Authors can't get away from reviews. Much as we try to avoid them, there are those times when you must go look at your book page, and there they are, staring you in the face. And I have to admit, readers come from varying backgrounds and interests and personal opinions and, therefore, have differing ideas about books they read -- as it should be. But I've noticed a disturbing trend that, for me, is a bit sad. Some readers can no longer suspend disbelief, even when it's necessary, while enjoying a book.
Suspension of disbelief is a concept we are most often taught in high school lit classes. There are a lot of readers who love romance out there, and many of them understand that the romance genre is not, for the most part, reality. Even so, when it comes to parts of the story that are realistic, they label it fantasy and claim it ruins the book for them. It's sad that, instead of widening our world as we claim over the past hundred years, we've actually narrowed it in many ways, seeing not the many possibilities of how people come to love, marry, live, and think, but how WE love, marry, live, and think -- and believe no one else's experience is valid. But it is. Our world is made up of many possibilities, including ones you might think are fantasy.
I kinda get a chuckle over this when I see it in reviews. "I hate that insta-love stuff. It's so fake!" Really? I have to admit, I didn't come to love in an instant; it took me a while to realize that my husband was "the one." But he knew the day he met me. I've seen posts on Facebook of readers commenting that not only did they fall in love immediately, but they married shortly after (like weeks), often to the dismay of those around them. And when someone trots that out, they most often end with "and we're still together today." Didn't happen to me that way, but it HAS HAPPENED. It's not only in fairy tales that you see someone or speak to someone and know in an instant they are the one for you. Love doesn't come with a strict timeline, thank you very much!
Here's the other reality of romance and "insta-love": readers say they don't want two characters to just fall instantly into love at first sight with each other, but no editor in their right mind is going to buy a book featuring a long, drawn-out courtship (except maybe a historical). Time is necessarily compressed in books, just like they are on TV. Do you think we can really get DNA results in real life as fast as they do on CSI? Heck, no! Do you want to follow the lab techs as they go about their daily business for the weeks it takes to get that info in -- and have the suspect disappear in the meantime? Uh, no, you don't want to see that. Time is compressed so that you, the watcher (or reader) will stick with the story. That's the reality of the entertainment industry today -- what we the entertainees have demanded. It's just how it is.
And then there's the dreaded virginity question...
I'm not sure what it is that people have against virginity. It's almost reverse peer pressure: "Your heroine MUST NOT be a virgin; it's unrealistic!" And God forbid your hero be a virgin, because, ya know, men cannot possibly control the urge to have sex, even if they're raised in monstrous conditions with severe psychological scars (the same goes for women). That's sarcasm, by the way -- I firmly believe virginity is a reality for everyone on the planet, and that the first time comes at its own pace for each and every person, not on a timeline. Jess, in Teach Me, is a virgin. So many reviewers complained about me "trotting out the virgin card." But there was a very good reason why Jess was a virgin, and here it is:
Why? Jess was and is incredibly shy; it's the very first thing Conlan notices about her aside from her eyes. That's why he equates her to a doe. Hesitant, beautiful, SHY. If you aren't shy, maybe you can't understand, but I AM SHY, and that attribute kept me from being very forward as a teen. I didn't get into a lot of parties and other situations that might've led to sex. When you have body issues or are unsure of yourself, you are often left in the background. That's reality. Does that mean shy people never lose their virginity in high school or college? No, but it can go either way.
But that's not all. Jess did meet and start to date in college. She met Brit, her very first "serious boyfriend." College isn't really that old, around age twenty, give or take, for most of us? Brit was helping Jess through a tough situation with her parents' death, and I don't know about you, but if my parents just died and I was in college and I was trying to figure out life from that point on, having sex for the first time might be a bit of a stretchy decision for me at the moment. Not only that, but though she was grieving and uncertain (and SHY, don't forget shy!), Jess felt that something was off about her feelings for Brit and the way he treated her. Given that we find out later he might've had something to do with her parents' deaths, we can intimate that his behavior at that time might've been a bit on the stalkerish side already. Lots of red flags there.
Now, we preach that women should listen to their instincts and not sleep with someone just because they feel it's expected, but I guess some people don't really believe that. They felt like surely in and amid all this turmoil, Jess should've had sex at some point, right? WRONG. She did what she was supposed to: she listened to what her mind and her heart and her body were telling her and said no. And almost died for it.
Surely then she had sex, right?
Yeah, I think if my first and only boyfriend beat me up because I wouldn't have sex with him, I'd run right out and find the next willing partner and... Well, you get the idea. Sarcasm aside, maybe some readers haven't been through a traumatic experience, but I know what it's like to face a terrible situation and then try to rebuild your life on the other side. It doesn't work that way. It takes time, and it takes trust, and Jess finally found that in Conlan. Why is that so hard to find realistic?
A fellow author (whom I love!), Sandra Owens, wrote the K2 series featuring a hero in Someone Like Her who was a virgin. That point of the story caused the biggest issue in reviews: no man who was a SEAL would still be a virgin! Not only that, but the reason he was still a virgin was flimsy at best -- his mother was a prostitute who abused him and his sister, and surely no such woman could ever be even slightly realistic. (Sarcasm again...) And yet that entire part of the story was based in a true life story, Sandra's father's story. That was his life she was writing about in many ways, and yes, it was true. But for whatever reasons, some reviewers felt it was "unrealistic."
I've written before about the writing advice "write what you know" and how we might not be able to experience dying of cancer, but we can relate to the emotions. As a reader, I might not have been a SEAL and decided to remain a virgin, but I can understand the reasoning. I can see the legitimate motivation. I can see someone else's experience -- that wasn't anything remotely like mine -- and empathize with it. That seems to be something some people have lost. I've never seen genocide, but I know it happens. I've never had sex before marriage, but I know it happens, and that it's a valid experience for many people. My own experience is different, for whatever reason, but no less valid. Maybe it's time to bring that tolerance we all talk about to the world of fiction, of romance, and start seeing each story as the adventure it is, the chance to step into someone else's shoes and experience something we ourselves haven't, not just a homogenized plot that reads as exciting as milk by the tenth incarnation.
What do you think? Do you feel some things are just too off-the-wall to believe? Can you suspend disbelief if the author motivates a character's choices well enough? I'd love to know which side of this idea you fall into!