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Monday, January 04, 2010

THE PROBABLE

There’s a golden rule in writing, one so taken for granted that people often don’t even talk about it. It’s simple: never, ever, ever, ever, ever respond to a negative review. Ever. I mean, you can if you really want to. No one is going to ARREST you if you do. But you are going to look like a huge jerk if you do, and the entire internet will laugh at you. Why? Because people are entitled not to like your work. Yes, even stupid people, for stupid reasons. Yes, even people you respect for reasons that are actually pretty good. Even your mom. Anyone is entitled at any time not to like your work, and there is exactly nothing you can do about it.

Certainly, it is a wonderful age in which we live, what with this whole “internet” thing where everyone can say whatever they want—and the problem of course, is that everyone can say whatever they want, which leads to things being wrong on the internet. Sure, you get reviews that say things like, “tihis book was so boring it had no vampirs u don’t know how to rite!” and you have to take it on the chin. You don’t answer back. What on earth would you say, even if you did? “I can TOO rite (WITH A W!)” These don’t really present a problem.

And I’m not talking about “official” reviews either (though you REALLY, REALLY shouldn’t respond to them). Not that official reviews are so far removed from reader comments on forums or Amazon, really. I think there is sometimes the notion that any review that has ever been printed is some kind of Official Word—not actually proclaimed by God, but possibly by someone in his office, and most likely on letterhead. Like in order to become a reviewer you have to pass a series of important tests and physical challenges . . . reciting The DaVinci Code backwards, perhaps, entirely from memory. Or maybe you have to coax a chicken away from an alligator through song and dance. And only when you have passed these many tests will you be allowed to Review, and the mantle of Ultimate Rightness will be placed over your shoulders.

This is most certainly not the case. I know this because I was a reviewer for a Big, Fancy Publication, and let me tell you something—I cranked those reviews out hard and fast, often at three in the morning, because they paid me fifty dollars each and ALL I did was write negative reviews. Why? Because you get to crack better jokes and sound smug and smart. This, as it turns out, it a very common behavior, so it’s not just me. There is nothing quite as fun as writing something an evil, snarky critique.

Reviews are just opinions. Some reviewers and publications are better than others, and all have their good and bad days and their personal preferences. One of my favorite writers in the world was a reviewer by trade. I worship the man, and he wrote a DEVASTATING review of something I love. I have learned to reconcile this in my mind, but it took time. If you go back and read reviews of books that everyone accepts to be Good and Important Books that Everyone Has To Like, there will be a reviewer who hated it when it was published, or who hates it now. So that’s not anything to freak out over either.

Does this mean all reviews are meaningless? God, no. It just means that there are a chorus of voices in the world, and you have to pick which ones you are going to listen to. This, as it turns out, is more or less the point of Writing School. In my writing program, you had to go through two years of writing and presenting your work to your class or thesis group. In a room of, say, ten reasonably smart and talented writers, you are going to get ten totally different opinions. And for those two years, you had to train your ear to listen for things that rang true—comments both good and bad—things you could build on.

So, I listen still. I have to admit, I don’t sit and read every comment written about me, because I would go insane, but I scan through every once in a while to see what’s what. In general, the experience is pretty lovely (which is part of the reason I don’t do it that often because I will get a BIG, SOFT HEAD). In doing this, I’ve noticed something in a few reader comments that has me worried. I’ve seen versions of this comment time and time again, both for my books and for similar “realistic fiction” books.* The comment usually goes something like this . . .

I read this book and it was okay but why would this happen? It is just totally not probable. I mean I liked the story and the writing but I just don’t think this would happen in life.


This makes me quiver. Not with outrage, but with fear and concern, because I am terribly worried that a lot of people are growing up with a slightly mixed-up idea of how stories work and what they are meant to do.

Stories are not meant to be probable.

Probable means the thing that is most likely to happen. There would be little point in reading about the thing that is most likely to happen. So I am confused about the expectation here. Is the problem that the reader thinks the story isn’t about something common enough? Of course, amazing stories can be written about very common, everyday things, exposing deeper meanings and levels of communication. The first example that leaps to mind here among thousands of possible examples is A&P by John Updike, one of the first short stories I remember reading as a tiny mj. It’s literally about a guy working the cash register at an A&P when a girl comes in dressed only in a bathing suit and bare feet to buy some jarred herring snacks. The narrator (a teenaged boy) admires the girls (in many ways), but the manager wants to throw the girls out, so the narrator takes off his apron and quits. That’s it. That’s the plot.

A&P is a probable story, I guess. It’s quite possible to walk into a grocery store in a bathing suit and buy some herring, if that’s how you roll. But in 1961, when it was written, it was a bit more of a shock to see a girl in a bathing suit walk into a store. It was unlikely. It was a statement. It meant something.

So I guess A&P isn’t probable at all. It was about an exceptional moment—certainly one that falls within the boundaries of physical possibility, but still, a moment that stood out and provoked a strong change. And that was the most probable story I could think of.**

Possibly, there is a confusion here with logical. Stories should be logical. You can write the most far-fetched story in the world but it must make sense within itself—it has to obey its own rules. As I sit here typing this, I have the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds on in the background. That’s another short story I remember reading as a kid, and another possible but not probable premise: one day, all the birds decide they don’t like people, and they attack. “This isn’t usual, is it?” one of the characters just said, after a flock of birds destroyed a picnic. No, it is not usual at all. But it is a story with nice, simple rules, which it follows carefully: birds are normal, birds get squirrelly, birds &*@# everybody up, birds get progressively better at breaking into houses and running people off roads, birds take over town. It’s bad bird behavior, but it follows a logical progression.

But since I keep seeing this comment in so many places and for so many books, and since the phrasing is often so similar, I am very worried that these readers mean exactly what they say—that they are expecting something to roll out in a certain way, that they think there are ways that stories are supposed to go. You’re either fighting off the space leopards with your rainbow sword or you are buying a pair of jeans and making a call on your cell phone (brands included, natch!) . . . and there is NO MIDDLE GROUND. If the book is “realistic,” then the coordinates have been predetermined. Weirdness is not encouraged and will not be tolerated. This bothers me both as a writer and as a weird person.

I write fiction. I make things up. To date, I have not included many space leopards or their ilk (though that is going to change soon), but I’ve never felt this is in any way a limiting factor. There are many strange and fantastic things that are quite real—and any number of styles or techniques can be employed when telling “realistic” stories. Many of the “realistic” writers I admire write complete lunacy, and this is a very good thing in my opinion.

So the kneejerk “this isn’t probable” reaction seems to me quite similar to the “this place is weird” reaction to foreign travel, or “this tastes funny” when eating something new. It suggests that there are people who think they know what normal is. And if I can impart any wisdom at all*** I would like to impress this little nugget: there is no normal. You are not normal. No one is normal. And if you think there is a set way a story (or life) is supposed to go, you are mistaken—and happily so. Because there is a lot of fun to be had and things to be learned be had when you shake off those preconceptions.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go do some riting (WITH A W!). If YOU would like to add to this discussion, please do so in the COMMENTS!



* My friends who write Sci Fi and Urban Fantasy and all of that good stuff don’t get this comment, but they get lots of others, usually along the lines of “Why did you kill so-and-so?” or “Why haven’t so-and-so made out yet?” even if so-and-so are related.

** And I have absolutely no doubt that someone out there has written some critique that says, “I guess this story is okay but it is so boring and why would you quit your job just because a girl in a bathing suit came in to your store? That is just not probable.”

*** Unlikely, but roll with me here. I have a cold. Cut me some slack.

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52 Comments:

Blogger Bibliocat said...

The only time I remember thinking something wasn't realistic was when a character wasn't explained fulling to make the motivation seem realistic. But my husband will say this a lot because he prefers non-fiction. So maybe the reviewers just aren't fans of fiction in general....

6:36 AM  
Blogger lisa said...

I dislike it when stories that I think are realistic fiction throw in a magical element for no apparent reason (I was really upset during my first viewing of Sherlock Holmes, and I was completely thrown out of Shift every time the narrator's thighs tingled or whatever) but I think that may have more to do with my expectations than with the books. And I make an effort not to run to the internet and freak out about it. (Although. His thighs tingled. Like a spidey sense! I just. What?)

But in, say, Devilish, it wasn't some crazy out-of-nowhere magical element. It was a thing that the narrator had to deal with. If Scarlett turns out to be psychic though, we may have a problem, MJ.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with this. I love the wonderfully weird, "realistic" fiction, and it doesn't bother me when things may not be probable. If you want probable, read nonfiction.

The only thing that bothers me is when characters do things that are out-of-character. For instance, mj talks about jars A LOT. If she started talking about PLASTIC BOTTLES, i would get CONCERNED, because that is not probable unless mj was possibly saved by a man selling plastic bottles or something. There always has to be a cause. I don't want mj talking about PLASTIC BOTTLES if she hasn't been saved from an oncoming bus by a PLASTIC BOTTLE vendor. That is completely out of character.

So yeah. Improbable = Very very good. Out-of-Character = Very very annoying.

:]

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Meagan said...

"I have not included many space leopards or their ilk (though that is going to change soon)"

Oh please, please write a story about space leopards. That would be awesome.

I think that, even in fiction that's "realistic," a little bit of unrealisticness is necessary - a lot of people read books as an escape from their boring lunch time or office or afternoon or whatever, and I know I wouldn't want to read a book about someone like me that was entirely probable. That'd be the most boring book ever. Introducing the unexpected into the ordinary is the catalyst for many books, whether that unexpected is fairies in New York or the sudden arrival of an eccentric guest to a family run hotel.

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Ted said...

I don't think 'probable' here necessarily means "the thing that is most likely to happen" (suggesting that there is only one such thing), but just something that is likely to happen (with whatever threshold of 'likely' you prefer).

Still, your points are well taken. Most interesting stories need to have some unusual event.

6:48 AM  
Blogger OfficiallyMRS said...

I completely agree with this. I think that as teens, when we read a YA book, maybe about someone a few years older than us, we expect that we're going to find that to be true in our teen years. It's a lie!!! I have never seen anyone fall in love with a vampire and then get married to him in high school. I've also never seen someone make out with their sibling. If we were going to live or already do live like the characters in books, then why would we read about them? We would already KNOW THE ANSWER and it would be BORING!

6:49 AM  
Blogger Lakien said...

Personally, I don't really like 'probable' stories. If you can guess the ending after the first 10 pages, it's just not worth it. I do read some books like that - when they're fun, or they have a 'spark'; I can't really explain. But I digress.

My point is, if people only liked 'probable' books, where would The Hitchhiker Guide be? It's such an amazing and nonsensical book.

6:51 AM  
Blogger Maggie said...

Brilliant and well said. I especially like the part about how there is no normal. I would tattoo that on my forehead if I thought it would help.

Responding to reviews is crazy, for sure. The dumbest one I've seen lately is someone accusing me of *wanting* to dislike something and choosing to dislike it on purpose.

The day I deliberately choose to dislike a book I've paid actual green money for is the day hell freezes over, is all I can say about that. Plus, liking something 95% is not disliking it anyway, so why the personal attack? But people get weird about books.

Maybe that's the subtitle to this whole thing: people get weird about books.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous katie said...

Kinda off-track, this reminds me of last year in my creative writing class. The teacher was explaining an assignment and this one girl asks seriously, "So can we use our imagination?"

7:01 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Oh Maureen. How I agree with you. You speak words of wisdom and I appreciate that. Thank you for your imparted wisdom. It reminds me of how now that I'm back from India after being there for 4 months, people always assume what is normal or likely of the culture, such as its dirty or poor. I would call Bangalore, India either of those things. Fiction and Non-Fiction are both equally probable.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Meghan B. said...

I took the road less traveled by so my life nor I have ever been normal and that has made all the difference.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of my pet peeves. I read quite a bit, and convince many, many people to read books I enjoy. But when people return books to me complaining that things aren't 'realistic' or just 'so unlikely', I just stare at them. I finally figured out a comeback I enjoy using.
"If this book was completely probable, I wouldn't have read it. You see, I don't read non-fiction, and if this was like your version of real life, it would definitely be non-fiction."

As someone stated a few comments above, books are an escape from real life, (especially for me) and if I wanted to be bored by the real world as I know it, I wouldn't need a book.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Julie Polk said...

It would be next to impossible for me to find words for how much I love this post! But here's one of my favorite quotations about fiction, from one of my favorite writers:

(Fiction is) the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science.
Lorrie Moore


Sing it, Lorrie.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Michael W said...

I don't get what people mean when they say that type of thing. All that I can get from that is that they have some sort of fundamental misunderstanding of what books are supposed to be. I totally agree with you that stories aren't meant to be probable. They're meant to be interesting and entertaining and get a message across.

If probability had anything to do with the decisions authors make, Nick would have moved next door to a perfectly normal person in The Great Gatsby, and Collin and Hassan would have gone on a perfectly normal road trip in Katherines, and nobody would have ever been murdered in Veronica Mars.

And all of those stories would have been BORING. The improbability is what makes stories interesting and exciting, and what makes them different from real life. If they were otherwise, why would we read them?

7:26 AM  
Blogger lalibrarylady86 said...

May I just be happy that you used the word "snarky"?
(I already am - whether or not I may.)

7:43 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

It seems to me that when people say something isn't probable, they mean it didn't make sense, or that it devastates our expectations of the story in a way that makes the story somehow less.

It would be like if at the end of "The Goblet of Fire," Harry Potter said, "screw this," snapped his wand in two, and moved back in with the Dursleys. Sure, it's within the realm of possibility; many people would have up and quit after seeing a classmate murdered and having their blood forcibly taken to reanimate a mostly dead, evil wizard. However, this turn of events wouldn't make sense with Harry's character, and would disappoint our expectations of the story.

It isn't probable that a Hobbit would be able to destroy the most powerful villain of all time, but no one had a problem with that in Lord of the Rings. It isn't probable that a 16 year old girl would spend all her free time solving mysteries, but that never stopped Nancy Drew from being one of the most beloved series of all time.

"It's not probable" doesn't mean it's weird. It means it betrayed something the reader thought was important about the character or story. (Unless they're trying to insist the entire premise isn't probable, in which case, I agree completely with everything in this post.)

8:00 AM  
Anonymous That One Guy said...

Very nice. Very true. There is a normal in society, but it fluctuates constantly, voiding it's normalness.

There's a cartoon called "Misadventures of Flapjack" that uses this surreal MontyPython-ish humor (I'm 19 btw) and i find it quite entertaining. The only problem that I have with this is if kids get used to crazy random humor, then they'll be less entertained by "normal" humor, i.e. knock knock jokes, schoolhouse rock, etc., and eventually the humor will get so oblong that the earth may explode.

i dunno, maybe I'm overreacting here. Comedy has it's own fluctuating ways. I hope we can circle back around to the Bugs Bunny days, or atleast the Dexter's Lab days. :/

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read to escape reality. I want things to be different from the world I am in. If I wanted my world, I would write it and be told it was improbable. MJ keep on (w)riting.

8:32 AM  
OpenID theunknowndancer said...

I was following Alice Hoffman on twitter when the Boston Globe review drama went down (For those who missed it, Hoffman lashed out via twitter at reviewer Roberta Silman over what was a mostly-good review, calling Silman a "moron" and tweeting her personal phone number). I hadn't read Hoffman's work at that point, but had heard good things, so I lost a lot of respect for her over the incident. She looked immature, foolish, and frankly, somewhat unstable. The point about authors responding to their reviews is a good (and timely) one.

As far as the complaint that things just "wouldn't happen in real life" I find that this is sometimes the result of a reader's limited literary vocabulary. Often, ReaderJoe finds that something about the story/novel/film/whoseewhatsit bothers him, but he doesn't yet have the language or reading experience to articulate exactly what that this is. So, because ReaderJoe can't yet speak in terms of details or story elements, he zooms out, and finds fault with the general world of the story. "This couldn't have happened," he says. One example of what he might have actually meant (as several other commenters pointed out) is that the character's motivation was not strong enough to drive his/her behaviors. Or maybe the character was too "acted upon" by the outside world and did not take enough agency in her own life. Etc, etc.

Or, as Maureen suggests, there has been a shift away from the outlandish and strange in favor of the formulaic and expected.
My favorite book at the moment is Miranda July's brilliant collection of short stories, "No One Belongs Here More Than You." When I talk to others who have read it, they often say something along the lines of, "It was really strange, but I liked it." As if the strangeness is not a strength but a weakness. I find strangeness and absurdity and complexity beautiful and human--these details are, for me, the things that make a story worth reading and worth telling.
Yet, I don't think the tendency toward an expected formulaic story is necessarily a current trend. The things that are most popular are and pretty much always have been somewhat mediocre. If you go see that top grossing romantic comedy, you'll probably be able to guess the ending; there probably won't be too much along the way to surprise you. Not that there's anything wrong with enjoying these things (I love a good RomCom) but they are often popular because they don't rock the boat—they don't shock or offend.

On a different note, also touched on in the comments: I am someone who reads a lot of nonfiction. I love memoirs and find them to be just as artistically viable as novels (though in a different way.) I actually believe that nonfiction writers need to do less fancy 'writerly' footwork when they incorporate strange details and plot twists. Because the conceit of the memoir (James Frey aside) is that these things actually happened. Whereas, the reader of fiction understands that the story is the product of someone's imagination, and thus, her "BS" detector is especially piqued.
As far as real life being boring, and fiction acting as an escape from this-- I understand where this comment comes from, because the daily grind of work or school can feel this way. Yet I don't think there's anything about the story of one's "real life" that is boring. Life is painful and difficult, unexpected things happen, and people do strange, outlandish things. Both fiction and nonfiction edit out the boring parts, the sections that don't matter. Why else would we read it?
So. I just set out to comment on a blog post at 1:00 am and accidentally wrote a little essay. Sorry. Home for Xmas break and hiding from the family. Can you tell I'm itching to get back to school?

9:35 AM  
OpenID theunknowndancer said...

I was following Alice Hoffman on twitter when the Boston Globe review drama went down (For those who missed it, Hoffman lashed out via twitter at reviewer Roberta Silman over what was a mostly-good review, calling Silman a "moron" and tweeting her personal phone number). I hadn't read Hoffman's work at that point, but had heard good things, so I lost a lot of respect for her over the incident. She looked immature, foolish, and frankly, somewhat unstable. The point about authors responding to their reviews is a good (and timely) one.

As far as the complaint that things just "wouldn't happen in real life" I find that this is sometimes the result of a reader's limited literary vocabulary. Often, ReaderJoe finds that something about the story/novel/film/whoseewhatsit bothers him, but he doesn't yet have the language or reading experience to articulate exactly what that this is. So, because ReaderJoe can't yet speak in terms of details or story elements, he zooms out, and finds fault with the general world of the story. "This couldn't have happened," he says. One example of what he might have actually meant (as several other commenters pointed out) is that the character's motivation was not strong enough to drive his/her behaviors. Or maybe the character was too "acted upon" by the outside world and did not take enough agency in her own life. Etc, etc.

Or, as Maureen suggests, there has been a shift away from the outlandish and strange in favor of the formulaic and expected.
My favorite book at the moment is Miranda July's brilliant collection of short stories, "No One Belongs Here More Than You." When I talk to others who have read it, they often say something along the lines of, "It was really strange, but I liked it." As if the strangeness is not a strength but a weakness. I find strangeness and absurdity and complexity beautiful and human--these details are, for me, the things that make a story worth reading and worth telling.
Yet, I don't think the tendency toward an expected formulaic story is necessarily a current trend. The things that are most popular are and pretty much always have been somewhat mediocre. If you go see that top grossing romantic comedy, you'll probably be able to guess the ending; there probably won't be too much along the way to surprise you. Not that there's anything wrong with enjoying these things (I love a good RomCom) but they are often popular because they don't rock the boat—they don't shock or offend.

On a different note, also touched on in the comments: I am someone who reads a lot of nonfiction. I love memoirs and find them to be just as artistically viable as novels (though in a different way.) I actually believe that nonfiction writers need to do less fancy 'writerly' footwork when they incorporate strange details and plot twists. Because the conceit of the memoir (James Frey aside) is that these things actually happened. Whereas, the reader of fiction understands that the story is the product of someone's imagination, and thus, her "BS" detector is especially piqued.
As far as real life being boring, and fiction acting as an escape from this-- I understand where this comment comes from, because the daily grind of work or school can feel this way. Yet I don't think there's anything about the story of one's "real life" that is boring. Life is painful and difficult, unexpected things happen, and people do strange, outlandish things. Both fiction and nonfiction edit out the boring parts, the sections that don't matter. Why else would we read it?
So. I just set out to comment on a blog post at 1:00 am and accidentally wrote a little essay. Sorry. Home for Xmas break and hiding from the family. Can you tell I'm itching to get back to school?

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Jason Black said...

MJ sez:

"If the book is “realistic,” then the coordinates have been predetermined. Weirdness is not encouraged and will not be tolerated."

To which I say people who think this way have clearly a) never tried to write interesting fiction, b) never tried to write _historical_ fiction.

I've done a couple of historicals, and honestly, having done so I don't understand why everyone doesn't, for one simple reason that I rediscover every time I set about researching a historical period in which to write:

Actual history, the history of things which have actually happened (and thus by definition are 100% probable), are almost invariably much weirder, more random and utterly bizarre than anything my own feeble authorial mind could have dreamed up.

History is full of amazing plot twists. History kicks the crap out of the only mildly bizarre fictional events we put into our books.

Anybody who thinks well written "realistic" fiction is too weird should be wholly ignored, as they clearly demonstrate such a limited world view, one so fantastically ignorant of things that have happened in the real world, as to not constitute a sufficient data set from which to make that criticism in the first place.

IMHO, of course.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with this post entirely, but especially with what you said about reviewers and authors. I'm a reviewer, and trust me, there ain't no special qualifications to become one. I once had an author email me after I wrote a bad review and she was so mean to me in the email, meaner than I was in my review. I guess I was the first bad reviewer she ever had to deal with. For years, I felt guilty about giving her that review, but your post made me change my mind: Just like authors have the right to write about what they want, reviewers too have freedom of speech. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of this, and good post.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Emanuel said...

@Maureen: you didn't happen to cross a certain Amazon book review from late Dec 09 by any chance, which in-turn inspired your little blog post here?
http://www.amazon.com/review/R1BA0D6J2GS59/ref=cm_cd_pg_pg1?ie=UTF8&cdPage=1&cdSort=oldest

Unfortunately, the author has deleted her comments since the incident, making following the conversation a bit tough. You can find a summary of events here:
http://kbgbabbles.blogspot.com/2009/12/author-wtfckery-at-play-sad-case-of.html

10:52 AM  
Blogger Jodie said...

I have a friend who when we were teenagres said she didn't want to watch the Stuart Little film because it would never happen, yet now she is totally happy reading Harry Potter. Sometimes people do not think things through. I am slightly afeared about this though because many of my favourite books would never happen, sadly dragons were not really involved in defeating Napoleon (I like history, but a girl with a history degree I think certain big events would only have been enhanced if dragons, unicorns or space leopards had played a significant part in it).

My only 'realistic peeve' is if the author suddenly makes something astonishingly odd happen which allows them to conveniently sort out a plot problem. Like for example four books into a series it suddenly turns out that the ordinary teen heroine has just the right hidden super power to save the day. If everything makes sense within the novels world I am very happy.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Christine Johnson Books said...

I'd like to consider the possibility that all of those comments are coming from one driven-but-misguided soul who has created myriad Internet identities in an effort to popularize their message.

No, it's not a probable theory, but I write books for a living. The vaguely possible idea always captures me before the probable one can catch up.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I agree with you. Thank you for saying this :)!

I see that type of review on Amazon a fair bit and it kind of annoys me(I read 1-star reviews for the lulz, what some people lack in logic they make up for in amusement). They're missing the entire point of fiction, even "realistic" fiction has "unrealistic" elements because it's a STORY, not a textbook.

This blog reminded me of the time I was explaining the plot of Each Little Bird That Sings (which is a lovely little book about a girl whose family runs a funeral home) to a friend of mine and when I finished she looked at me and said "Oh wow. See, I read NORMAL books..." What's a normal book? Is this some new genre I haven't heard of?

5:30 PM  
Blogger Melanie said...

A large portion of the time, for me, at least, probable ends up as seeming predictable. I watched The Birds for the first time last night (seriously), and my friends and I spent the better part of the time talking about how improbable some things were. Would someone really walk into a room when they hear bird wings flapping after seeing a person dead from a bird attack? Probably not. At least, I hope not. It does make things a lot more interesting, though.

6:39 PM  
Blogger rae said...

Very interesting post! (PS: Huzzah to BBC America and The Birds.)

6:56 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Beautiful post, Maureen! Furthers my theory that many people are really boring and/or afraid of new things, but hey.

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to Man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middleground between light and shadow, between science and superstition; and it lies between the pit of Man's fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination."

7:55 PM  
Blogger almost a trap said...

This is why I rarely understand the criticism that books and movies are "contrived." (I say rarely because it does make perfect sense sometimes.) Stories can't exist without coincidences. If James Kirk's father's ship wasn't exactly where the Romulans would come out of the wormhole in the 2009 Star Trek...there would have been no story. Of course the probability of that happening in the wide infinity of space is slim to none...but it did, so that we can have a story.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Freakish Lemon said...

I agree with everything you've said here, including the bit about 'reviewer qualifications.' A lot of the times, I've found that reviewers for big name publications or whatever aren't looking for the same things in a book (or movie or video game or whatever), which is why I started reviewing books on YouTube. It's gotten to the point where I have friends who call me whenever they're at bookstores so that they can find a good book because I can tell them exactly why I thought a book was good or bad.

And I've pretty much given up on the human race as a reading species. I work in the Writing Center of my college and 4 out of 5 students haven't even cracked open the book they needed to read for their papers, never mind reading and comprehending a book on their own. It's disheartening.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kaylene said...

I'm working on that Becoming a Reviewer thing right now. At the moment, I do it for free, but it would be so cool to get paid to read. That is seriously the coolest thing ever, aside from getting paid to make stuff up and getting paid to play video games.

Where was I going with this?

I don't think I've ever read something and said, "that would never happen," but I'm with you: that's scary! The best thing about a good book or movie is that anything can happen, because it's not real. The only time I'd ever question something would be if a character acted completely out of character for no reason. Then it's okay to say, "that would never happen."

10:05 PM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

Very thought provoking post. I always thought the point of a novel was to lead the reader down the road of possibilities. Heck, if I wanted "reality" I'd put down the book and take in my surroundings. As a reader, I'm reading to suspend reality and embrace the possibilities...good or bad.

Also? I'd totally and completely forgotten about the A&P story! You took me right back to Freshman English class. :)

10:06 PM  
Blogger Molly said...

I wasn't aware that the "purpose" of fiction was to show you an incredibly likely view of life. How dull! When I read, I expect (or at least like) to be challenged in some way or taken on a journey, following in somebody else's footsteps- either reading thoughts and views that are similar or those completely opposite of my own. Fiction as a whole would be so incredibly boring if everything was supposed to work out this way or that, and it all does. While I haven't read Devilish (yet), all of your books so far have shown incredibly human characters who are forced to jump outside of who they are expected to be, and grow. Girl at Sea and 13 Little Blue Envelopes challenge Clio and Ginny in more literal ways, while The Bermudez Triangle, The Key to the Golden Firebird, and Suite Scarlett challenge their heroines in an emotional or mental way. Are some of the plot lines more likely to happen than others? Perhaps, but are they completely improbable? Never.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Mush said...

Maureen, your wisdom is a treat. I'm looking forward to you're sci-fi novel. But so and so better make out in it!

11:00 PM  
Blogger Marisa Birns said...

I'm often told that "this couldn't have happened" and that's when I'm relating something about my day!

But if I wanted real life, I'd go and sit in a coffee shop and just look at people and pretend I'm not listening and write down what they say. And use it later in a story.

Ok. So I do that but still...

Normality is overrated. And boring. And doesn't make a good story, just an okay business report.

Your post is not normal. Yay!

12:16 AM  
Blogger nephyo said...

I think it's more a matter that people want stories to be "believable" and for different people the threshold of what they can believe differs. Internal Consistency, (what you call "logical") is the minimum standard of believability for most people, but it's entirely possible for someone to have a higher standard before they can suspend their disbelief enough to find a story agreeable to them.

I agree that a lot of people have a hard time believing any and all things that aren't maximally probable and I think that's rather sad, but I suspect most of the time when you get reviews like this it's usually with regards to certain areas where they couldn't accept the improbable elements. i.e. some people have a hard time tolerating improbability with regard to deity/faith interactions, others can't accept improbability in character reactions. A person who loves cats might get pissed off if you have cats that don't behave like they KNOW cats do.

Just as with cats, I suspect that if you identify with a character A LOT only to find at some point that character behaves in a manner that you would never do, the dissonance there will likely cause you to complain that it's just "too improbable"! Or if something happens to that character which you would HATE to happen to you you might even be more annoyed and likely to write a condescending review.

You actually can write a fictional story that is really probable and still have it be powerful and meaningful. For example, you could write a fictional story about the most probable future of our planet and it'd be exciting and interesting even if you only use all the highest probability assumptions. Because life itself can be pretty amazing even when probable things are happening. It would just be a kind of future-history.

In other words people are just different. It's more a matter of matching people up with reading the kinds of fiction works that suit them rather than a failing in the writers.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Stephanie Perkins said...

FANTASTIC post :)

Thanks, Maureen!

1:09 AM  
Blogger Kat said...

I completely agree. that's all there is to be said really - other than that this was really funny too and wonderfully written. ^_^

1:27 AM  
Blogger April said...

I feel like weird outlandish things happy to people every day which surely cannot be 'probable' but it happens consistently.

You make some very excellent points!

BTW, Suite Scarlett is soooo not probable. Just kidding, it's pretty amazing.

Also, I am on tenterhooks for your space leopard story. :-)

1:35 AM  
Anonymous Rochelle said...

This concerns me as a weird person too!

I just spent like a hundred hours watching the Twilight Zone marathon on SyFy this past weekend. I commented to my friend that this show would never work today. Today's consumer (be it a viewer or reader) is much too knit picky and looking for every opportunity to criticize whether something could happen or not, because that somehow marks us as smart. Today's answer to the Twilight Zone is something like Lost, where we can settle in for something improbable if it goes the distance.

As for fiction, I'm with ya. I don't quite understand how the word fiction gets lost on people. I for one am not terribly interested in what's probable. That's what People magazine is for.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Jess said...

Amen to this, Maureen.

I, being a mere child of fourteen, only can rely on the reviews of my peers. This can be extremely annoying at times because they don't want to hurt my "feelings" which does not help me whatsoever. I need crueler friends. :P

5:27 AM  
Blogger Alice said...

'or “Why haven’t so-and-so made out yet?” even if so-and-so are related'
- I have reliable information that these are all Cassie Clare writing under different pseudonyms.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Snottlebie said...

Great post!

I completely agree with this. I relish the weirdness and oddness of a book, especially if it takes place in a mundane, everyday place, hehe.

"Snarky" = win

5:43 AM  
Anonymous Kenzie said...

I tried to suggest a book for this person once. First, I suggested this totally awesome book that I read in, like, a day. Gone, by Michael Grant. He read the back, then said "no." So I tried again, and again and again. So then I was like, "how about Harry Potter"? I mean, everyone loves Harry, right? Well, apparrently he doesn't like Harry Potter! Because: it's not realistic. Seriously! His favourite series is the House of Night by P.C. Cast and daughter, (I'm sorry, but I really didn't like those books, haven't read the 4th and up.) and the Vampire Academy series (never read them). How are vampires "realistic"!? So, as John Green said, there are two types of books. one that you can easily relate to and the other that can take you to a different world. (or something like that, it was a long time ago.)

Anyways, can't wait 'til Scarlett Fever is coming out! (I might wait until it's in paperback though)

Also, my school's band program is going to New York for Spring break. (there's only 11 students going so it's not like a lot of people) but (if you read this) where would you suggest going?

9:14 AM  
Blogger Pauline said...

What I've discovered is that many people do not think about their aversions and cannot explain their criticism in a logical manner. They could not have liked your work for a host of reasons: they read it too slow, too fast, disagreed with the values portrayed, they do not understand your style, or they have aversions to your word choice, among many other idiosyncrasies. But when you ask them WHY they didn't like something, the simplest answer is "that's dumb" or "that would never happen." I mean, hey, I used to write like that.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

I remember A&P!! Somewhere deep in the repressed memories of writing class... Anyway...
My favorite quote about normality (normalcy?) comes from Halloweentown, when the MC (whose name I forget) is complaining to her grandmother about how weird her town is, and she just wants to be normal or whatever. Her grandmother replies, "Being normal is vastly overrated."

10:13 PM  
Blogger Anri Brod said...

I love the post, and I agree with many of the previous posters: I think (I hope) a lot of times when people use "It not probabe" as an excuse, they mean it in terms of either a character that does something that doesn't fit with their personality, or a convenient plot point brought in to wrap up the book. Both these make the book seem forced.
I also have to agree with Melanie. Being a fairly rational person, it does annoy me a bit when people don't use their common sense in books - or movies. But then again, some people don't have much common sense or practicality, and sometimes you just forget, so maybe that's not so far off...

12:37 AM  
Anonymous blissfullydazed said...

I see your point wholeheartedly, Maureen. I remember reading a review of this nature (the "this wouldn't happen" type nature) for a certain book about envelopes of a certain color, and I just felt depressed. How sad that someone could think that nothing like that happens in real life.

Really! I personally know someone who had was sent to Europe as a teen. One of thousands of teenagers, I'm sure. And one hears of novel-esque things happening in the world all the time. A story like Meg Cabot's "The Princess Diaries" happened in reality (think Prince of Monaco's California daughter).

I liked your comparison of this way of thinking to that of someone experiencing a new country or a new food (or a talking hampster) for the first time. Their idea of "normal" (to use a word that shouldn't be in my vocabulary) is so concrete that any contradiction to it is disconcerting. They want to reject it. A person's idea of reality can truly deprive them of the potential reality holds. The truth is, ANYTHING can happen. Anything, I sez.

I do understand the point made by other commenters about bizarre happenings that don't fit in stories; I mean, yeah, if it's a talking hampster story, and the hampster has ambitions of going to law school, he wouldn't all of a sudden decide to elope to Vegas with a lizard ex-con who later eats him. Or...maybe he would. I don't know. Point is, I got what they were saying. In that case, though, there's a problem with the story's structure, or it has the "out-of-character" syndrome previously mentioned. It breaks from the story's reality, but it still has nothing to do with Our Reality.

Or does it?

In any case, good job as always, Maureen. The purpose of fiction is to give us something to think about and enjoy, maybe teach us a few things. Though personally, I think life is a big novel that is enjoyed most by those who have a little imagination.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Bex said...

Hmm. Okay. I have a few thoughts.

My first thought is about Twilight. It certainly isn't realistic, but it sells. Why? Because teen girls feel like they can live vicariously through Bella. Yet the series is actually pretty formulaic. Girl meets boy. They hate each other at first, but it turns out the hatred is really love. But then he leaves her. Another guy appears in the picture, but then the girl and the original guy are reunited and live happily ever after. I've basically just pieced together parts of plots from many different romance novels and movies. Many girls are comfortable with Twilight as a series because it fulfills their expectations. Barely after starting the first book, you know that Edward and Bella are going to fall in love and be together forever, because that's the formula.

But your books aren't formulaic. You tell stories that are unpredictable and a little weird (which is why I like them so much). You write a novel about three girls, two of whom end up in a relationship. But it ends unpredictably, and somewhat messily. What happens next is up in the air, which is what makes it realistic to me. LIFE is messy. We don't always get a happily-ever-after or a truly solid conclusion to each phase of our life. I think people who review your books as "unrealistic" are uncomfortable with the idea of breaking the mold. They're willing to hear the same story over and over again, because the same story is different than their lives. The story they want to hear is neat and tidy, and they like it that way, because it makes them feel like they can achieve that kind of formulaic neatness in their own lives.

But the thing is, we need to be more comfortable with breaking the mold. Our survival depends on it. Art needs to evolve, otherwise it will stop being art and instead become simple imitation. Art has a great power to shape humanity, and when art becomes formulaic, we will too, which is a major problem. Our survival as a human race depends on our ability to innovate and to adjust to new challenges and environments. Without innovation, we'll never be able to solve the problems we face, and without adaptability, we will be stuck in a rut as a culture.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Laura B said...

I think I have the opposite problem. I think that books are realistic, so I expect to see Harry Potter chasing down Voldy and Clary and Jace running about NYC and Ginny and Keith making out in France.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Liane said...

I'm glad you wrote this post! I took a film class last semester and the textbook went into this whole thing about how a lot of people judge films on how realistic they are, but how realistic a film is is kind of irrelevant to how good it is. I guess, like books, films tell stories and the purpose of a story isn't necessarily to present a realistic representation of something in life.

8:10 PM  

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