his argument that the utopian (and science fictional?) estrangement effect requires a textual machinery of familiarity and invitation/involvement to establish a rapport with readers that could take them through their estranged reading of the strange new world to a readerly position of overt response and even action.

Finally, in Chapter Five, “Getting Beyond Stasis,” Roemer takes on one of the most negative readings of utopias: namely, the anti-utopian judgment that utopias are static assertions of a so-called “perfect” society. In doing so, he works both with and against “anti-utopian readers” as he contends with their dismissal and seeks to understand how it is that utopian texts generate and invite a more active quality of expression and reception than the anti-utopian judgment would grant. He works from a study of utopian content and its implied readers (in the sort of work many of us do), yet he goes on to focus on the practice of reading utopia as an exposé that moves under or through any possible conclusion of textual stasis and uncovers, as in Ernst Bloch’s writings, a forward-looking utopian core. Thus, he advocates the need to move beyond a reading of content to an examination of the “reading connections, styles and structures” to see “how and why actual readers have accepted or rejected the socioeconomic and stylistic invitations of utopian texts” (120). As he begins his extended discussion of Looking Backward in this chapter, he again takes us beyond what has too often become a reductive analysis based only on content or the judgments of an implied reader. Certainly, the text’s content and its network of implied readerly invitations need to be part of the critical project; but also the “real” readers need to be brought into the picture, and indeed given a central role in this work. With this framework, Roemer commences his study of Looking Backward as he turns to an analysis of Bellamy as the “first” reader of his utopia. It is this demonstration that gives us another of Roemer’s insights (however important it is to the book’s section on Looking Backward), as he concludes that the

best way to get beyond reductive notions of stasis and dynamism in ... any literary utopia, would be to use all three perspectives [on the text’s content, on its implied readers, and on its actual readers] in an attempt to imagine readers who could experience a literary utopia as a discovered model and as a network of invitations and as a life experience that transforms the world into a potentially utopian text. (136)

For me, one of the most intriguing sections of Roemer’s book comes in the last chapter, when, in the course of his discussion of his 733 readers, he measures the “Distances Between Here and Utopia” (215-20). In summarizing his readers’ responses to four questions, he gets to the issue of the potential use- value of utopian writing. Questions such as “Would you like to read a book like this again?”; “Would you recommend this book to someone else?”; and “Do you think Looking Backward is still relevant?” brought positive responses of 75%, 77%, and 81%, affirming the readers’ perception of Bellamy’s utopia as an important book. And yet the question “Did reading Looking Backward change your views about society and about yourselves?” garnered negative responses of 60% and 73% respectively. These negative answers sharply differed from the evaluations of the nineteenth-century reviewers of the book, who, from both positive and negative viewpoints, acknowledged the transformative power of this utopia (not to speak of Bellamy himself, who would have been truly saddened by this last response). This moment in Roemer’s book thus suggests a larger ideological and political assessment of the changed subject position and potential agency of twentieth-century readers (and by extension, those in this new century). In this section, Roemer discovers the trace of the alienation of readers in our time: for even as current readers may perceive that the text reveals a problem “out there” in society, they nevertheless refuse or are unable to recognize a role for themselves in doing something about it. This observation leads Roemer to an interesting take on the critical, especially feminist, utopias of the 1970s, as he ponders the extent to which the emphasis on interpersonal relationships in these works may indicate not a new political dimension (in that the “personal is political”) but rather that these texts mark a stage in the long withdrawal from the perception and embrace of a public agency on the part of the general population, as measured by the responses of utopian readers. As Roemer notes this historic shift, he speculates on how his own study might have hyper-emphasized it (i.e., by way of the location of his primary audience in the more passive, and micro-alienated, atmosphere of schooling); however, he then speculates on how the cultural ground of subjectivity and agency itself has changed (as measured by the loss of recognition of the moral power of books). He stops short of a more developed meditation on this shift, one that might lead to a clearer sense of the degree of disempowerment among people in the present day. While such a meditation is, properly, not in the remit of this book, it is one that I find provocative as I think of how the political terrain has been flattened, especially in the last half of the twentieth century, as popular activism has receded (and indeed as the agency of professionals and experts has grown).

It should be evident that I highly recommend Ken Roemer’s Utopian Audiences. As an innovative introduction to the field, with its clearly delineated stance and methodology, it will prove invaluable to new students, who as they take on its imperatives and strategies may well break new critical ground. As for those of us who have been working in utopian studies, for however long, we should read this book carefully and think, explore, and consider just how we might take up Roemer’s insights, methods, and challenges in our own work. Get it, and read it, and, one hopes, be transformed by it.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000-1887. 1888. Ed. Daniel H. Borus. Bedford Series in History and Culture. New York: Bedford, 1995.
Jameson, Fredric. “Of Islands and Trenches: Neutralization and the Production of Utopian Discourse.” Diacritics 7.2 (1977): 2-22.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Always Coming Home. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
More, Thomas. Utopia: A Revised Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. 2nd ed. Trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1992.
Morson, Gary Saul. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s “Diary of a Writer” and the Traditions of Literary Utopia. University of Texas Press Slavic Series 4. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Neihardt, John G., and Nicholas Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P, 2000.
Ruppert, Peter. Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias. Athens: U Georgia P, 1986.

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