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Thread: Suspension of Disbelief in Literary Fiction?

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    Toughen up. gothicangel's Avatar
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    Suspension of Disbelief in Literary Fiction?

    First off, this isn't meant to be a genre vs literary thread.

    So, I'm almost finished reading Andrew Miller's Pure, which won the 2011 Costa Prize [and believe is shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize too.] It's old style Gothic [think Great Expectations or Wuthering Heights], set in the years preceding the French Revolution.

    As I was reading last night, I was finding the plot becoming more, and more convoluted, my supension of disbelief going right out the window. At which point I thought, 'you wouldn't get away with this in a genre novel.'
    Yet this book has won a big literary prize.

    So what do you think? Do we let literary fiction stretch believability further than genre?
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    Quote Originally Posted by gothicangel View Post
    So what do you think? Do we let literary fiction stretch believability further than genre?
    Not in my experience of reading both.

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    Queen of the Upmarket Bagladies HoneyBadger's Avatar
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    I just watched Melancholia last night. (Loved it, recommend it highly just for the beautiful imagery, didn't think it was sad at all, but I'm not so typical emotionally.)

    The premise (planets colliding) is based on absolutely no science at all, but it doesn't matter. It just... was how it was, even though the science was laughable. von Trier said he didn't care about getting the astrophysics right, and I think it worked.

    That's one reason I *like* litfic: if it's pretty and the conflict is solid, you can say 'You know what? Unicorns.' And bam! Then it's magical realism!*

    *Not really, but, kinda.

  4. #4
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    You anglophones and your ridiculous literary divisions. A novel is a novel. If it shows excellent command of language, deals with real and relevant themes, examples thoughtful development of interesting ideas and has good characterization and memorable events in it, it very well should be nominated for a literary award.

    Melancholia is a good example. I'd argue that having a scientifically plausible threat such as an asteroid would take away a huge part of the movie's emotional power. "This can't be happening... and yet it is" is exactly the feeling you'd associate with the end of the world. You won't get that with a big rock. Not to mention that the connotations between two planets colliding are quite different from simply having an asteroid and a planet collide.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Orchestra View Post
    You anglophones and your ridiculous literary divisions. A novel is a novel. If it shows excellent command of language, deals with real and relevant themes, examples thoughtful development of interesting ideas and has good characterization and memorable events in it, it very well should be nominated for a literary award.

    Melancholia is a good example. I'd argue that having a scientifically plausible threat such as an asteroid would take away a huge part of the movie's emotional power. "This can't be happening... and yet it is" is exactly the feeling you'd associate with the end of the world. You won't get that with a big rock. Not to mention that the connotations between two planets colliding are quite different from simply having an asteroid and a planet collide.
    Doesn't that raise the point, though, that there is a necessary emotional or metaphoric belief that has to be sustained in fiction even if the events of the book are not factually possible? If you believe that the collision of two planets is an apt, deftly handled metaphor for any sort of emotionally incomprehensible, cataclysmic event, then the film works. If you can't believe in at least the reality of the metaphor, it doesn't. (I haven't seen more than the previews for Melancholia; I have no opinion one way or the other).

    In that sense, any novel whose metaphor becomes too clouded, convoluted or distanced from any recognizable realism to be successfully comprehended has caused a different kind of suspension of belief and so must be counted an emotional failure, regardless of genre. (And those boundaries are very loose-- you can stretch the distance between realism and metaphor really far before you start getting into trouble). I think in a lot of ways so-called "lit-fic" DOES get into more trouble in that area than genre fiction, because often-- though not always-- authors whose works are classified as such are given more leeway to try to invent or reflect emotional rather than factual truth (you won't get a bunch of lit dorks in a room arguing about how the Midnight Children are possible, for example, whereas you definitely hear plausibility arguments among sci-fi fans-- because seeming factual plausibility is an encouraged part of the genre).
    Last edited by ErstwhileA; 04-24-2012 at 10:19 PM.

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    Still confused by shoelaces Once!'s Avatar
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    I think there's a hidden rationing going on here. We have all got an internal budget for just how far we are prepared to suspend disbelief, and just how many times we will let the author "get away with one".

    So there is nothing wrong with a work which has a preposterous premise, as long as it stays true to that premise throughout. I can accept talking pigs in Animal Farm, as long as they don't later start flying. Spacecraft scream in Star Wars. I know that's not scientifically possible, but frankly who cares? The opening price for a being a reader or viewer of a fictional work is that you accept its premise.

    But what the OP seems to be talking about here is a book (which I haven't read) which becomes too convoluted as it goes along. That seems to go beyond the willing suspension of disbelief about the premise of the work. It suggests that, for one reader at least, the work didn't have an internal integrity.

    It's a bit like getting your main character out of a fix by having him or her winning the lottery. Sure it's perfectly possible, but c'mon...

    Or having your main protagonist die off-stage in a convenient accident with a truck. Oh, hang on, that was "Girl with a Dragon Tattoo", wasn't it?

    For that matter, Shakespeare just about got away with the most ridiculous plot-lines to get both Romeo and Juliet to commit suicide on stage within minutes of each other. We allow him one withdrawal from the suspension of disbelief bank because the strength of the writing and characterisation means that he is pretty much in credit.

    Do we expect different genres to have different tolerances for suspension of disbelief? Once we get past basic premise and into plotting and structure, I don't think that we do. Internal integrity and consistency can be a problem for any genre.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Once! View Post
    I think there's a hidden rationing going on here. We have all got an internal budget for just how far we are prepared to suspend disbelief, and just how many times we will let the author "get away with one".
    Excellent point. I recently completed a manuscript about a guy in Witness Protection. At first, I took one or two minor liberties with how that program might work. Nothing serious. Then I decided it would be fun, if the FBI actually had a department in which it hired professional writers to develop the new "lives" for the witnesses. Then, I decided it would be even more fun, if the FBI began hiring directors and cameramen and professional actors and built studio-like sets and developed scripts and...and...and...

    Finally, one day I was forced acknowledge that I had gone too far. Not just too far. WAAAAY too far. I cut nearly 10,000 words in the process of removing the bulk of it, but it had to be done. The plot had reached the point of ludicrousness.

    It was fun to write though, and I saved the excised text in case I ever have a future piece in which it would be appropriate.

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    figuring it all out wishingonasupernova's Avatar
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    Having a plot that has some plausibility is very important to a fictional work, but more important is a compelling story and interesting characters whose thoughts, emotions, actions, and dialogue feel authentic even if some of the other elements in the story seem too far fetched or inaccurate.

    To use examples that I recently read/watched, Jonathan Safran-Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated, his wife's (Nicole Krauss iirc) book A History of Love, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and the television show Breaking Bad have some ludicrous stuff in them, but they were all a joy for me to read / watch and I didn't mind suspending my disbelief on some of the plot points because they were so entertaining, nothing was too glaringly implausible, and the characters themselves felt fully formed and authentic.

    OTOH, in a Dan Brown type novel or a CSI/24/Dexter type television shows, the plot holes and lack of verisimilitude are too much for me to stomach due to the lack of depth and generic nature of the characters.
    Last edited by wishingonasupernova; 05-10-2012 at 03:23 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Orchestra View Post
    You anglophones and your ridiculous literary divisions. A novel is a novel. If it shows excellent command of language, deals with real and relevant themes, examples thoughtful development of interesting ideas and has good characterization and memorable events in it, it very well should be nominated for a literary award.

    Melancholia is a good example. I'd argue that having a scientifically plausible threat such as an asteroid would take away a huge part of the movie's emotional power. "This can't be happening... and yet it is" is exactly the feeling you'd associate with the end of the world. You won't get that with a big rock. Not to mention that the connotations between two planets colliding are quite different from simply having an asteroid and a planet collide.
    Um, yeah, riiiiiight.

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    This reminds me of my favorite quote from my dad "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

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    practical experience, FTW Graz's Avatar
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    "So what do you think? Do we let literary fiction stretch believability further than genre?"

    Depends solely on the reader, their likes and dislikes

    I don't read or believe in fairies, monsters, vampires, aliens or spaceships. No matter how well written, my disbelief will not be suspended. Human beings face tribulations, forced to deal with life altering events all the time. People are murdered for money, lust or love. Boy meets girl, loses girl, maybe gets girl back, maybe doesn't. Suspended disbelief isn't hard when I read a well written story on these subjects. Ergo, my likes and dislikes dictate my unwillingness or willingness of my mind not to question the believability of what I read.
    Last edited by Graz; 05-28-2012 at 07:57 PM. Reason: yes

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    I recently read two short stories. One, by a mid-list author, was about plastic bags that come to life and create a zombie-like apocalypse. The second was about genetically modified venus flytraps who could apparently converse telepathically and fall in love. I don't think any literary fiction asks a reader for that big of a leap lol.

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    practical experience, FTW Graz's Avatar
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    But then again, many years ago I read "Skinny Legs and All" my memories are vague but a spoon was on a journey of some sort, I read all the way through to see how the spoon made out

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    practical experience, FTW Graz's Avatar
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    Actually, it was a spoon, fork, plate, conch shell and a dirty sock. My disbelief remained suspended throughout

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    skinny legs and all --wow--i'd forgotten all about that one. i did read it but it is all very foggy. was there a belly dancer in there somewhere? was that jitterbug perfume? --s6

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    Quote Originally Posted by shakeysix View Post
    skinny legs and all --wow--i'd forgotten all about that one. i did read it but it is all very foggy. was there a belly dancer in there somewhere? was that jitterbug perfume? --s6


    Yes, belly dancer named Jezebel maybe, jitterbug perfume does sound familiar.

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    blue eyed floozy shakeysix's Avatar
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    i love tom robbins but skinny legs was hard to finish. i guess woodpecker or sissy are my favorite characters of his. the rubber rose douche bag ranch is my fav location. talk about suspension of disbelief--s6

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    practical experience, FTW Iustefan's Avatar
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    Excellent point. I recently completed a manuscript about a guy in Witness Protection. At first, I took one or two minor liberties with how that program might work. Nothing serious. Then I decided it would be fun, if the FBI actually had a department in which it hired professional writers to develop the new "lives" for the witnesses. Then, I decided it would be even more fun, if the FBI began hiring directors and cameramen and professional actors and built studio-like sets and developed scripts and...and...and...

    Finally, one day I was forced acknowledge that I had gone too far. Not just too far. WAAAAY too far. I cut nearly 10,000 words in the process of removing the bulk of it, but it had to be done. The plot had reached the point of ludicrousness.
    You see to me that sounds like a fascinating idea, you should go back and salvage it and at least turn it into a short story and run even further. I think the key to writing like this, is keeping the emotions in check, and the characters the centerpiece which the world revolves around. If you make the 'concept' the centerpiece, and the characters are simply reacting to it then you've lost me. Make the 'ludicrous' things highlight the emotions, and draw out reality from the unreality. They won't feel ludicrous if the characters feel real and react to as real. Think Charlie Kaufman screenplays.

    Good job on completing the manuscript though.

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    blue eyed floozy shakeysix's Avatar
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    i just paid $10 to watch a teddy bear whip mark wahlberg's ass with a radio antennae. i wasn't the only one with suspended disbelief. the whole audience was roaring.
    i'm with iustefan--the Witness Protection idea sounds promising. forget ludicrousness. you can't go too far. --s6

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    up too late AllTheWine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Graz View Post
    Yes, belly dancer named Jezebel maybe, jitterbug perfume does sound familiar.
    I just realized I have this book on my shelf and I've never read it. It's getting bumped to the top of my TBR based on this conversation.

    I love it when a writer can convince me to suspend disbelief. Salman Rushdie is especially good at presenting you with a very convincing, apparently truthful portrait of the world and then throwing in alternative histories or magic spells so subtly that I can practically see him winking as I read it.

    What would you say constitutes Magical Realism? I think of "The Night Circus," "The Enchantress of Florence," "Little, Big," "The Magicians," ... although all of these books actually are about magic in the real world, so I guess I've either hit the nail on the head or over-simplified the topic...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Iustefan View Post
    You see to me that sounds like a fascinating idea, you should go back and salvage it and at least turn it into a short story and run even further. I think the key to writing like this, is keeping the emotions in check, and the characters the centerpiece which the world revolves around. If you make the 'concept' the centerpiece, and the characters are simply reacting to it then you've lost me. Make the 'ludicrous' things highlight the emotions, and draw out reality from the unreality. They won't feel ludicrous if the characters feel real and react to as real. Think Charlie Kaufman screenplays.

    Good job on completing the manuscript though.
    I just came upon this old thread, but I wanted to chime in and agree about the FBI department of creating witness protection: I think that could be a grand story. Thinking "Charlie Kaufman" is spot on. Could be great fun.
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    figuring it all out Overwined's Avatar
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    Just to throw a wrench in here, I think purposely forcing the reader to suspend their disbelief is a tool that some authors have used successfully. I think of Pynchon and DF Wallace. It's not an easy thing and only renowned authors can do it while still keeping the reader reading, but it adds an interesting layer to this conversation.

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    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin tanyadavies's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tinman View Post
    I recently read two short stories. One, by a mid-list author, was about plastic bags that come to life and create a zombie-like apocalypse. The second was about genetically modified venus flytraps who could apparently converse telepathically and fall in love. I don't think any literary fiction asks a reader for that big of a leap lol.
    Absolutely!

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    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin tanyadavies's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Iustefan View Post
    You see to me that sounds like a fascinating idea, you should go back and salvage it and at least turn it into a short story and run even further. I think the key to writing like this, is keeping the emotions in check, and the characters the centerpiece which the world revolves around. If you make the 'concept' the centerpiece, and the characters are simply reacting to it then you've lost me. Make the 'ludicrous' things highlight the emotions, and draw out reality from the unreality. They won't feel ludicrous if the characters feel real and react to as real. Think Charlie Kaufman screenplays.

    Good job on completing the manuscript though.
    I'm in too. Sounds like you have an audience for this. Personally I see it as a short story.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Orchestra View Post
    You anglophones and your ridiculous literary divisions. A novel is a novel.
    Try that line to convince an agent to represent your manuscript.

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