Is your fictional book not realistic enough?

After years of seeing quotes reblogged constantly on Tumblr, I finally got around to reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I am more than aware that I’m pretty late to this party. After reading the first few letters I decided to check out what Goodreads thought of it, generally speaking it was all high-praise, but every now and then a reviewer would drop in the phrase ‘It’s not believable that…’ ‘It’s just not realistic…’ ‘Nothing like that would ever actually happen…’

This really bugged me.

We meet Charlie, a teenager about to start high school, through letters that he writes to an unnamed ‘friend’. In the first paragraph Charlie tells his reader that he ‘will call people by different names…’ so already we have a ‘Call me Ishmael’ style unreliable narrator, but I’ll set that can of worms to the side. What I really want to ask, is how do we define a book as realistic?

The Literary Realism movement kicked off in France in the mid-nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century many ‘realist’ writers focussed on detail, with the idea that by giving inconsequential details that have no bearing on the plot, the world created would be more realistic. The main concern of these writers was to write about contemporary life and society as it was. This is a pretty narrow definition of ‘realistic’ writing.

Three days ago Garth Nix, author of the excellent Old Kingdom Trilogy, tweeted that ‘Science Fiction must seem intellectually real. Fantasy must feel emotionally real…’ There are, as is true of everything, many holes to be found in this statement, but in my opinion it hits closer to my experience of reading than the twentieth century realists.

One review of Wallflower that I came across suggested that is was simply unbelievable that a boy would discover masturbation at the at of fifteen. Aside from pointing out that every teenager experiences puberty uniquely, I can’t help but feel that this assessment misses the point. Stephen Chbosky doesn’t so much write about what Charlie goes through as how he thinks about it, I don’t think the details of when and what are important, masturbation could be replaced by any other teenage experience, Chbosky’s writing about how a shy, socially awkward, but incredibly smart teenager deals with growing up.

In another review, someone had observed that it’s just not believable that Charlie feels emotions as simply happy or sad. I don’t believe that this is at all what Chbosky was trying to suggest; Wallflower is a first-person narrative and so there is a clear distance between what the character experiences and what the character tells us. Charlie doesn’t feel such binary emotions, that’s just how he categorizes the myriad of emotions that he feels and can’t understand.

For me, the reality or believability of a novel isn’t based around whether I can imagine the events of the book taking place in real life. Instead do the reactions, interactions and emotions of the characters seem honest and like a genuine expression of humanity functioning.

Last week, I went with my family to see Life of Pi, so I’ve started reading that (yet another party I’m super late to), so no doubt within the next month or so I’ll write about the difference between fact and truth in fiction.

What makes a book believable for you? Comment below, or tweet @ElisabethShuker.

One thought on “Is your fictional book not realistic enough?

  1. Hi Elisabeth,
    I would firstly like to point out that I’m not a stalker… I came across this after browsing The Looking Glass Anthology twitter page and the next thing I knew I was reading your post. I thought I probably shouldn’t comment, because this is going to look so strange, but I’ve had similar thoughts to yours. The Perks of Being a Wallflower to me never seemed like an expression of the factual incidents of a boy growing up, but his internal thoughts. I just couldn’t agree with you more and, as you say, the Literary Realism movement is problematic in itself since relating detailed incidents and conversations doesn’t necessarily make Middlemarch ‘realistic’ if one is to acknowledge the many unlikely coincidences!

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