Friday, October 28, 2005

the imaginary workshop

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.)


graycie said...

Bravo! I just LOVE a person with high literary standards! I hate things like:

(end of chapter 4) . . . our hero has just fallen into an unclimbable pit with hungry cannibals waiting for him at the top.

(beginning of chapter 5) After climbing out ofthe pit and defeating the hungry cannibals, our hero . . ."


The way I see the suspensin of disbelief is this way: An author's job is to create a world with enough consistency and depth that I can 'fall' into it. My job as a reader is to be willing to fall.

I am intrigued by your Literary Mash-ups game. All I have to do to try it is to find enough time when I am conscious enough to write.

J.D. said...

Excellent post. Was this an AskMe response? I don't remember seeing it, and if it was, it sounds like an interesting question.

I, too, get scolded often for not suspending disbelief. I'm sorry. Suspending disbelief is one thing, but employing a self-lobotomy is another. It's suspending disbelief when I watch a film featuring space aliens. It's not suspending disbelief when all of these aliens breathe the same atmosphere. Etc.

It bugs me all the time how things are included in comics and movies and TV shows simply because they're cool, with no regard as to plausibility. The most recent thing that comes to mind is from Serenity: River, the lithe young psychic ass-kicking waif has just decimated a bunch of alien space zombies and the camera pulls back to reveal her in a "cool" stance, holding two huge axes dripping with blood.

This is ludicrous on so many levels. First, these axes are gargantuan. Even if she is trained in combat, how the hell can she lift these massive weapons? Second, where did she get them? This is a psuedo-Western space culture with lasers and six-guns. Is there also some random manufacturer in the star system that churns out these massive axes? Is there a high demand for them? Why? I could go on and on about this scene, but I won't. It's not worth my time and effort, and besides, I thought the film was fun.

Great entry, though.

Marcus said...

J.D., this wasn't in response to an AskMe post ( It came up in an exchange between me and my friend Gowan.

He mentioned that he hated the word "arc" in literary discussions. That generally people used it when mean "story" or "plot" but want to sound pretentious. I have mixed feelings about arc, but I think I ultimately side with Gowan. It's one of those terms that people often use to dress up their banal ideas -- attempting to hoodwink us into believe they are profound ideas. "That story has no arc" generally means, "I didn't like it."

But I do think it's possible to use the word in a meaningful way, even if people don't generally do this in practice. What other word do we have that means "the broad sweep of the story"? Not "plot", because a plot includes every twist and turn. "Story" is a lovely word, but it is vague (usefully so).

Boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl: THAT'S an arc (at least to me). In "Uncle Vanya," Sonya changes from a girl who uses work to avoid pain, to a girl who lets pain generate idleness, to a girl who works through pain: THAT is an arc. It leaves out all the spice (Sonya drinks tea; Sonya yells at Vanya; etc.)

I remember when the critical response to Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" when it first came out. They chided it for containing two distinct (connected) stories, claiming it had no "arc." I kept hearing that over and over, as if a good movie MUST be one complete story. If Kubrick had called it "Full Metal Jacket: Two Vietnam Stories," I bet no one would have criticized it (at least for its lack of "arc").

Anyway, Gowan and I moved on to other conversational pet-peeves. I mentioned my hatred of "journey." What I really hate is the use of "journey" when people speak of their personal life. "Yes, I got divorced and remarried and then divorced again, and it really depressed me for a while, but then I realized that it was all part of The Journey." UGH. At some point, way way back, journey was a good metaphor for one's life, but it's become a cliche and it drives me crazy. It's so vague. So what if it's a journey? What KIND of journey? The train to Auschwitz was a journey.

Even more, I hate "everything happens for a reason." When someone says, "I got cancer and then my mother died and then my husband got hit by a bus and then I lost all my money in a bad investment... but, you know, everything happens for a reason", I always want to say, "yes, and the reason is that God hates you."

This lead to a discussion of "suspending disbelief."