Ruminating on Suspension of Disbelief Versus Expertise in Fiction

Words read "“It’s to all of our benefit if people contribute their expertise.”

Each of us has areas of knowledge that we’re more familiar with due to our own experiences. Which might make it harder to get into a story that veers into territory we’ve got a lot of familiarity with, especially if the work contradicts what we know about it.

This is just anecdotal, but I remember hearing about people with police experience having a harder time getting into crime thrillers, and even women who specifically avoided reading about female protagonists. I have personally put down a novel that made an inaccurate reference to Russian culture. (I grew up in America and am definitely first and foremost an American, but I was raised by Russian parents.)

Most recently, I read a genuinely amazing book that leaned on science harder than the average novel does–and overall, did a pretty good job with it, considering that the author isn’t a scientist. But there were still a few things that rubbed me the wrong way, enough that I don’t feel comfortable naming the book or author because I don’t want it seem like I’m calling them out over anything.

I’m a writer too, and I know the impossibility of getting everything right. Sometimes because it’s just too much knowledge, and sometimes because we’re primarily storytellers–accuracy doesn’t always make for the best story. So sure, the burden of perfection isn’t on the author. (Note that I’m specifically talking about professional expertise here–there’s a little more responsibility involved with representation of groups that have been exposed to systemic prejudice.)

But that doesn’t mean that specialists on a topic should keep quiet, either. It’s to all of our benefit if people contribute their expertise. So when we read a novel and enjoy the story, but also have access to articles clarifying how it might actually work in real life–that’s an optional addendum, which doesn’t obligate authors to get everything right, but does add information. And potentially useful information, too.

(Of course, I still won’t name the book or author that prompted this post, even though I freely admit it’s a five-star read for me. I’m keeping to my decision to avoid criticizing novels–especially as a professional in the topic I’m criticizing. All other forms of media are still fair game, however.)

Likewise, readers aren’t obligated to get over that lack of immersion they might feel when a story contradicts what they know. That novel I read which leaned on science was good enough for me to get through the moments of discomfort when something jolted my suspension of disbelief. The incorrect cultural reference broke my immersion so early on in the story that I hadn’t gotten a chance to get into it by then, and didn’t bother to keep trying.

All of that is okay.

Sometimes I feel like we aren’t always comfortable with dichotomies. But there isn’t anything wrong with allowing authors to write stories without being perfect (which is impossible), but also letting readers share their knowledge (without acting like that’s an accusation against the author).

If we can deal with people making criticisms based on how a story might have been well-crafted, but didn’t work for them personally…okay, never mind. We haven’t figured that out yet, either.

What I’m saying is, all of these things don’t have to be in opposition to each other. Instead, they can complement each other, and maybe that’s a healthier way of thinking about it.

Have you ever had your immersion in a story broken because you were too familiar with the topic? Did you continue reading, and if so, how did it affect your experience?