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?
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!