Gritty realism… yes or no?

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Now I’ve started to write this post, I’m finding I’m not quite sure how to do it. I know what I want to say, but the question is how to say it.

I guess I’ll forget trying to be elegant and sophisticated and just go ahead. I’m sure you’ll cope.

To me, every book has its own ‘atmosphere’ which is almost independent of plot – it’s far more to do, I think, with the personality of the author because it derives from their writing style.

The Harry Potter books are actually a pretty good example of this. They all have pretty much the same plot – Boy Wizard And Friends Defeat Evil Villain (and this is not to say that J.K. Rowling’s books are not imaginative – they are; but there are only a limited number of book plots to go around). However, if you read all seven of them, the ‘atmosphere’ definitely changes. Books one and two are much lighter; book three (Prisoner of Azkaban) marks a watershed. After that point, the following books are much darker. Is this because Harry and friends are older and are dealing with bigger problems – or is it because Rowling’s writing style has changed and matured as she gained experience? I don’t know the answer. All we can do is wait to see what she writes next and how it goes.

Take Mercedes Lackey; I’ve read quite a few books of hers, and they’re all light and bright, although not necessarily trite. Her books do not put you through the emotional wringer; you’re always sure that the good guys are going to win in the end.

At the opposite extreme is George R. R. Martin. I suppose we should all be grateful that he confines his homicidal impulses to his poor defenceless book characters; if he’d been gunning for real people he’d have depopulated North America by now. If you’ve read any of his Game of Thrones books you’ll know that being a main character is not only not any kind of guarantee that you’ll make it to the end of the series, but quite often you’d better not plan on making it to the end of the book. Or chapter. Never mind ‘nice guys finish last’ – under Martin’s regime, nice guys generally don’t finish at all. Violence, murder, incest, depravity – Martin’s got it all. Emotional wringer? Oh, yes, you’d better believe it.

Then we’ve got the writers who want to be ‘realistic’. Or even ‘grittily realistic’. This is apparently what Rowling was aiming for with A Casual Vacancy; she includes rape, drug use, corruption, bullying, child abuse… in one book. Those books which are touted as ‘realistic’ or ‘grittily realistic’ do tend to concentrate on the more miserable aspects of the human condition. I’ve never yet come across, say, a romance between two happy, well-adjusted individuals, marketed as ‘grittily realistic’ – yet surely there is as much love in the world as there is hate? Or even if there isn’t, why should ‘realistic’ always mean a concentration on the worst parts of the human condition?

Worse yet, I’ve read books that got rave reviews for their ‘gritty realism’ and ‘courageous dealing with issues’ and I’ve loathed them. The book characters were mostly people I didn’t like, and actually I didn’t even care what happened to them. And the plot was just depressing. It certainly wasn’t ‘realistic’ in the sense that it had a connection to the way the majority of people live their lives. Yes, there are unfortunate people who live in the depths of squalor – but why should the literary world count only books that describe this sort of situation as ‘realistic’? Isn’t it realistic for people to be happy, even some of the time? Aren’t characters who are likeable, or at least have some good qualities, realistic? It makes me wonder what kind of childhoods literary critics had, and what kind of people they know.

I am not a literary critic, and given what some of them write, I don’t think I’d want to be one. It doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be. But here is what I think:

Realism is good, but over-doing the squalor is no more realistic than too much sickly-sweet happiness. You need a balance.

If you are dealing with Issues in your book, please pick an issue and stick with it. Do one thing, and do it well. There is no rule that says you only have to write one book. Your next issue can wait until your next book. If you try to deal with too many issues all at once, you will end up not treating any of them with the depth and detail that they really deserve – or you’ll have to write a series, not just one book, in order to get it all in.

Characters. Please, authors, think about it. If we readers are to spend two or more hours of our time reading your book, then there needs to be a reason. We need to care what happens to at least one of the characters enough to want to invest the time finding out. If all of your characters are either unrealistically repulsive (nobody is absolutely without redeeming qualities… OK, I can only think of one person. But even Hitler liked dogs) or plain dull, why on earth should I read your book? Your characters don’t all have to be nice (some authors do go too far the other way and the reader feels like they’re going to drown in syrup) but really, guys, be realistic.

So now you know what I think. What do you think?

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