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?