‘Suspension of Disbelief’ is a phrase first introduced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. According to Wikipedia, the phrase is now used as a state of mind required of the reader. In order to enter the world that is proposed by the author, the reader must leave behind their own concepts of ‘reality’ and accept the laws that govern the universe created by the author.
‘Suspension of Disbelief’ has never been an issue for me. I have enjoyed being swept away into different worlds. I especially admire novelists who are able to create a universe. And I often feel that although what happens in these novels may not actually be possible in real life, still the message that is given does apply to real life. For example, after reading ‘The handmaid’s tale’ by Margaret Atwood, I found myself scrutinizing my own values, the way I live my life. Even though ‘The handmaid’s tale’ is a work of speculative fiction.
What has for a long time been troubling me, as a reader, is embarrassment. Whenever I would read a novel in which a character did something that was clearly stupid, I, as the reader, would feel embarrassed and ashamed for this character. I wanted them to do the right thing. For example, the first time I started to read Franzen’s ‘The corrections’ I stalled around page 40. I could not continue because one of the main characters, a 39 year old college teacher, started an affair with one of his students. The story of the affair is told in flashback and we already know that things did not go well and he lost his job. Still, I felt so embarrassed I stopped reading it.
But why? And, who am I to judge? Why should these characters all behave in a way that does not embarrass me? Further still, I think without these embarrassments, the story would not move at all. As a reader one often knows more about what is going on than the character, so who says I would behave better if I had been in the same situation? In fact, it does not matter what I would do at all, since I am not of the world that the author created. My belief system does not apply. What matters is how well the author is able to construct their own.
So, ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ for me is okay if magical stuff happens, but not okay if one of the characters does something stupid. I guess this says a lot about me as a person. Afraid to make mistakes, me? Noooo. But I am trying to become a better reader, to simply accept that for the message to come across, some things I do not agree with have to happen. I have to suspend my embarrassment to fully enter the world created by the author. Failure to do so has caused me to give up on a lot of novels. But I am optimistic. The last book I wrote about, ‘Damage’ by Josephine Hart, contains a lot of things that I would not be okay with in real life. But I was not embarrassed, I was swept away, I was impressed. I have succeeded in suspending my embarrassment. And if I can do it once, I can do it again.