- Probable Impossibilities:Historical Romance Readers Talk Back
I take as my starting point Phelan's conception of narrative progression: "the synthesis of textual dynamics and readerly dynamics" (12). I accept Phelan's claim that "[t]extual dynamics are the internal processes by which narratives move from beginning through middle to ending, and readerly dynamics are the corresponding cognitive, affective, ethical, and aesthetic responses of the audience to those textual dynamics" (13). The responses of readers are hard to get at, but collaboration between rhetorical narrative theory that admits a role for audiences (narrative, authorial, and actual) and reader research is desirable. To illuminate the bridging "interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic judgments" (13) enacted by readers in response to narrative encoding, I consider a small sampling of the copious social media and paratextual evidence of readerly dynamics in responses to Diana Gabaldon's as yet unfinished time-slip historical romance sequence, the Outlander novels (1990–2014).1 My response underscores the efficacy of Phelan's model by showing that it illuminates the vital role of audiences of [End Page 127] narratives quite different from those he presents (passing a fundamental test for a proposed theory, which should work as well to account for popular as for scholarly readerships). If, as Phelan argues, the authorial audience has attributes "assigned by the author but on the basis of the author's assumptions about likely readers," then the author's communication with her diverse actual readers (in this case, by means of her blog and through her published commentary, The Outlandish Companion) highlights some of those assumptions. Some methodological challenges arise from a commitment to considering readerly dynamics that allows actual audiences onto Phelan's chart.
Gabaldon's readers are legion: she commands a worldwide audience for books that have sold more than twenty million copies and have been translated into thirty-eight languages.2 The New York Times bestselling novels have received a boost from their adaptation into a popular Starz television series. Though most of Gabaldon's readers are presumed to be women, the millions of viewers of her television series include many men: the series premiere, "Sassenach," drew equal proportions of men and women in the strongest multiplatform debut of a new series in the history of the network (West).3 With a potential authorial audience of that scale, we must assume recruitment from an actual audience of great diversity. Authorial audience members, as inferred from among other data points on her Website and those reproduced in The Outlandish Companion (369–95), enjoy reading very lengthy novels (9,073 paperback pages so far), sustain interest in a fiction delivered serially, and tolerate fairly long gaps between installments—though potentially they require the "methadone" of Gabaldon's book recommendations to tide them over (571–77). Whether they read for the sex scenes, for the historical reconstructions of events, because they find eighteenth-century medicine fascinating, or simply to follow familiar characters, can and must vary. That Gabaldon engages with her readers shows in her acknowledgement of "… the Readers, who both instigated this book and supplied me with a great deal of its content by asking questions, suggesting Things They Would Like to Know, and providing all sorts of interesting miscellanea" (Outlandish Companion v). Though Gabaldon tries to teach these readers about the error of presentism (343), their responses include passionate presentist denunciations of her representational choices, which (valuing plausibility and verisimilitude) she defends as influenced by the historical period and not under her own control at all (129, 191, 341).4 The author [End Page 128] meets her readers more than partway, blithely admitting minor errors and oversights caught by readers (136, 374), but she stoutly defends her rights as a maker. Rather than joining in the self-deprecating assessment of Gabaldon readers as Obsessenachs, who turn to fan sites to endure Droughtlander periods between novels, I suggest that Gabaldon's real audience talks back and the real author engages with them, within limits.
The fictional world of Outlander consists on the one hand of a rigorously researched eighteenth century (with persuasively rendered locations and episodes in the Scottish Highlands, Paris, the Caribbean, coastal and mountain colonial North Carolina, and...