Fiction and Pretext

I tend not to read realistic fiction.

For some reason, “family drama,” “high school angst,” or “coming of age” tales in the here-and-now don’t appeal. In general, that is; there are certainly exceptions.

Maybe it’s a lingering reluctance from the days when realistic fiction was elevated above “escapist” literature (“escapist” indicating a work with hints of fantasy, sci-fi, or other elements that are not immediately applicable to readers’ situation) and when realistic fiction had a strong bent toward exhorting readers toward conformity to social norms. (I hadn’t been born during this trend’s heyday, but surely the attitude of suspicion could be absorbed by osmosis?)

Maybe it has to do with hope. In some circles, apparently, for a tale to be realistic, it must be gritty and dark, and everybody must come to a sticky end. Which kinda contradicts one of the most beautiful defining characteristics of children’s literature, that no matter how difficult and unjust circumstances are, there is (often, not always) a ray of hope.

Or maybe it’s that I find historical novels, murder mysteries, fantasy (set in the present or in the past), sci-fi, legends, myths, oral- or fairy-tales and other works of distinctly non-realistic literature easier to relate to. After all, there’s no pressure to see myself in any of the characters when they aren’t in similar circumstances to my own – and so I find in them close companions and sometimes mirrors, if only in small aspects of their natures, of my own behaviour.

Or perhaps it simply has to do with pretext. A murder mystery is an excuse to study how people behave under great pressure, a breath of air which frees us from the frivolous inanity with which we are bombarded daily and holds out the gift of time, space, a reason to contemplate our own mortality. A murder mystery asks us to examine human ties, both for good and evil, and how close or meaningless our various relationships may be in the face of evil, and to consider what behaving decently under fire might look like.

A historical novel has the allure of the past. The past may be romanticized or made to seem harsher and less endurable than it really was. The scope may be vast or minute: an intricate weaving of those lives deemed significant, or the struggles and joys of the long-forgotten “small people.” A history may support the blusterings of empire or tell what the official texts omit; it may offer a revision of canon or seek to expand upon the lives of those in power, and the people behind those in power. A story set in the past has the advantage of being familiar – we all know what the past was like, or we think we do; an image, however blurred at the edges gives us the comforting impression that we know what it was like back then – and at the same time, bewitchingly exotic, because it is not the here and now, and people do not dress the same, the rules of society are different.

Fantasy – well, fantasy. The great “what if” of magic and Other creatures. Fantasy promises a land nothing like our own – but akin enough that we can understand, or at least pick up the dialect of this strange other place. Fantasy is an extended game of pretend, an utterly absorbing world that is cannot be, and yet is: invisible, yet real and no less powerful for its invisibility.

And sci-fi, the other half of the same question of “what if,” also full of extraordinary abilities and unknown life forms, but this game has the premise of unimaginably advanced technology, a slightly less arcane source of power, if no less extraordinary.

All of these genres – mystery, historical, fantasy, sci-fi, and realistic – contain tales of marvelous adventures and daring feats. I think the difference – in my mind, at least – is the pretext. Realistic novels don’t offer one, beyond the relationships and situations in the novels. Mystery tales offer those same relationships and situations, but add a purpose to reading: to find who did it. Stories set in the past call to the history buff in me: did you remember this era/battle/law/person which frames or is shaped by the story? Characters in fantasy and sci-fi may have the same problems of cruelty, discrimination, or a similar journey to adulthood as the characters in a realistic novel. The fantasy or sci-fi offers more pretext for reading about the same situations as I decipher an unfamiliar world and the situation besetting the protagonist at the same time.

Or maybe it is a question of hope, after all.

Thoughts?

  • Maybe a dissociation from the present allows for a better backdrop to showcase universal themes? Also, school days tend to evoke very strong, very personal and very different emotional responses in each individual based on their experiences; those experiences and the thoughts, memories and emotions associated with them can overwhelm within the reader any sort of theme which the book might try to present. It’s really the same with family stories and period-grounded coming of age stories. Family stories for similar reasons to school days stories. Coming of age stories, if they are grounded in a real-world-present will be harder to relate to for those without that same frame of reference. Fantastical frames of reference can be a bit of a leveling of the field because we can project our own experiences into that without necessarily having to concern ourselves with real world social or political issues (which can be incredibly uncomfortable!) that might affect the protagonist in ways to which we cannot immediately relate.

    • Janet

      That’s a very good way of putting it!
      There’s also the element of discovery. I may draw comfort and inspiration from protagonists in whatever novels who have faced situations similar to mine, but I would resent someone shoving a book at me on the grounds that I could learn a lesson from the characters. I mean, we do learn from the characters (or at least from the ones we love). But growth and anything taken away from the novel needs to be voluntary, and it may take a half dozen rereadings before the something for which you remember and love the novel ever after for clicks – and this generosity with time (the effect of the reader goin on the journey and not being made to think a certain way) is partially created by the different space of novels not set in present or similar circumstances.
      Which is a lot of words to say, I think you’re right and I like what you wrote 🙂

      • Thanks! I think that’s why the Telling was one of the only Hainish books I didn’t really like. While I could relate to the ethnicity-unspecified museum curator linguist in Rocannon’s World, the black tribal leader descended from space colonists 500 years earlier in Planet of Exile, and even the mixed-race catman trekking across post-apocalyptic north america in City of Illusions, I had a hard time with the girl from Jakarta who’d grown up Vancouver who was observing the alien world. Maybe because just two books earlier civilization on earth had been destroyed and I couldn’t reconcile that there would be a Jakarta or Vancouver in any meaningful, relatable way a millenia after the destruction of and recolonization of the terran homeworld? Sure, all of LeGuin’s Hainish books could get preachy at times, but I think that they worked best when dissociating themselves from real-world-issues-on-the-real-world.

  • I think because this novels are realistic they are close to home and hard to read because we cannot suspend our judgement as readers. We may be familiar with the experience or the character and we think of the outcome and weigh it against what we would actually do. In some ways familiarity does breed contempt . I’ve read quite a few of coming of age stories before and my like or dislike for a novel comes down to the level of likability of the character. I realize if they remind me of someone too close to home that i don’t like I’d most likely feel the same way. Second is how acceptable the plot movement or outcome is to our reality. When it feels contrive, unbelievable or overly dramatize the realistic fiction becomes hard to like. I seem to always judge a realistic novel on the basis of probability, do the reactions and situations seems truly probable in the real world and logical to the presenting problem. Again, this adds to making realistic fiction difficult to like.
    But I also think its easier to read it when your far from the situation. I learned to appreciate coming of age novels in my late 20s. Also, i think any kind of literature as its perfect timing. I never really liked science fiction until recently and mostly because i felt it too far removed from reality compared maybe to fantasy. But now in my 30s I enjoy some science fiction thanks to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

    • Crazy coincidence: I had not even read your comment when I had brought up the Hainish books! I was super-sad that Genly didn’t end up with his OTP 😮

      • Indeed. I just saw your comment referring to the Hainish books. I haven’t actually read the Hainish Books. I have only read The Left Hand of Darkness fairly recently. I’m quite new to Science Fiction 🙂

  • Realistic YA fiction reis not my favorite either. It leaves much to be desired for me, often, because 1) I am in my twenties now and can’t really relate to children or teens anymore. I *was* a teen once, and I remember it well, but the book isn’t going to resonate with me as well as its intended audience and 2) a lot of people simply write boring characters.

    Personally, I prefer using fiction as sheer entertainment, which is why I like fantasy and sci-fi. I don’t want to feel like I’m “in” the story, or that I “am” the character. I would rather follow a character who I’d be friends with – not a character who I see myself in. I like seeing myself in villains, because that makes the story intriguing, but I’m not fond of the self-inserty “we can all relate to this story” trend that’s happened with protagonists lately. Stop making the character empty and bland for me to “step into her shoes.” Make her interesting so I’ll care to keep reading about her.

  • I like what you said about the lack of hope in realistic stories. This seems a perennial problem with any literature. What is considered serious, or realistic, tends to be dark and gritty, while “frivolous, escapist” literature actually has some of the most poignant moments of joy and hope I have read.
    That tone is what young adults really need. Teenagers are already going through a lot emotionally, and often are depressed or scared. Feeding them dark, depressing stories may not help them mature out of that phase of life. The children’s reviewer Megan Cox Gurdon addresses this kind of thing, actually, in a talk she gave a couple years ago; “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books”

  • Great post. I share the same likes and many of the thoughts on book genre.
    I think that part of the reason that I also would prefer to escape to another time (forward or backward) or another land or planet is because, for me, reading is an escape from every day life. I’ve lived with people with illnesses or did the drama, love, other real life scenario. I would rather remove my mind entirely from the problems I am, or have, encountered.
    These open my mind to other possibilities, as well. They allow me, in a world that doesn’t always encourage imagination, to let my mind take off in a space ship that only goes down and land with creatures that live off of sound or any other situation I could not otherwise fathom.
    Love your writing!