When I discuss stories with other people, we often exchange the following sort of comments:
Me: It doesn't make sense that a ghetto-guy like the hero would never swear.
Other person: Well, I cut the writers some slack, because they're writing for network television.
Me: There's a mistake on page six: Boa constrictors aren't green.
Other person: Well, you can't expect the author to be an expert on everything.
Me: How could they have blasted off from the planet when five minutes before that they clearly said they were out of fuel?
Other person: Hey, I'll forgive them for that, because the space battles are so cool.
Coming up for air from these arguments, I am always baffled. "Cut the writers some slack"? "Forgive them"? I don't get it. It's not that I expect writers to be perfect. I've written stories, and I know how hard it is. But when I'm reading a story, I'm not thinking about the writer; I'm thinking about the story. If there's a mistake in the story, there's a mistake in the story. I can "forgive" the writer or "cut him some slack" but after I do, there's STILL a mistake in the story. What's the point of "forgiving" the writer, anyway? I don't know him. He doesn't know me. He won't know that I've forgiven him. Heck, he doesn't know he ever offended me in the first place.
It's as if these other readers participate in an imaginary writer's workshop, in which the author is also a member. And they want to encourage him to continue writing, so they're willing to put up with a few mistakes.
I wonder what these readers do when they eat a slice of a cake in which the baker accidentally substituted salt for sugar. They may wish to spare the baker's feelings. So they may say, "Thank you so much for the yummy cake" while clandestinely spitting it into their napkin. This is admirable. Who wants to hurt the baker's feelings? But that doesn't change the fact that the cake tastes bad. The baker's feelings and the taste of the cake are two different things. And there's something odd about being MORE concerned about the baker's feelings than the taste of the cake, if you don't know the baker -- if you're eating a packaged cake you bought at the supermarket.
I have a strong desire to make a loud, startling noise -- maybe bang a couple of cymbals together -- and wake these readers out of their dreams. I want to say to them, "Look, there was a mistake in the story. Did you notice it?" If not, fine. Then THAT'S why the mistake didn't bother them. They can't be bothered by something they don't notice. Sometimes I don't notice a mistake until the fifth time I read a story. At which point it DOES bother me. But it didn't bother me the first four times I read the story, because I didn't know it was there.
Or maybe these people DID notice the mistake, but other elements of the story were so compelling that they were able to stay emotionally engaged with it anyway.
Or maybe they don't read for emotional engagement in the first place. Maybe they read in order to participate in an imaginary relationship with the author -- to cheer him on. Actually, this is a kind of emotional engagement, though very different from the kind I seek. I like the engagement of believing in a fictional world. And it's hard to believe in a world in which rockets can take off without any fuel or in which ghetto guys say "golly" and "heck."
Here's another phrase I hate: "suspend your disbelief." I don't hate it in theory, but I hate the way it's commonly used -- as if it's something the reader is supposed to do (out of fairness to the writer) as opposed to something the writer should try to make the reader do.
Me: it doesn't make sense that Phillip can fly in chapter two when in chapter one it clearly states that people on his planet don't have the power of flight.
Other person: Man, I think you need to learn to suspend your disbelief.
I hate this, because it's not something I can learn to do. I'm tempted to write "it's not something anyone can learn to do," but I try not to presume what goes on in other people's heads. Can one really CHOOSE to believe or not to believe? If so, then why not choose to believe you're a multi-millionaire with a harem of nubile babes waiting for you in your bedroom?
I either believe or I don't. Sometimes something really thrilling happens. Sometimes a gifted writer persuades me that something impossible is really possible -- at least in his fictional world. Through attention to detail and inner coherence, he makes me believe in magic. And I DO suspend my disbelief. Or, to put it in a less pedantic way, I believe.
(Children, clap your hands if you've suspended your disbelief in the non-existence of Tinkerbell.)