I’m listening to a cozy mystery on audiobook. You know the sort of thing I mean: no gore, no guns. Just a puzzle and a well-behaved British sleuth working it out. I wasn’t too many chapters in before I thought, “this may just be too cozy for me.” At first, I thought it was a certain tendency of the author to include too many non-telling details: she turned right on Such Street and walked north to Another Street before proceeding west on Yet Another…she folded her newspaper under her right arm. But as I closed in on the three-quarter mark in this book, I realized that I had yet to meet an unpleasant character.
There’s conflict: World War I and its aftermath, the struggles of a character transcending her social class…I’m not a huge conflict addict myself, I can make do. But when I realize that I’m reading a book with the breakdown of social class as a theme where no character shows any attachment to the old ways, and the high-class characters show no evidence of reluctance to change, vested interest in a system that privileges them, or snootiness toward a ‘social climber’…I stop believing.
I harp a lot on the Vivid Fictive Dream described by John Gardner in Art of Fiction, so maybe you’re sick of it. But this sort of thing — a world with no jerks, no snobs, no self-absorbed idiots making trouble for characters — breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief. We’re used to accepting, even if we feel a few steps removed from them, flawless protagonists (perhaps especially in mysteries) but flawless supporting cast? Flawless extras? An entire Europe, hell, an entire World War with no human flaws? It’s cloying, and it’s unbelievable. As Agent Smith says, “The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
I love escapist literature. I have comfort books where the hero saves the day and all evil is defeated. These are not particularly realistic things, but a good author can make me believe in them — and one of the ways you convince me to believe in your happily ever after, in spite of everything I know about human nature and the capacity things have to fall apart, is not to lie to me unnecessarily on the way. Gardner tells us that the novel “imitates the world in all its complexity”. That means jerks and petty tyrants, even if you’re not telling a story that needs epic tyrants or sociopaths. The thing about readers is we want you to lie to us, but we want you to tell us a lie we can believe.