What exactly is realistic?

Ever read Diana Wynn Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland?
Written in the form of a tourist guide to fantasy worlds, the book does a great job skewering some of the stock character types and cliches of other-world fantasy—the combat master, the wizard, princesses, etc. But much as I love Jones’ writing, sometimes she’s just … picky.
Specifically, I’m thinking of an entry on silk where she points out that it’s widely used among the upper classes and their slaves, yet there’s never any sign of silkworms or a silk-making industry around.
Perfectly true, but … so? After all, I’ve read lots of fantasies where there’s no reference to bakers or cheesemaking but they still have bread and cheese; and I’ve never read any fantasy where they discussed where clothes came from (“Be careful! If your dragon breathes on the flax fields, we’ll have no new linen to sell in the spring!”).
Admittedly silk is less common in Western history than wool or linen, but still, there is such a thing as trade; or possibly someone’s figured out how to grow silkworms in the English countryside. While I take her point that “silk” is a cliched description, her argument still feels pointless rather than the clever skewer of some of the other entries.
Of course, the history of fantasy criticism is full of arguments that I find picky and arbitrary or just plain wrong (keep in mind, I’m sure some of the criticisms I have strike other people the same way). The old fanzine Amra once ran several articles arguing that it was absurd Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoomians wielded swords when they had guns available; given that more than one warrior culture in our world has banned guns (feudal Japan and the Mamelukes in Turkey) I don’t find it implausible at all (okay, a successful planetwide ban is a stretch, but one I can accept).
Another article asserted that Conan’s lover, the murderous she-pirate Belit was completely unrealistic because there had never been any real female pirates in history (as opposed to whores who stayed huddled in the captain’s cabin). Again, quite inaccurate—and given Belit is a great character, I don’t particularly care if she were an anomaly.
Or to take a break from fantasy, there was a movie critic who asserted the Western Shalako (1968) was laughable because of Sean Connery’s Scots accent—are we really supposed to believe there were Scotsmen in the old west? (Yes, there were).
In short, what some people consider realistic … isn’t.
And then there’s the question of what constitutes realism or accuracy when working with historical fiction, or a particular setting such as a London tailor’s or a Wall Street brokerage. In such stories, whose standards determine whether it’s believable or accurate? The casual viewer who knows nothing of what life is like in ancient Persia or Saville Row? The well-read layman? The expert?
For example, some of the details about magazine writing in How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days struck me, as a writer, as completely unrealistic; since they won’t occur to most people, should the writers be at fault for not checking it through?
Or take Silver Blaze, a Sherlock Holmes short story set in the racing world of which Arthur Conan Doyle, as he later admitted, was completely ignorant.
Or Pallas, a libertarian polemic by L. Neil Smith in which a lifelong vegetarian downs a gigantic bowl of rabbit stew and discovers it’s good (apparently vegetarianism is an infringement on human freedom in Smith’s eyes). I guarantee you, vegetarians who eat large meat meals may like the taste but they’ll pay for it when the runs kick in that night—but there’s none of that in Smith’s book.
I’m personally inclined to grade on a sliding scale. Doyle most definitely should have done some research on racing before writing his story—the errors were basic, and the information not hard to find. On the other hand, I can hardly blame Smith for his error: Why would he even think to ask if vegetarians have problems in that situation? Plus, his error affects the core of the story much less than Doyle’s do—from what I’ve read, most of the characters in Silver Blaze would have been barred from racing for life.
In short, if we can easily find the right facts, and they’re important, we should. If we screw up the details—well, we shouldn’t, and somebody’s guaranteed to notice, but if we’ve done due diligence we should forgive ourselves (when I make a minor error in the Applied Science series, I try to remind myself of this).
And sometimes the critics are just wrong.


Filed under Movies, Reading, Writing

5 responses to “What exactly is realistic?

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