Sunday Salon: If I Read It in a Book, I Wouldn’t Believe It

Some of you might remember that back in May, I went to BookExpo America and the Book Blogging Convention in New York City and that I had the opportunity to spend some time with Rachel of Book Snob and Jenny of Jenny’s Books (aka Other Jenny, to distinguish her from Proper Jenny, who blogs with me here at Shelf Love). Only a few of you, however, know the second part of the story.

In early July, my best friends from college (including Proper Jenny) and I went to New York for our annual Girls’ Weekend. It was a quick trip in which we ate good food, went to see Sleep No More at my insistence (Hecate talked to me!), and did some sight-seeing. One of the sights we were particularly eager to see was the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Medieval art, located way, way, way, uptown. So on Saturday morning, the four of us take the subway uptown. As we emerge from the subway, I hear a voice and I turn around, and there is Other Jenny! And she’s waiting for Rachel, and they’re going to the Cloisters! So I make introductions all around, and we make plans to meet up at the Cloisters. It was wonderful to see them again, and I know the two Jennys were happy to finally meet each other.

I bring up this story not merely to drop a few names of excellent blogging friends, but because it put me in mind of how life can in fact be stranger than fiction. I know maybe five people who live in New York City, and the odds of running into one of them while on a short visit would be long indeed. But it happened. Yet if I were to read about just such an incident in a book, my likely reaction would be to snort in disbelief.

But real life is full of these kinds of “no way” moments. Like the time my car died while I was at just about the exact midpoint of a four-hour drive home after a weekend away. This was before cell phones, so I was stuck waiting for help, and who should come along but the cousin of one of my best friends from high school? Two hours from our hometown? Or the time I worked as a camp counselor at a camp 350 miles from home—and one that no one back home had heard of. The man who owned the land adjacent to the camp happened to once own land right next to our family farm. If I’d read it in a book…

It’s not just coincidences either. There are also those events that are too quirky for fiction. There’s the time I had a job in which the person in charge of putting up Christmas decorations in the office was Jewish! Could an author get away with putting that in a book? (She volunteered, by the way, and she included Hanukkah decorations and made a point of asking around to see if there were other December holidays celebrated by people in the office. But the overall decorative theme was  Christmas-oriented, and she seemed to take immense pleasure in putting up the tree.)

There was also the time I nearly broke my ankle stepping off a stage at a Karaoke bar (and I was stone-cold sober). If an author included that in a book, particularly a book about a 20-something single professional women, I’d roll my eyes at the quirky-cute clumsiness chick-lit writers tend to give their heroines. Same deal with the time I got my car stuck on a ledge in a parking lot. (In my defense, I thought the ledge was a speed bump; I was actually in the parking lot to turn around and return to the community theatre where I’d left my glasses after removing them to try on costumes.)

All this makes me think about our expectations for fiction. We often want our stories to be believable, but sometimes life itself is not all that believable. If an author is going to use coincidence, that author needs to have a darn good reason. Kate Atkinson, for example, uses coincidence in her Jackson Brodie novels, but she makes it into a motif, a theme even. Coincidence is also important in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, where characters and images (turtles, bears, the number 19) show up again and again, so often that it has to have meaning.

Even without making coincidence part of the story, a skilled author might be able to get away with one bizarre coincidence, because they do sometimes happen in life, but pile on too many that are too convenient for adding drama or resolving problems, and it ceases being believable. As I’ve read the Morland Dynasty series, I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the convenient deaths, something the author might have gotten away with once in a book, but do it several times in a long series and it starts to look like a crutch (and probably one of the hazards of writing a long-running series). The same applies to quirky events and characterization. Too much quirkiness, and the book feels artificial (The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, I’m talking to you). But provide some sort of stable core, like the ultra-serious Mary Russell in Laurie R. King’s marvelous adventure/farce Pirate King (review coming Tuesday), and goofiness can whirl around that core without making the story feel false (if in fact a story about real pirates in a silent film about a film about real pirates in a silent film can feel at all real).

What do you think? Is there a point when coincidences become too much in fiction, even though our own lives are peppered with them? Have you experienced things in life that you wouldn’t believe if you read it in a book?

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45 Responses to Sunday Salon: If I Read It in a Book, I Wouldn’t Believe It

  1. Iris says:

    Another thoughtful Sunday Salon post. I have wondered about this before. Sometimes, coincidences seem too convenient for fiction, but then, they do happen in real life. It is weird how there are different rules governing both..

    • Teresa says:

      It is strange! I guess it has something to do with knowing there’s someone guiding the events of a novel, so you know it’s false and it has to work harder to seem real.

  2. gaskella says:

    Teresa – Great post! I love coincidences like this – of course there are only six degrees of separation, so probably statistically they’re not always as random as they seem – or are they?!

    One of my favourite authors, Paul Auster, uses coincidence a lot in his novels, and in The Red Notebook, he writes an essay on the subject and especially the coincidence that was the inspiration for his debut novel(s) – the New York Trilogy.

    • Teresa says:

      One of my co-workers pointed out when I told her about meeting Jenny and Rachel that as highly populated as Manhattan is, the actual physical area is not that great, so it’s not as strange as you might think to run into someone you know there. But still, I rarely run into people I know here in Alexandria, which is much smaller, and I know tons of people who shop at the same stores I do and everything

      I’ve never read any Auster–he’s been on my list for ages, and I really ought to give him a try.

  3. Deb says:

    Let me second Gaskella’s reference to Paul Auster and the role coincidence plays in his writing. He also edited a collection for NPR called I THOUGHT MY FATHER WAS GOD which includes a number of anecdotes in which coincidence plays a role. A lot of those real-life events were interesting to read, but I certainly wouldn’t believe them if they occurred in a work of fiction, they would just seem to capricious, too much the author “making” things happen.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I heard some of the stories from that project when it was on the radio, but I don’t remember any in particular. I do remember when the collection came out.

  4. What a timely, excellent post! I confess, I am one to roll my eyes and say aloud, “yeah, right” while reading when I come across coincidences. You are so right, though. They do happen consistently in our lives. I need to give authors a break. :)

    Recently I read about a man who became completely enamored or more like obsessed (not crazy, creepy obsessed) with a woman he saw on stage. My first thought was that his reaction was totally ridiculous, and I did roll my eyes. However, soon after I thought his reaction really wasn’t that far-fetched (it sure felt like it at the time, though). I remember in my youthful, unmarried days becoming totally infatuated when meeting someone that interested me. So the guy in the story was 40, so what? My point being that even emotions that seem outlandish in print can be based on real life, too.

    I believe that our own personal experiences are what shape our thoughts regarding what’s acceptable/believable in what and why we read. However, being a little more cognizant of those experiences can help in our reading life.

    Am I going to stop rolling my eyes? No. I think it’s an innate reaction. But, I will ponder a bit more when I come across those unbelievable scenes that are filled with coincidences. I’ll delve into my memory a bit deeper to see if maybe I’m being a bit rash in my dismissal.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! :)

    • Teresa says:

      Great example! It is interesting how our own experiences and expectations about how life works affects the way we respond to fiction. When characters behave in ways that are totally contradictory to what I or anyone I know would do, I can be quick to write their behavior off as unbelievable, but people act in ways that don’t make sense—even to them—all the time.

  5. Eva says:

    Loved this post! :D One of my great grandmothers met & married my great grandfather after immigrating to upstate New York, only to discover that their family farms shared a property line back in Alsace-Lorraine! They’d never met in Europe, though.

    • Teresa says:

      What a great story! I’ve heard similar stories about immigrants (maybe even read one in a book somewhere).

      And what you say about 19th-century lit made me smile because I have a much greater tolerance for coincidence there, because it’s part of the package, than I do in contemporary fiction. But if it was OK then, why not now?

  6. Eva says:

    Forgot to add, I think my steady diet of nineteenth century lit has greatly increased my comfort level with coincidences in fiction. It takes a lot for me to roll my eyes! ;)

  7. Frances says:

    I certainly have a much lower tolerance for coincidence in fiction than I do for the same in real life, but that is not to say that I do not enjoy those fictional moments. Sometimes it seems wonderfully natural and most frequently happy while in the hands of an author that is struggling with material can be downright annoying. For me, that eye rolling moment comes most frequently at the ends of books where the author has unleashed something so unwieldy that they cannot satisfactorily conclude it. So a coincidence does it for them. Grrr.

    Thanks again for Pirate King! Made my holiday weekend. xo

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, exactly. So often it seems like a way of writing characters out of a jam or resolving unresolvable problems. (That’s what happens a lot in the Morland Dynasty books; I didn’t mind it the first time, but now it’s a serious problem in an otherwise fine series.)

      And I’m so glad you enjoyed Pirate King! Seems like the perfect light read after all those intense novellas :)

  8. I’m with Frances. I don’t have such a tolerance in fiction. (And it’s odd you mention Atkinson because she was EXACTLY who I was thinking of.)

    But since you mention your coincidences, I have to share one of mine:

    The first time I went to Italy, I arrived in Venice late, and the sweet man who owned the bed and breakfast just knew since I was from Texas I would know this other guest who had just left the week before. The other guest was from Austin, I had no clue who he was, but he insisted I contact the man and gave me his info (highly irregular, I know). I dutifully wrote the info down, and he told me the man had come to buy a gondola for his restaurant in Austin. Weeks later, I was telling my grandmother about my trip, and she mentioned her best friend’s son had just gotten back from a trip to Italy where he went to buy a gondola for his new restaurant, located on Lake Travis in Austin…. IT WAS THE SAME GUY. And honestly, it gave me crazy goosebumps. Weirdness. I would never have believed it if it hadn’t happened to me.

  9. I agree with you that Atkinson does a great job with coincidence. Jo Nesbo is good at it also, although it’s not as central to his stories as with Atkinson, but it usually slyly creeps in.

    When Jim and I got married, we were about 9 hours from home, and we needed to grab some witnesses, and ended up grabbing a couple who lived about 9 MINUTES from us back in Tucson. We’ve stayed friends ever since. (not me and Jim – ha – but us and that other couple) (I don’t know if that counts as a coincidence)

    But in any event, I think we tend to be more suspicious of coincidences in fiction than in real life. A couple of mystery authors spoke about that at the Tucson Festival of Books – how, when they took incidents from real life (from the newspapers or whatever) and incorporated them into their stories, readers would complain that the whatever was too unrealistic!

    • Teresa says:

      Wait, you mean you and Jim haven’t stayed friends? ;) And yes, that definitely counts as a coincidence, and a happy one!

      How funny about the mystery authors’ comments. Definitely shows how much higher our standards are in fiction.

  10. I just had this come up in a book I read. I was annoyed at what felt like manufactured melodrama — too many bad things happening to the same character too close together. But then a commenter reminded me that life sometimes happens that way, bad things come in waves and we learn to deal with it. I thought it was a great point, and I’m not sure exactly what I think about it just yet.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh yes, that does sometimes happen in life. I know people who seem to be magnets for problems or who have periods of one disaster after another, but in a book, my reaction would probably be the same as yours.

  11. MJ says:

    I agree – too many coincidences annoy me in fiction. That was one of my problems with Bleak House – all of the eleventybillion characters were somehow connected. It was just too much. Like Mark Twain said “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

    • Teresa says:

      That Twain quote is perfect!

      As I told Eva, I’m more tolerant of coincidences in Victorian literature because it feels like part of the package there. I guess readers then must have been more tolerant of it too. (And that gets me wondering about changes in religion and world view–if the dominant belief then was that God has a guiding hand over the world, it stands to reason that such engineered events would be acceptable in fiction. Hmmm…)

      • DKS says:

        Dickens was the first author I thought of when I saw this post — specifically, I thought of Mr Micawber just happening to pass Uriah Heep’s open front door while David is in there, talking to the son and his mother. “Copperfield!” says Micawber. “Is it possible?” Readers were possibly more tolerant then, but the author doesn’t treat the incongruity casually, he makes Micawber go on: ‘this is indeed a meeting which is calculated to impress the mind with a sense of the instability and uncertainty of all human—in short, it is a most extraordinary meeting.” And that obligation to stick to possibilities hit him particularly hard when Bleak House came out, and he felt he had to defend the death of Mr Krook by pointing out similar deaths in newspapers and articles. (This was after several critics had scoffed at it, and called it too convenient.)

  12. amymckie says:

    Fantastic point, I’ve struggled with this before too. Sometimes things seem just too perfectly worked out with some coincidence or another but then… real life is often even crazier isn’t it. I think maybe it depends on the skill of the writer outside of that coincidence? I really don’t have an answer still!

    • Teresa says:

      Absolutely–I think it very much has to do with the writer’s skill. As Frances says, maybe it’s when the author is using it to get out of a jam that alarm bells go up.

  13. Emily says:

    Another great Sunday post, Teresa! John Irving writes about this too, how coincidence is frowned upon in fiction but inescapable in real life. I try to adjust my expectations re: coincidences depending on the author—like, if it’s a Dickens or Collins novel I know there’s going to be long-lost sons/daughters/uncles etc. who meet just at the right moment, and that’s just part of the genre. When I encounter them somewhere I’m not expecting, it’s a judgment call about whether or not it works.

  14. cbjames says:

    Several very similar things have happened to me. I ran into a friend from high school I hadn’t seen in over 20 years while standing in line to get married at San Francisco’s city hall. And I’ve run into the same friend from college in New York City and Washington D.C. both times in museum gift shops. It’s a small world.

    I think this sort of coincidence is portrayed well in Visit from the Goon Squad and in the Tales of the City books. This happens all the time in San Francisco. Many people have called it a village for just this reason. If you live there, you’re always running into people you know all over town.

    • Teresa says:

      How funny! Especially running into the same person in museum gift shops of all things.

      As I think about it, I find it startling how rarely I run into people I know in the DC area, and specifically in Alexandria. Part of it I suppose is that the greater DC area is a big sprawling area and not everyone lives near where they work, but I know tons of people who live within a few miles of me, shop at the same stores, and so on, and I hardly ever see them around. Yet I go to New York for two nights and see two of the five people I know who live there.

  15. I once criticised an author for writing an unrealistic plot and she came back with a fantastic response:

    I once met someone I knew on holiday in France and agree that coincidences like this happen all the time. I think the problem in fiction is when the coincidences start to stack up. I can tolerate one or two coincidences in a book, but when they increasingly stretch the realistic then I tend to lose interest. I want my fiction to be believable – I like truth to be stranger than fiction!

  16. litlove says:

    What a great post! I’ve often thought about this and wondered about writing something on it, but have never found the words. You do so beautifully! What I do think, though, is that we turn to narrative to show us how meaning can be made out of our lives. But coincidence is fundamentally meaningless. Things ‘just’ happen, or ‘simply’ turn out that way. That’s not very satisfactory in fiction where we want to be reassured at a deeper level that lives have patterns and structures and resonances. So coincidences are something we can tolerate a bit at the level of plot, but only a little bit!

  17. What a beautiful, thoughtful post! I, too, scoff at coincidences in fiction, yet the examples you gave are all ones I’ve experienced (or some familiarity with). Same with ‘tropes’ that are all too common (broken down car with a sketchy man offering help, etc) — funny how we forgive them in real life but not our fiction. Very thought provoking — I’ll be chewing over your words for a while! (I’m going to share on my blog FB feed, too — I hope you don’t mind!)

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, those tropes are sometimes tropes in life. (I didn’t mention that when I drove my car over a ledge, an actual sketchy character did offer to help, but then a cop came almost immediately, thank goodness!)

      And please do feel free to share!

  18. Jenny says:

    I know I’ve read some books that produced insane coincidences and made them seem viable, but I can’t think of what books they are and how they accomplished it. So this comment, in which I claim that it is possible to make fictional coincidences feel like real-life coincidences, isn’t super useful. It may be that coincidences are often minor in the plots of our lives (although it was lovely seeing you again, and meeting Jenny!), and coincidences in books feel contrived because they’re necessary to make the plot go. When a coincidence makes a book character’s life harder, I find it easier to believe, for whatever reason.

    • Teresa says:

      Wait, you mean that unexpected meeting didn’t change. your. life? I’m crushed ;)

      Anyway, I think you’re onto something when you say that the problem in books is that they too often make the plot go—and they feel like cheatery ways of doing it—but in life they usually just amount to funny stories.

  19. Michelle says:

    I love coincidences but I agree that sometimes, in books especially, they can be a bit too much. When this occurs, I feel books do lose a little (or a lot) of the plausibility which I enjoy so much in fiction.

  20. Kristen M. says:

    I might be the only one here who doesn’t mind coincidences in my story. It’s fiction after all! They’re silly but fun. I think the only time I started getting annoyed was in Tipping the Velvet where every woman Nan met in Victorian London was gay. It just didn’t seem very likely that 90% of Vic London was gay. But besides that one, I think I’m pretty easy going when it comes to coincidences.

    And I need to meet everyone! I’m so jealous!

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read Tipping the Velvet, but yes, that would raise my eyebrows. I think it really only bothers me when it feels too convenient.

      I’ve been really lucky to meet so many bloggers. It’s a great pleasure to know people all over the place!

  21. softdrink says:

    I ran into my in-laws in Sorrento, Italy. Granted, we had planned to meet up the next day, but it’s weird to be walking down a busy street in a totally foreign place and run into someone you know.

    Running into someone you know in NY, though…that’s quite the coincidence!

  22. Cori says:

    I never really thought about this before, but you’re so right. It feels like some things are too unbelievable to be fiction (I’d probably call it out in a book), but then those things happen in real life all the time (like when my tour guide in England turned out to be my mom’s babysitter from when she lived in India..o_O)…so are they really all that unbelievable?

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny and I remarked a couple of times after seeing Other Jenny and Rachel that we wouldn’t believe it if we read it in a book, and that just got me thinking about why.

      That tour guide story is amazing, and I would raise my eyebrows at it in a book.

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