3b. The media presence of the contemporary science novel

Research team: Anton Kirchhoffer, Anna Auguscik

In this project, we analyze the content of science novel reviews and determine the distribution of review media attention and marketing strategies for the books. Complementing other projects in FMS, which characterize the science novel based on its textual, structural, and content-related features, this project focuses on the characterization and evaluation of science novels in the documented public and critical discourse.

One of the unique features of science novels is that they are often reviewed in science journals, as well as in regular review media for literary or mainstream fiction.[1] By incorporating science into fiction, these novels may take reviewers for both media—and their readerships—beyond the scope of their regular expertise: They require scientists to engage with forms of representation that are quite unlike those used in their disciplines. At the same time, as fictional narratives informed by scientific concepts, perspectives, and situations, they pose a challenge to critics for regular literary review media, as well as to the literary agents, publishers, and retailers involved in marketing.

Working on the assumption that these different types of reviewers produce, enhance, and communicate different ideas and debates about science and scientists—and may thus affect perceptions of science among scientific, literary, and general audiences—this project systematically analyses and compares the ways in which scientific and literary reviewers speak about science in fiction and relates these discussions to marketing strategies used for the novels, as documented in the trade publications. With the help of a corpus-based critical discourse analysis (cf. Foucault 1971; 1976; Kirchhofer 1997; Weingart et al. 2002) of book reviews, we explore the possibility that science novels have the potential to engage both sides of the “two cultures” by initiating a fruitful dialogue on perceptions and self-perceptions of science in fiction.

In order to gauge this potential, we focus on the impacts that reviewers attribute to the novels:  their power to affect perceptions of science among the general reading public, or to increase scientists’ awareness of and interaction with external viewpoints, or stimulate self-reflection in the scientific community. We do not take the reviews as prescriptions or as simple mirror images of what actual scientific, general or expert readerships may think of these novels. Rather, we conceive of them as instances of critical discourse and submit them to a close contextualizing analysis that gives us access to the ideas, insights, questions, and debates that reviewers conceive and circulate for their respective target readerships—for the “scientists and the wider public” addressed by Nature, or the Times Literary Supplement’s “intelligent and affluent readers,” or The Guardian’s “affluent and well educated global audience.” As a brief illustration, we might consider the discussion of Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar that appeared in the scientific review media, where the reviewers themselves are either  professional science writers or practising scientists: one reviewer describes McEwan as “a truly gifted external reviewer” whose work “should be pertinent to all modern, professional scientists” (Gevaux 2010), another recommends Solar to scientists as “a book about climate change as a social construct in the real world” (Storch 2010) , and a third is sure that “it’s a fair bet [McEwan] has more readers than Nature” (Ball 2010).

Methods and Research Questions

We employ a systematic search of book review sections in leading science journals, and in general and literary review media in the U.S. and the U.K., covering the years from 2000 to the present. In addition to providing our initial corpus of reviews, this serves to identify a corpus of science novels that we can track in a more comprehensive set of scientific, general, literary, and publishing industry media. The results comprise what we refer to as the “media presence profile” for each novel.

In examining the various “media presence profiles” of science novels, our research is guided by several interrelated questions: What distinguishes the corpus of fiction which is reviewed in both science and literary journals? What characterizes those works that are reviewed exclusively in science journals and fail to attract the general interest of literary reviewers and, conversely, those that fail to attract the interest of scientific reviewers? How do publishers’ marketing strategies relate to these findings—do they draw on literary or critical precedent or on the novels’ anticipated critical profiles (cf. Squires 2007; Clark 2001)? We expect that the types and varieties of “media presence profiles” will contribute to our understanding of the generic and structural features of the science novel, as well as its reception and marketability.

To complement the findings about the novels’ “media presence profiles,” we conduct a close textual analysis of the corpus of reviews, divided into two sets, literary and scientific. This analysis is guided by the following set of questions, which will allow us to map the specific characteristics, subject-positions, and institutional settings of the discourse: Which aspects of the novel do reviewers address and privilege, and how do they discuss the scientific ingredients of the novel? Does the novel’s science content play any role in the reviewer’s quality judgments? Do the reviewers discuss the book in connection to wider scientific, literary, or public issues and debates? What expertise, either literary or scientific, do the reviewers claim or disclaim for themselves or expect in their readers? How do reviewers reflect or refer to the target readership of the journal in which the review appears?

[1] We use the terms “literary” and “mainstream” to refer to that segment of the market for fiction which is first issued as hardcover (or more recently, as trade paperbacks) and as a rule is published in paperback roughly a year later. This market segment is also regularly sent out for reviewing. This distinguishes it from the market segment which exclusively appears as mass paperbacks and does not attract the notice of the mainstream review media such as The Guardian, The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, etc.