Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Non-Gritty Realism

I know I said I was shaking up my routine, and here I am posting at around the usual time, but I did change my routine this morning. Normally, the first thing I do after I eat breakfast and get dressed is get on the computer and check my e-mail. Today I took a long walk, then took a shower. I put in a load of laundry, then had my second cup of tea while reading the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale catalog that came in the mail (it doesn't look like I'll be buying a lot of clothes this fall) and then did some brainstorming on the next project -- all before I went to my office. So this is a change of routine. I didn't even get online until almost 9:45. I may get really wacky and not go online until after therapy tomorrow.

I found myself a chick flick to watch last night. I'd bought a few DVDs at the soon-to-be-closed Blockbuster nearby, and one of them was Miss Potter, a biopic about author/illustrator Beatrix Potter. It counted in several chick flick categories. It had romance in it, and it was a costume drama. It had English Countryside porn (since Potter was also big in land conservation and preserving the countryside from development, donating something like 4,000 acres to the National Trust). There was historical costume porn. There was Ewan MacGregor singing (though with a truly hideous mustache that, interestingly enough, seems to have been Photoshopped off the DVD cover/movie poster). The story did have a tragic twist, but still had a happy ending. It also gets into some of the creative process for a writer. It would make a good double feature with Finding Neverland.

I'd say that the weak link was Renee Zellwegger. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Longhorn, but she's developed some annoying acting tics that seem to have started with Bridget Jones. Her way of being "British" or "prim" seems to be to squint and purse her lips. It reminds me of when I was very little and playing tea party, and the way very little girls seem to think that the way to be very proper and classy is to purse their lips, talk in a high, fruity voice and raise their little fingers when they hold a teacup. Some director really needs to break her of that habit because it's starting to get seriously distracting.

But the movie's addition of happiness to the tragedy -- it was a true story, so they couldn't exactly ignore real events, but some storytellers/moviemakers might have been tempted to stop at the tragic part and act like that was the ending -- made me think of one of the panels from the conference this weekend. The topic was whether fantasy fiction needed to be realistic. We'd talked about how the real stuff needed to be real enough to make the magic special (if everything's magical, then nothing really is), but then the topic of "gritty realism" came up, along with the question of why "gritty" seems to be the only accepted modifier for "realism." Is the gritty view any more valid than a more optimistic view?

I mentioned the fact that some of the criticism my books get is that they present a sanitized, unrealistic view of New York. But I'm writing exactly what I've experienced. I know that in the 70s, the city could be something of a hellhole, and my first trip there was in 1994, just at the beginning of the Disneyfication of Times Square, when there were still signs of the way it used to be. But these days, in the time period I'm writing about, I think most of Manhattan is safer and cleaner than Dallas. I feel far safer walking the streets alone in New York. I've never seen a crime being committed. I've never felt nervous about walking around or riding the subway. I know that there are areas in the city that aren't safe, but I don't go there, and my characters have no reason to go there. Tim Powers joked that apparently my books aren't "realistic" because there isn't a junkie with a needle hanging out of his arm lying in every doorway. It's almost like in urban fantasy the "city" has become this one kind of place, and the entire city is like that -- kind of like the way some science fiction has homogenous planets, like the ice planet or the desert planet or the jungle planet, rather than planets that have all of those things in different places. The city is the city, and it's all the bad parts of town, aside from maybe the isolated wealthy enclaves where the grit and vice just happen behind closed doors in prettier surroundings and the "real" city dwellers aren't welcome.

Meanwhile, there's the view that happy endings are unrealistic. The literary crowd sneers at romance novels because it's so unrealistic for people to fall in love and end up together. I may be single, but most people do get married, and while a third of all marriages end in divorce, that means nearly 70 percent of couples don't get divorced. So, what's more realistic and true to life, getting together and staying together, or having something go horribly wrong? I'd bet that there are far more people who meet someone, fall in love, and then get married than there are who meet someone, fall in love and then have their true love die tragically before they can marry. Even when that does happens, or if the spouse dies after the marriage, or even when there's been a divorce, that's usually not the end of the story. Life goes on, and the remaining person may find love again.

So, to sum up, "gritty" isn't always "realistic." I'm not saying it can't be. There are stories where the realism should be gritty. But happy and nice should be equally valid. I'm not sure I'd want to live in a world that was really like what's often portrayed as "realistic."


Chicory said...

I'm glad you mentioned the whole statistic of people who get divorced, and how misleading it can be. Most of the married couples I know (including my parents) are still happily married, but people (especially people who aren't married themselves) insist on warning me about how hopeless marriage is, and how it'll all just end in divorce. No, there ISN'T some grim fate standing on a cloud waiting to throw the lightening bolts of divorce at married couples. It Is A Choice. (There, end of tirade. It just REALLY irks me when people try to rule out personal commitment with their `life is tough so don't bother' attitude.)

Anonymous said...

Yes! And I'm a reader of yours at least partly because you *do* write "light" fantasy. I don't like the grim stuff myself. Honestly, I think life is pretty great, and I don't really have a whole lot of interest in reading depressing books that seem unrealistic to me because they have people wallowing in misery in one of the richest, healthiest, safest countries in the world. My husband loves Law & Order, so I get plenty of depressing New York from that, I don't need any more. I'm a big fan of writers like you, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, Robin McKinley, Gail Carson Levine, etc.

Oh, and I totally agree with just about everything Chicory said.