Have you ever noticed how journalists often imply that you, their reader, do something they want to talk about? They say things, like, “we juggle our Twitter and Facebook accounts…,” as though you are as devoted to these media as their piece is about to assume. They say, “we use sushi as the new vegan…,” as though every one of their readers shares their new-found delight in raw fish. When doing this, they are using the we word as a way of drawing you into the world they want to discuss, to create an intimacy in which the reader is implicit, as though you are as guilty as they of whatever social faux pas they are about to dissect. As readers, we understand this, we acknowledge their attempt at including us, even when we do not feel included because the thing they are trying to nail to our mast is something we do not personally do. But we do, nevertheless, get drawn in, and we feel the intimacy the we was intended to create.
Which begs an obvious question: why do authors not do this in fiction? Why is it that journalists will strive to create an intimacy of experience in journals and magazines that authors do not seek in novels?
That is obviously a big sweeping generalisation, because there will be books written that way, and I wasn’t trying to imply that no writer has ever done that. But they are not common. In general, as a matter of course, on the whole, writers do not choose to suck readers into their stories and make them a character who can not only smell the moss on the cemetery gates but peel it off and throw it away too. So why not?
I think the most important reason is that the journalist and the author are referring to different worlds. The journalist has a right, I think, to expect that you are familiar with the world she inhabits. There are, let’s face it, not that many Daily Telegraph readers in West Papua New Guinea, so that although you may not share the journalist’s penchant for social media you will at least know what Facebook and Twitter are, you will be familiar with how her world works and what is in it, cultural references will not fly over your head leaving a blank expression on your face and a whoosh sound in your ears. So the journalist does not have to explain her world to you and can assume that you are largely, if not exactly, then at least approximately like any average citizen of her world, or at least like any average reader of her newspaper or magazine.
The author, on the other hand, is constructing a world from scratch. He may have set his novel in the past, or on a different planet, or in a time almost like the present except that computers have not been invented. His story may be set in the present but in a place the reader may not be familiar with. The author, therefore, cannot assume that you are familiar with his world from page one, and will need to lead you on a guided tour, show you around and allow you to become familiar with the world his novel inhabits.
That becomes problematic if his use of the first person plural implies that you are beside him, pretending not to be hiding behind him as you explore that dark passageway. “We saw the bars across the passage, and the huge teeth of the Grollick sheltering behind them.” He has to tell you stuff you don’t know at the same time as he has to assume you are standing beside him watching the action unfold. In this situation, readers will tend to get confused about the role they are taking. If you really are there beside him you should be able to see the Grollick for yourself and should not need the author to tell you what you saw. On the other hand, if he doesn’t tell you, then, since in reality you are not actually there beside him, you won’t know what’s going on.
This goes to a concept known as suspension of disbelief. There are two ways of considering suspension of disbelief, and I refer to them by the names of the writers who first brought them to my attention. The Coleridge model considers that suspension of disbelief is a quality or trait the reader possesses. The alternative model, the Tolkein model, considers that suspension of disbelief is a skill the reader can acquire. The difference being that Tolkien believes that the reader can improve his skill with practice whereas Coleridge considers it the author’s responsibility to match his writing to concepts of truth and honesty. We can think of this as being analogous to both writers accepting the existence of cars, they just disagree about who is doing the driving.
Suspension of disbelief is what happens when we encounter something in a story that does not agree with our ordinary understanding of how the world works. It is possible, for example, to have a talking mouse in your story, but for the reader to continue with your story she would have to suspend, temporarily, her ordinary ideas that mice can’t talk and just accept the notion of talking mice into the world your story has created. On the next page you have a flying horse and on the next page a dancing teapot and at some point the reader finds that she can no longer accommodate all these degrees of weird and gives up. In order to carry the reader to the end of the story you have to maintain her suspension of disbelief in these things.
When the author is using we to imply that the reader is there in the story with him, whilst the reader knows full well that she has no idea what’s going on or how the story ends, this makes it harder for her to maintain her suspension of disbelief. There would have to be some payback, like humour, or a character the reader can empathise with to maintain her interest. So writers don’t use we because it makes it harder for both reader and author to maintain their roles.
A second reason is that when a journalist does this, they are usually about to admit something. “We just love that second doughnut with our coffee…,” and they use we to imply that they are not alone in this. They don’t mind admitting this character fault but they don’t want to be alone under the spotlight, so they draw the reader in and make him complicit in their foible. Authors, on the whole, are not admitting anything. They are telling us a story and they might suggest their own involvement in the story, “I passed Lucy the champagne…,” but there is an unwritten contract that they are telling us this story for the first time, that the reader does not know this story because he was not actually there.
So here’s a question for you to think about. If there is an unwritten contract that we are being told the story for the first time, how do we approach reading a novel for the second, or third or fourth time? I am currently reading Don Quixote (1612) for the third time and am enjoying it as much as I did when it was new. I have read Lord of the Rings (1954) six or seven times and The God of Small Things (1997) and several other fine novels at least twice. How is the story being told to me for the first time, even when it isn’t?
1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) was principally known as a poet, with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), and Kubla Khan (1816), being perhaps his most well known works. He also wrote a significant amount of literary criticism, primarily in a volume called Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, the same year that Jane Austen published Persuasion and the year before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Coleridge is, as far as I am aware, the inventor of the term suspension of disbelief, and the first writer to discuss it at any length.
2. J.R.R. Tolkein (1892 – 1973) probably best known for The Lord of the Rings (1954), and The Hobbit (1937), he was also a notable literary critic and was Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature and then Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University for over thirty years. His celebrated essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1937), revolutionised approaches to this previously neglected masterpiece, and an essay of his on selecting character names from foreign languages is, in my opinion, essential reading for anyone considering character names their reader might not be familiar with.
3. Google is your friend.