Reality Bites: Why Are So Many Readers Obsessed With 'Realism'?

07/24/2012 03:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012
  • Peter Mandel Washington Post contributor, children's book author.

If you are like me, your best shot at end-of-a-hard-day escape isn't TV. It's a book.

Fiction, in particular, is what you run to when you're up to your ears in what's thought of as "real life." It's where you go to wander around in a very different world for a while.

But there's a growing sense among readers, and among some reviewers, that a well-written piece of fiction is one that works overtime in depicting details of its place and time.

I first noticed it with movies and TV. Break-room chat began to obsess over logistics. Did the actor playing Jefferson in John Adams have his hair curled correctly? Was Slumdog Millionaire dissing India with its depiction of Mumbai? The series Mad Men, and its take on 1960s Madison Avenue, has kicked off debates about whether the drinking, the skirt-chasing and even the cut of the characters' lapels are "real."

Book talk seems to have picked up the theme. Could the relationship in Bernhard Schlink's The Reader really have existed given the constraints of life in postwar Germany? In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, did author David Wroblewski accurately describe the challenges of a character who was born mute? Even in the case of the novel, A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, I've heard complaints, not about the quality of the writing, but about the way one of the characters tries to poison another "using minuscule doses of arsenic."

Give us escape-craving readers a break, I say. Since when did fiction -- whether on a screen or in a ream of pages -- hinge on the quality of its imitation? When we get drawn into an Ian McEwan novel or take our seat for hours in the dark with Eugene O'Neill, aren't we leaving day-to-day realism in the dust, at least for a time?

Must there always be an eye on whether a story is true-to-life? The fabric of a tale has to feel right, I admit. We need to be invited in. But these days we're off the deep end when it comes to fussing about the details in art and forgetting the rest.

Maybe it's because we live in an age that loves its hard-edged information, that's all about a guilty or innocent, a zero or one. Truth is, we're losing the knack of separating stories from histories -- of understanding the difference between a provocative bit of dreaming and a provocative fact.

As a children's book writer, I confess I often miss the differences myself. But I worry that the lines between different categories of writing have begun to blur. In response to a new fictional picture book, I received emails pointing out that it "wasn't fully researched." Or that a character was "unfairly portrayed."

This is, of course, fair game. I've got to take my lumps. And when it comes to fictional worlds, most -- including mine -- are stuffed to the roof with fantasy. The characters run around doing all sorts of dopey and downright ridiculous things. We writers wouldn't have it any other way. Does this mean that we support our characters' bad behavior or that we think the universe of our books is somehow real?

I can't speak for other writers. But I can say this. All I care about when I knock on the door of someone else's made-up world, or try to create my own, is that it be interesting. Different. Funny. Even maddening or provoking. I'm a hibernating bear: I need art to prod me to wake up.

What I don't need is to be locked inside some luxuriously furnished but boring slice of life. Mad Men is adept at nailing the nuances of Madison Avenue, and the same may be true of next month's novel that happens to play out in a New York City neighborhood. So what?

I don't know about you, but I've had a tough day at the office. Let me escape from perfectly described steel-case desks, period brands of pencils and authentic water cooler turns of speech. If there's a novelist left out there who has survived the reality critics, please get to work as quickly as you can. Tell me wild lies. Invent a detailed world that's inaccurate in every way.

I am your reader. And I am ready.

Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House). Also, recently out, is his children's bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook).