As you can no doubt tell, I don't like the idea and never have. Long before I had any real notion of becoming a storyteller myself I was a dedicated participant on the reader side of the equation, and could never warm up to the concept that a reader will (or even could) temporarily cancel his disbelief mechanisms in order to be drawn into a story to the extent that he could care about characters and events that never happened and never will. It always seemed to miss the mark. But I couldn't pin down what was wrong with it until I stumbled across an essay from JRR Tolkien who posited the more apt idea that readers "create a secondary belief." And I knew instantly, in that unmistakable ping of epiphany, that this was right. This was the essential formula in a successful story, and the proof at last that Coleridge had gotten it wrong.
Why does this matter? Why is it more than just a semantic exercise?
Well, for one thing, the most important thing in fact, a suspension of disbelief, willing or otherwise, is a negation. It's passive. Not an act, but a lack of one. However the creation of secondary belief is active by definition. The partnership between writer and reader is a collaboration in which the reader participates actively and bears much, if not most, of the responsibility of creating the fictional world in which the stories take place. There's nothing passive about it. As one tiny example of the million things a reader will bring to any story: the writer may mention a city in which part of the action will take place, and maybe even describe some of the details, but it is up to the reader to create the fullness of that city in his imagination. Not being able to abide a blank canvas, he fills the streets with people and architecture and a nearly infinite number of details the writer can't fully describe for fear of bogging down the story beyond endurance.
Your readers don't sit at a remove and let the story happen to them. They don't suspend application of consistency, logic and accountability. They participate. They get to work on each page, paragraph, sentence, teaming up with you to create.
Any story in which the reader hasn't actively and enthusiastically participated in the creative process, every step of the way, is an unread story. There's no other option.
In part I mention this in order to get it on the record, to let my colleagues know, in our ongoing discussion about the craft, that anytime they mention the "willing suspension of disbelief," the conversation (whatever the specifics of the conversation might have been) will grind to a halt while we argue the point of suspension versus creation. And I'll win that debate, so why even try? Can we just agree now to suspend the idea of suspension?
Okay, I've been meaning to get to this rant for some time, but deadlines, holiday guests, and other things intervened, as things often will, until now it's become a New Year's Eve post. I suppose that obligates me to tie it in somehow with the new year. Easy enough: In the coming year I plan to write about thirty (or so) comic stories, a couple of short prose stories, and at least one new novel. And each of these stories will fly or fall depending on the willingness of many readers, most of whom I will never meet, to do most of the work, to help create the worlds, the characters, the histories and the events, and every other detail in each and every tale. I'll do what I can to make all that work enjoyable.
Also in the coming year I plan to read a lot of books, including just about everything written by the nine other writers sharing this space with me. In that role I will be a willing and active participant, rolling up my metaphorical sleeves, doing my part in our collaboration to get those stories told. I will not be at a safe remove, negating. Sorry, Mr. Coleridge, but you got it wrong.