Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Learning Suspension of Disbelief at Hundred Oaks High

I agree 100% with a 1-star review of a book I finished last week.

So I gave it four stars and an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

*sound of tires squealing to a stop*

What?

I don't know about you, but I often read the low-star reviews of a book I'm going to give a high-star review to, and vice versa, before writing my own. I'm not easily swayed, but I'm always interested in what people liked or disliked that I can address in my own review. Along the way I came across a review tearing apart Miranda Kenneally's CATCHING JORDAN for misrepresenting the transition from high school to NCAA Division I-A to NFL football. It made the book too unrealistic, the reviewer ranted. No school is like that and no kids expect that. In my opinion, having gone to a school that sent a lot of kids to D I-A, and then having gone to one of the D I-A schools where the Hundred Oaks High kids end up...

...I agree completely. The football didn't map on to my personal experience of NCAA football at all.

And yet, CATCHING JORDAN works. I loved it.

Why?

One of the reasons HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT are so universally popular, I think, is that the books themselves, while containing fantastical elements, are ultimately about the mundane—growing up, navigating friendships and relationships, finding love. Yes, there are wizards and dragons and vampires and werewolves, but that's not what those stories are about. The stories are about the struggles of characters we can identify with, who you read and go, "I've felt that; I've been there."
And because you can so solidly identify and root for the characters, you're right along for the ride, werewolves and dragons and all.

As contemporary writer, I don't always think about suspension of disbelief—my books take place at real (although fictional) high schools, with kids who don't sprout wings or get letters from Hogwarts. I could easily argue that contemporary YA is automatically believable because nothing is fantastical about it. But the truth is, even contemporary writers have our "dragons:" the things that we need to sell the reader on so that we can bring her along for the ride. And for those, the same rules still apply—connect the reader to the character, and they're along for the entire ride; even if some parts run completely counter to their everyday experience.

CATCHING JORDAN works because even though I have difficulty buying that Jordan has all the D I-A prospects she seems to (though the bit with Alabama did make some sense), Jordan feels all the things I would feel in that situation. Her relationships with her friends, and her brother, and her mother and father are the same sorts of relationships, and with the same sorts of impetuous-decisions/inattentional relationship blindness potholes that I or my friends drove into. And so I find myself rooting for her to win—at football, sure, but also at life.

I have my own "dragons" and "wizards" in my books, I know: the things I have to bring the reader along for the ride. After reading CATCHING JORDAN and thinking about it a bit, I have a sense of exactly how to do that—to bring the reader along, you have to give her something she can identify with, so that the parts that she can't, she'll buy anyway.

It's a good lesson, and I'll be returning to Hundred Oaks High to learn some more.

What's your experience with suspension of disbelief in contemporary fiction? What makes you "buy" (not purchase) a book? Who's done it well, and what did you get out of it?

And speaking of the other kind of buying:

Catching Jordan on Indiebound
Catching Jordan at Powell's
Catching Jordan at B&N
Catching Jordan at Amazon

Read my Goodreads review of CATCHING JORDAN

2 comments:

  1. Really interesting take! I'll give most any contemp YA a shot the first time around, and then depending on how I feel about a book, I'll keep reading by the author or not. I think that for me, because my upbringing wasn't so traditional (we didn't have a football team - or cheerleading squad - at my yeshiva high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan!) I'm actually not knowledgeable enough in when things *are* unbelievable. I research the craziest minutiae when writing because I'm afraid my lack of knowledge will be totally transparent!

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    Replies
    1. Amen to research! I do a ton, but I know there's still some things that will be out of the average readers' experience (not a ton of HS concert pianists, for instance!) and I'll need to grab them on.

      And funny you mention nontraditional high schools--mine technically wasn't either (Catholic all-girls) but it *was* a Division 1 sports scholarship producing powerhouse, as was our "brother" boys school who sent all the football guys to the Big 10. As much as I like Hundred Oaks High so far, I think we need more books about kids at yeshiva high schools or tiny Catholic single-sex schools. That's some teens' experience, too!

      Thanks for stopping by.

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