I've been scanning a lot of reader reviewers lately - on B&N, on Amazon, on GoodReads - and I've noticed that recurrent use of a single word, generally to pillory a book and/or justify a 1- or 2-star reveiw. And that word is
At the risk of this sounding like a high school essay, let me quote the dictionary definition:
Definition: Deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.
Synonyms: Forced, strained, studied, artificial, affected, feigned, manufactured, unnatural, labored, overdone, elaborate.
That definition sounds a lot like the definition of "genre fiction" to me. Is anyone going to argue that Eve Dallas and Roarke, living as they do sometime in the future, with Roarke the wealthiest and most powerful man in the world, are fully believable? Or that lovable dipstick Stephanie Plum could really become a bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey? And how about all these serial killers, who seem to be commonplace, instead of the psychopathic anomalies they really are? And are we to believe that delightful, isolated villages like Three Pines host at least one murder a year, or maybe a few of them?
You see what I am getting at. Crime fiction by its very nature is contrived. (The same goes of all genre fiction, in my opinion.) It has a start and an end, with a plot that a writer has manufactured to keep the reader interested and the story moving along. And the pages are populated by characters - not people. People wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, get the kids off to school, go to work, come home, read the mail, and fall into bed exhausted. Characters decide to conduct an investigation of their own, do P.I. or police work for a living, and become embroiled in a series of events very much unlike those experienced by people on a daily basis. This is why fiction is (or should be) fun to read. It's so much more interesting and action-packed than daily life. And so much more contrived.
So I wish reviewer-types would be a bit more carful about throwing the word contrived around. Because, as I see the word used, it's a criticism of a plot twist, or a betrayal, or a set-up, or the finding of a clue, etc. Without these tropes, what would our beloved genre look like? Well, it would look like "literary fiction," which, with all due respect to those who write it, doesn't exactly sell like gangbusters and gets remaindered awfully quickly.
I really don't understand some of the approaches to reading I see in these reviews. (Well, I suppose I understand it; I just don't agree with it, because it doesn't make sense to me.) Why would someone choose to read a book about a serial killer (generally one knows it's about a serial killer, because flap or back-cover copy will tell you that, as well even the briefest glance at an Amazon page) and then complain about the body count? Why would someone choose to read a modern treasure-hunt tale like The da Vinci Code and then complain about its outlandish theories and twisting of facts/interpretations? It's fiction, for God's sake, not a textbook.
The willing suspension of disbelief is not only a requirement for reading crime fiction; it's also, for me, one of the great pleasures in life. I mean, in real, uncontrived life, I have to watch to make sure mechanics aren't ripping me off. I have to watch my rear-view mirrors at all times to make sure I don't wrap myself around a telephone pole. I have to do an awful lot of stuff for this job that isn't what I really enjoy doing (which is reading and editing manuscripts). So to be taken away to a world where none of that workaday stuff really matters - where everyone is so much more interesting than I am - is a sheer pleasure. I don't like to read flap/back-cover copy too intensely because I find that it STILL, after all these years, gives too much away, but I do sort of scan it quickly. Doing so tells me what to expect, what the book is all about, and how I should approach it. A village cozy? I'll expect some wit and a nice atmosphere where neighbors congregate in a pub. Hardboiled? I'll expect to spend time with some very unsavory characters whom I would avoid like the plague in real life. A thriller? I'll expect a somewhat outlandish ride that keeps me turning the pages. A classic detective novel? I'll expect a game of wits with the author and a series of clues that should help me figure out whodunnit if I pay close enough attention.
I can accept much or all of what happens in these fictional universes. But there is one place where I'll lose my patience - and that is when the plot is advanced by a character's stupidity. Think Tippi Hedren going into that attic in The Birds when she knows she really shouldn't. Most protagonists aren't dumb these days; so I lose patience with a book in which supposedly intelligent people do really dumb things. And when characters (police or otherwise) overlook something that is staring them in the face... that's maddening, too. (I can think of one book whose plot would have collapsed if anyone involved, including FBI and local police, had thought about taking someone's fingerprints. I kept waiting for that epiphany to dawn on someone. It never did.) This is simply lazy writing, and I think such books deserve all the criticism they frequently draw - because they are indeed contrived in the worst sense of the word.
And a quick follow-up to last week's post, in which I'd detailed my initial reactions to Lars Kepler's The Hypnotist, which I'd been about 33% through at the time of my posting. I finished the book and enjoyed it overall, even though there are some pretty gaping plot holes that I had to acknowledge and then let go. I like the way it sort of spins out into bizarre, unexpected places. Smilla's Sense of Snow, another imperfect work, did that, too. But, reading so much formula as I do, I like when strange and dormant volcanoes erupt. The Hypnotist certainly won't have the mass appeal that Stieg Larsson's books do, but I do think it's found a readership that finds it provocative despite its flaws. And I just ordered my copy of the sequel, The Nightmare, which I'll be taking on vacation (even though the typography on the cover, in the word "Nightmare," is shockingly bad).
The reason I bring up The Hypnotist is because, as usual when I finish a book, I went in search of reader comments. Many, many of the 1- and 2-star reviews fixate on the reviewer's inability to "like" the main characters, Erik and Simone (and, to a certain extent, the detective, Joona Linna). Now it's true that Erik and Simone are both self-centered and given to drama. But let me ask you this: How many people do you know, yourself included, who are NOT self-centered? I know I am, as are most mammals with the survival instinct. Erik and Simone are flawed, and I wanted to shake each of them a couple of times. But I found the story involving, and events of the story DO make Erik and Simone come to an understanding of their marriage and some of their behaviors - a nice arc there. So I find more evidence to support what I said last week: That many readers demand "nice" "likeable" "lovable" characters and get quite angry when protagonists or narrators don't meet these expectations.
And this all dovetails nicely with this week's post - Nice, likable, funny, generous, warm-hearted, brilliant characters are by their very natures contrived. So why do critics complain on the one hand about contrivance, and on the other hand about unlikable characters? Clearly they don't see how their own arguments deconstruct themselves.