Real life is not like books!

Reading Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear, I was struck by how he uses two particular writing cliches—one quite well, the other not so much.
The plot (which I’ll go into more in a later post) concerns a man caught up in a web of Nazi espionage during World War II. One of the running comments he makes is how far removed it feels from all the swashbuckling spy adventures he fantasized about when he was young and optimistic: It’s not exciting, he doesn’t feel heroic and nothing happens the way it does in books.
This is an old fictional trope, and one I often find annoying. For example, the narrator of a super-hero novel I read a couple of years back kept telling us that no, this story isn’t all heroic like you expect: This is real life, you idiots! Heroes don’t necessarily win, get the girl or defeat the bad guy! Stop imagining it’s going to be like the comics!
A mystery novel I read even further back used the same gimmick: The narrator (a female PI) constantly points out that fictional female gumshoes such as Kinsey Mulhone or VI Warshowski always do X whereas she, being real and very smart, does Y.
This gets old fast. For one thing, it’s not real life, no matter what the narrator says—and if it’s a work of breathtaking realism, we’ll probably figure that out without being told (John LeCarre never has to explain that Spy Who Came in From the Cold isn’t like James Bond). And there’s the obvious risk that the story isn’t as realistic as the writer claims: Said female detective really didn’t come across that smart. Whereas when Sherlock Holmes sneers at “fictional” characters such as Auguste Dupin, he has the advantage that he is that smart—and, of course, he’s an arrogant SOB so we don’t have to take his claims seriously.
It works in Greene because the comments aren’t meant to drive home the superiority of his writing as much as the hero’s state of mind: He’s brooding, tormented, weighed down by his past. Plus the book really isn’t a spy thriller, so the observation fits: It’s a literary novel about a troubled soul who happens to be involved in spying.


Filed under Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Real life is not like books!

  1. That was another excellent post today. You make it look so easy. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

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  2. Pingback: A book and a movie | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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