Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Believability

How important is it that a reader believe what's happening in a novel? The obvious answer is that it's sometimes important, but sometimes it isn't -- when reading fantasy, for instance, you don't have to believe that a golden chalice can make you fly. If you like fantasy, you're probably willing to suspend disbelief.

But lately, it seems I'm somewhat less willing than the average reader to buy what I'm reading (see my post about fake geography here), and it makes me feel like an old crank. I just finished Darin Strauss's More Than It Hurts You, which is in many ways fascinating novel: it's about a young couple accused (and, Strauss lets you know right away, guilty of) deliberately making their young son sick. The mother's guilty, anyway -- much of the interesting tension in the book is about the father's bewildered trust. The couple is Jewish and the accusing doctor is black, which is another complication. It's got all the good stuff: social and cultural commentary, psychology, relationships, etc.

What I couldn't shake throughout the reading of the book -- in spite of my intense interest in the characters and what was going to happen to them -- was the sense that it just wouldn't happen like this. I didn't buy that mother would do what she did for the reasons she did, but mostly I didn't believe that the doctor would make the accusations she did with so little evidence. I told myself that Strauss had no doubt done his research and based it all on fact, possibly even a real case... but still. I couldn't make the leap.

A quick look at some on-line reviews reveals that no one else had this reaction, so it's just me.

It's got me wondering why I demand so much believability from a work of fiction. It's made up!, I told myself. It's pretend, so just go with it! But I kept formulating my little internal arguments about what seemed in character and what didn't, which was distracting. Not so distracting that I didn't finish the 400 page book in about three sittings, though.

Is believability in a novel a function of the facts -- of how closely the material hews to reality -- or does it come from something fuzzier, like a sense of trust? And I wonder if losing a reader's trust a particular risk of the social novel: since it has to be absolutely true to reality in order to make accurate comments on the culture, it needs to convince in every particular. Other kinds of novel have more freedom, I think, to play fast and loose with believability.

Anyone else have this experience?

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Note: Literary Rejections On Display is hosting a book club with Strauss's book as its first choice. Go here to read all about it!

23 comments:

Writer Not Reading said...
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Writer Not Reading said...
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james said...

wow, writer not reading you sound really bitter. and that's false about not being expected to believe fiction. you're definitely expected to believe fiction because the second you call the 'bs' factor then you're pulled away from getting lost in the author's handmade world.

also the reason i enjoy fiction is because it's exactly not what you're expecting it to be. you sound like you want fiction to be akin to a med journal entry. any good or decent piece of fiction has underlying elements of psychology and philosophy but the fact is those elements should be weaved into the narrative of the story.

sure, at the end of the day you should enjoy what you're reading and appreciate the language, but good fiction succeeds because the reader has felt the writer connect in shining some light on the human condition. to do that, the reader has to believe the words on the page.

Matt said...

Another good question/post. I speculate that fact vs. engagement-based arguments are more rife in sci-fi, where a certain percentage of readers tend to be outspokenly critical if the technologies/science presented in the story have rational or technical problems, despite how good the story itself may be. However, "science" is the long-hand of sci-fi.
In "traditional" fiction (groaning at that inadequate phrase), I suppose audiences tend to be more story-driven as opposed to scrutinizing the motivations of its characters.

AC said...

So much of what I see on the news is incredible to me that I'm reluctant to write off a fictitious plot as unbelievable. Unless, of course, it's an area I know really well and there are obvious procedural or factual blunders. If it's a question of human motivation and behavior, there's just no telling what might happen in real life. Fiction is usually more predictable.

Writer Not Reading said...
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Writer Not Reading said...
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k. said...

yes, well...

I think there's a difference between the believability of character and the believability of, well, everything else. It takes no expertise to say, "I don't think this character would do that," etc (which sounds like the kind Rhian is grappling with), and that's the believability that ultimately matters in fiction. The rest is considerably less important, I think, and too easily veers into nitpicking. I can't tell you how many workshops I've been in that have derailed on some point of contention like "This is not exact police procedure" or "That's not how you take apart an engine," etc.

If the condition Strauss is describing in the book would, in real life, have no apparent motive, then I see no problem with providing one to make the story more emotionally satisfying and to allow the reader to empathize with the character. Perhaps not technically correct, from an expert's perspective, but better storytelling. (Although it sounds like the motives Strauss provided weren't there.)

I have had the most success writing fiction that deals with subjects about which I have the right balance of knowledge and ignorance. That is, I know just enough about something to be really interested in it, but I don't know so much that my writing is constrained by expertise. Of course, I'll fact-check later. Write first, ask questions later.

jrlennon said...

I think a book only needs to be believable within its own terms. If the results of a particular psychological phenomenon are important to plot and character development, then yes, it has to be right. And by right I mean that it has to feel fully human--a writer could (and maybe should) completely invent a psychological disorder and give it to his characters, and that could be quite convincing, or it could seem half-assed and implausible.

In the realm of psychological/social realism, which is more or less what I write, and what I think Darrin Strauss writes, too, human beings have got to act like human beings. When, while reading this kind of fiction, we feel cheated, lied to, or unconvinced, it's usually because the writer wanted certain things to happen--perhaps for technical reasons, perhaps because she had an agenda that she wanted to push, perhaps due to wishful thinking, perhaps because he thought it would be fun--rather than allowing things to happen the way they would happen with real people.

A bad writer (I'm not talking about Strauss here, BTW, I haven't read him yet!) respects the sound of his own voice more than the integrity of his characters, places, or situations. His work, regardless of its clinical accuracy, feels forced, because it is. It is too controlled, too bound up in the writer's own head and sense of herself. I do think there's a lot of over-the-top wacky-situation fiction in the market right now that values writerly elaboration more than it does the truth, and that's a shame. But I'm not sure that other times have been any different--only the manner of self-absorption changes.

Joey said...

Perhaps because a sizeable fraction of what I write dabbles in surreality, I don't stop to say "yeah right" when reading. It really comes down to whether or not I find meaning in whatever reality the author has created. For example, when I watch Carly say something stupid on GH, I don't spend time wondering if the show is unrealistic or even if the character is unrealistic; I just reflect on why I don't like her character.

Believability isn't the issue; empathy is.

jrlennon said...

I wish you hadn't deleted those posts. They were legitimate opinions, and I saw nothing wrong with 'em.

Matt said...

Agreed.

Writer Not Reading said...

1. I love you Rhian and JR. You have a unique and wonderful blog.
2. I deleted all my comments because I was lynched by a tough crowd of Anonymice over at LROD's. I believe Joey here participated, although you never know with them wearing those white hoods and all. I deleted my comments there, too, until LROD realized I was an old blogging friend from another blog and repaired the damage...sort of.
3. I love both these blogs but can't stomach the arguing, even though I am highly opinionated but I take even the slightest slights very personally. So when I deleted, I resolved to never engage in these "discussions" anymore. If I do, I will limit what I say.
4. As Rhian knows, I try to limit self-revelation. I crossed a boundary with these comments. She knows exactly what I mean, JR.
5. I agree with everyone: there needs to be a balance between fact and fiction in fiction, but that the humanness of the characters comes first. I love what you said JR about following the characters vs predetermining the story, one of the things Flannery O'Connor always emphasized. But I also agree with myself, that I will never ever enjoy a book or movie that portrays my profession because it always gets it wrong and so blows believability. You know how we are, us nuclear physicists...

joey said...

I really don't see the need to wear a crown of thorns on the internet. Delete your posts, or don't. But take responsibility for whatever you do, instead of going on about how this group and that group of people made you make this post and remove that one. Life's too short to play the perpetual victim of circumstance.

Writer Not Reading said...

This is exactly what I mean. Explaining myself to one group I care about while an anonymous monkey with no blog stands behind me throws out insulting, name-calling bananas like "perpetual victim in a crown of thorns." He throws out this crap on other blogs too, attacked me on LROD for irrelevencies.

Do you bloggers think it's OK never to comment on this and just let it go by, alienating your non-name-calling readers, because I assure you, it eventually will? When do you ever consider throwing hecklers out for harassing your regulars??? Do you take a stand on this or not? Because if you won't, much as I love you, now that Joey is admitting his vile self, I really won't be back unless you two can develop some kind of boundary between respectful discussion and destructive name-calling whining that makes this a place of mutually respectful discussion. What Joey just wrote was a personal attack and judgment. Is that ok with you, Ward 6, who don't like people to delete their own comments and never come back to play? It's really up to you, the tenor you want your blog to have

jrlennon said...

wnr, Rhian may yet weigh in on this, but I do not delete comments unless they're spam.

rmellis said...

Oh, WNR, please don't jump on me for not responding fast enough. I was out of town, then working extra at the bookstore, then tending to a sick chicken, and now I have a headache.

I wanted to respond to your comments earlier, but now they're gone, and I have no idea what's going on in this comments section.

I'm sorry, but I'm not going to throw people out for having strong opinions.

Anonymous said...

wnr here: not asking anyone be deleted. Don't mind strong opinions. It's when the opinions become personal attacks irrelevent to the discussion that visiting a particular blog feels more painful than pleasurable. Why would you want any of your readers to feel that way? The only posts I wanted deleted were my own: longwinded, defensive, irrelevent stupidly addressing the criticism of me less that my responses to the post. I'm not jumping on you, Rhian. Far from it. We all have lives to live. My comments weren't worth reading, in my opinion because they were responses to criticisms of me and not of the content of my comments. I didn't delete them because Rhian wasn't reading them fast enough. What's that about? I don't understand why you guys can't see the difference between criticizing ideas versus citing presumptuous criticisms of the person. I'm not asking that you throw anyone out. I would never tell someone how to run their own blog. I'm just voicing a strong opinion about how I feel when I come here and thought you might benefit from the feedback. I can't possibly be the only person who feels this way, but if I am, it's probably because those others have left. I know, I know, there are a zillion blogs out there to choose from and if we are unhappy with one, we can go to another. I just always liked this one. Hmmm...

jrlennon said...

wnr, I just prefer to ignore personal attacks and respond only to legitimate criticism. Again, Rhian may feel differently, but I'm not interested in moderating these comments, only engaging in the interesting discussions that take place here. There are only so many hours in a day, and I would rather spend them talking about books than trying to tamp down ill feelings. Most of the bad blood is forgotten in a couple of days anyway, and we're onto something new.

I do hope you stick around, but for my part, I don't intend to reward flame wars with personal attention.

raj said...

wnr,

i can't speak for LROD, because those criticisms do get snarky and backhanded and downright bitter at times, but i don't feel like most of the comments on 'ward six' are in that same vein. even when commenters disagree with rhian or jrl they seem to, usually, handle things like adults. that being said, you need to get a backbone and stop posting about how much you want blogs to tailor to your specific 'niceness' needs. seriously. you're starting to look ridiculous. first off, you're getting upset by blog comments on the internet. second off, you're asking the bloggers themselves to get involved. third, i can't imagine anyone with such little backbone getting into writing. like jrl said, if you can't take it, don't read it. and this whole, 'if you don't do something, i'll read elsewhere' threat is ridiculous. if you REALLY loved this blog as much as you tout, you'd still read the postings by rhian and jrl and skip the comments.

Anonymous said...

wnr here: all good points, well taken, dead horse will no longer be beaten.

David Rochester said...

Haven't read the rest of the comments, but ... my own experience is that the closer it keeps to "reality," the less believable fiction tends to be. I think this is because truth really is stranger than fiction, and so fictional reality needs to be more strongly grounded in a certain type of logic than nonfiction or memoir is.

Hmmm. That doesn't make a lot of sense, but I've seen it again and again, esp. in my writers' group. Whenever I read something that makes me roll my eyes with a "Yeah right, as if that would happen!" reaction, I always ask the writer whether the event is taken directly from factual experience. Inevitably, it is.

estelle said...

i am a bit late on the horse with this, but anna funder wrote an article about 'the lives of others', that film about the stasi, that i think is pretty relevant to this topic.

personally: internal coherency is very important to me as a reader because i don't like being jarred out of the trust and (my personal kind of) complacency of reading. i put a lot of trust in writers and i go as much along with them as i can. but yes, there are definitely writers out there who abuse that trust. i think, though, that minor instances of what jrl calls 'bad writing' can be fixed by more restraint or better treatment of certain events. lots of writers skim over plot points which, no matter how wild, could possibly happen, but don't give them enough space, detail, or respect. austen does this many, many times. that undermines credibility for me.