The Obsession with Making Writing Real

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One thing I have to make clear before I get started is that I’m not saying “realism sucks”. Every genre or style has its time and place. As much as I love fantasy, I’m open to all forms of the genre and I also adore classics/literary/contemporary fiction etc (not to mention the fact I like my historical fiction as realistic as possible). So, let’s just begin by saying yes, realism rocks just as hard as fantasy. Glad we could get that out of the way 😉

What I do mean, however, is that sometimes striving for realism takes over. While glaring errors can take you out of a story, sometimes criticism of contemporaries can get a little nitpicky (like, whether or not a particular school has a netball team or whatever). And I’ve written at length about why I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for fantasy. More recently, there’s even been a particular obsession with real experience. Which, you know, can be a problem since not every book is (or should be) an autobiography.

atticus finch quoteFor starters, writing is often about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s kind of impossible if you’re never allowed to think outside your own bubble. And while I’m not saying poach anything you like, or that everyone is capable of doing this, some people really are amazing at putting themselves in the mind’s eye of someone totally unlike them (one of the best examples being Rowling’s depiction of abuse, when, as far as I know, she hasn’t experienced this herself).

The other huge problem is how subjective this can be. While one reader might give you the go ahead, another might say you got it totally wrong. This can be even more troubling when you consider the fact that even if you have the same experience, it doesn’t mean you relate to it the same way. It’s frankly horrifying to see authors attacked for writing about their own experiences- which happened to Leigh Bardugo recently over Ninth House. I’m gonna be real: I lean heavily on my own experience in my writing, so it strikes a nerve to see people lashing out at writers over this.frieda-norris-quote-sisterhood I shouldn’t have to point this out, because it is fairly obvious, but here we go: you can’t make claims about someone’s experience without knowing the individual intimately (and even then, it’s pretty rude).  In fact, I’ve had people do the “ugh you don’t know about this, so shut up!” routine to me over things I *definitely* do know about (though, of course, they don’t know that). I’d say it’s safer not to assume you know a stranger’s life story, but that’s just me 😉

What’s more, even if I’ve been critical of a book for being unrelatable, I find it really helpful to hear why other people got something out of it. Not everything can be relatable for everybody– so it’s cool if you disagree with me on something. It gives me a chance to hear another perspective.

Plus, a huge amount of this simply comes down to personal taste. That’s what I tried to get across when I wrote the post “Don’t Write X”- it’s just not possible to appeal to everyone- and that’s okay! I can accept, for instance, that some readers are into fantasy for the world building and complex systems- ergo hyper-realism is important to them. Just because it isn’t the case for me, doesn’t mean I get to rain on their parade and decide all books should be super fantastical. There’s room for both hard and soft magic systems! Similarly, I’ve heard one writer say they find it pulls them out of a contemporary if the names don’t match up to modern trends… whereas I’m all for the quirky names! Barring huge illogical inconsistencies and glaring errors, these things will always be hit or miss. It’s about finding the right readers for a particular book.

For me, books aren’t all about how precise they are; they’re about the endless possibilities they contain. And so I’m not going to obsess over the realism (especially cos even complex magic systems basically come down to *because magic* anyway 😉).

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So, what do you think? Is realism the be-all and end-all for you? If not, where do you draw the line? Let me know in the comments!

How Realistic Should Books Be?

CharlieMERKELEons and eons ago I read a post about how we *need* more bodily functions in books- now my first instinct was (naturally) “EWW”, quickly followed by “you need to read more books”. Let’s dispense with that myth right away, because bodily functions come up in books way more than you think, the most obvious example being its use in the satiric tradition. Everyone and their mother- from Horace to cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo- have used this technique at some point. Sorry to those writers who think this is the road to uniqueness, but this is nothing “new” or “EDGY” 😉

beautiful broken thingsYet this is just symptomatic of a wider issue. Because more and more I’m seeing books and art trying to replicate the most mundane parts of human existence. As I mentioned in my review of Beautiful Broken Things, there were far *too many* references to texting and social media squeezed in. Apart from being extremely dull, it served *no purpose* in the book. Which brings me to my first rule of thumb…

game of thrones bookFOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY (and unholy) don’t do this if you don’t have a reason. I’m never one to entirely close off any avenues when it comes to art- and this subject is no different. Thus WHEN IT SERVES A PURPOSE it is perfectly reasonable to include it. I mean, we can all think of how much grittier the death of a certain somebody is in Game of Thrones when they are dispatched whilst on the toilet. That shock factor killed it for me.

deenieIt’s therefore apparent that this can be a feature in some books, but authors really ought to know their genre. As I’ve already mentioned crude jokes easily fit into comedic subject matter, yet I do think this can be expanded out into other areas. Personally, when I was a teen I was very grateful for books by Judy Blume for educating me and normalising a lot of things I didn’t understand at the time.

the recruit cherubHOWEVER this should be used sparingly- and I mean SPARINGLY. It is way too easy for this trope to be overused- for instance, while it was funny the first time a major spy operation in the Cherub series was interrupted by someone’s inability to control their bladder, this quickly got overused and became an *insert we need a bit more drama* crutch for the plot. Not good.

my-bed-tracey-emin-011Gross gimmicks and the like should never be the sole focus of any piece of art. To my mind this merely debases the medium. It’s no secret at this stage that I am disparaging of some forms of modern art (#notall). I never argue that it’s not art- that would be as pointless as the art itself- only that it is poor versions of art. For art, good art, can be appreciated on multiple levels, whereas something like Tracy Emin’s bed is designed to shock and repulse you, which really takes little effort to achieve and has no depth of meaning.

judeOn the other end of the spectrum, one can take a look at the horrors of a book like Jude the Obscure. Many people would argue this also has shocking moments (don’t worry, no spoilers) but every single shock is woven into the story for a good reason. It is supposed to make you feel the plight of the poor, the constant injustices, the impossibility of bettering oneself. Yes, it is a book designed to make you feel shell-shocked, though not without just cause. No one could say this could be read on one level alone.

0787_07Still, as any fantasy lover knows, there are *plenty* of books which avoid any hint of the real world altogether and that is a-okay with me. Not all books are designed to be realistic and the ones that are don’t always need to scream its realism at us. Sometimes what we need from books is a touch of idealism. The Alexei Karamazov’s of the book world inspire us to be better; Michaelangelo’s Pieta’s lift us up out of our murky human existence to something resembling the divine. Art should be truer than the real world. Reducing it down to the basic necessities of life- and yes, weirdly enough, facebook and the like has become a part of that- gives us nothing as readers. Frankly, I know how to send/receive a text and most of us know how our body works- we don’t need reminding of these things all the time. Publishers, authors, readers take note- this is not a burning issue (if it is for you, please see a doctor).

Well, that was a subject I never thought I’d cover. I feel a little dirty now. What do you think? How real should books be? Let me know in the comments!