Sunday, June 15, 2008


A couple months ago, Neil Gaiman posted a bit of writerly advice on his online journal:

Nobody gives you allowances for fantasy, just as nobody gives you allowances for romance or history or even non-fiction. It’s called suspension of disbelief, and when you’re writing it’s what you’re doing and what you’re building, and it’s soap-bubble thin. It pops easily.
Part of me wants to climb up on the rooftops and proclaim this tidbit. After all, narrative writing is about weaving a waking dream and weaving it tight. Each part ought to run seamlessly into the next until the reader finds himself staring at the back cover in a pleasant daze and wondering how he got there so quickly. Such a narrative drapes itself over a reader’s days and weeks (and sometimes his life) so that he glimpses parts of its pattern in the world’s mundane details. This is truth, amen and amen.

But the implication that suspension of disbelief is entirely the author’s concern, that “nobody gives you allowances,” makes me bristle. Sloppiness or laziness ought not to be tolerated, but otherwise allowances are what readers offer from page one. They want to explore impossible worlds or uncover criminal conspiracies or find undying love, and they want to allow the author to take them there. As Anne Lamott notes in Bird By Bird, we come to books looking to be manipulated -- not crassly, but as if by a masseuse.

There is, of course, a kind of reader who derives delight chiefly from cataloging a work’s shortcomings. These are the pickers of nits, the back porch critics, the perpetually unimpressed, and their ranks have swelled in recent years if internet discussion boards are any evidence. Perhaps it’s due to our culture’s entertainment glut. Perhaps it’s because of literary theories that elevate the reader and deny the coherence of any text. Whatever the reason, this puts the author in the unenviable position of writing for an increasingly unsympathetic audience that is ideologically opposed to submitting to another’s viewpoint. The bubble has grown very thin indeed.

That Gaiman apparently acquiesces to this burden is baffling, especially given that one of his most successful novels contains a jaw-dropping error -- a witch sharpening an obsidian knife with a whetstone. But the impossibility of honing glass in such a manner hasn’t dulled the enjoyment of millions. Nor should it. Authors aren’t God. Their standard is excellence, not perfection. And if they provide the former, the least we can offer them is our deference.

(Picture: CC 2007 by

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