Friday Forum: What Won’t You Believe?

Rachel Manwill

Staff Writer

Rachel Manwill is an editor, writer, and professional nomad. Twice a year, she runs the #24in48 readathon, during which she does almost no reading. She's always looking for an excuse to recommend a book, whether you ask her for one or not. When she's not ranting about comma usage for her day job as a corporate editor, she's usually got an audiobook in her ears and a puppy in her lap. Blog: A Home Between Pages Twitter: @rachelmanwill

Suspension of Disbelief – Def.: A willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

Coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, suspension of disbelief is, in simpler terminology, how much you’re willing to buy into in order to enjoy a book – or even finish a book – without scoffing, “That could never happen.”

Somehow, suspending disbelief has become a judgement on the reader, rather than on an author. And I admit freely that I am much more willing to suspend disbelief  than most literary readers, and for that openness to absurdity, I have felt and been made to feel like I’m not as smart or analytical or professional as other book reviewers.

But I love a good plot – and I’m willing to forgive a lot from an author if the plot is working for me. Even better, if the characters and language are firing on all cylinders, I’m more than willing to stretch the bounds of believability. As Wallace (and many commenters) suggested in her Would You Rather post, plot-focused people are more forgiving of a multitude of authorial sins.

But even I have my limits. And when they’re breached, there’s usually no coming back.

It doesn’t happen often, but usually my breaking point in believability is about narrative voice. That’s what happened to me when reading Liz Moore’s new novel Heft, due to be published on Jan. 23rd. The book’s synopsis on Moore’s website describes the characters as having “quirky and lovable voices;” I was fine with the first character having a quirky voice, but I had a really tough time believing that a 17-year-old boy speaks so carefully and without contractions or slang. The voice felt inauthentic, and I was pulled out of the story, away from being engrossed with the characters. Ultimately it was too jarring and implausible, and I couldn’t finish the book.

Narrative voice isn’t the only place I struggle with believability.  If a book is largely character- and language-driven, but there’s a major issue with the plot that I can’t completely buy into, I’m not likely to finish a book. That’s what happened with Swamplandia!, Karen Russell’s widely praised debut novel that came out in early 2011. Everyone else seemed to love it, but I just couldn’t fathom the ghost boyfriend plot line and I kept waiting for someone to declare Ossie off her rocker, instead of just going along with the whole charade. But soon the disbelief I felt overtook any of the other high points of the novel (of which there were many), and I had to give up entirely.

What are your limits on suspension of disbelief? Are you more willing than not to buy an unlikely narrative, or do you have a more critical eye?


Rachel Manwill is working toward a Master’s in Publishing and writes about books at A Home Between Pages. Follow her on Twitter: @homebtwnpages