For the past few years, I’ve overlooked most stories that couldn’t fit into the “realistic fiction” category. I’d loved the Harry Potter series, but considered those books exceptions to a rule when it came to what I liked to read. Based on two or three other novels and a handful of movies that didn’t hold my interest, I wrote off entire genres, assuming that most non-realistic fiction stories would affect me in the same way. Something I read recently made me realize how wrong that expectation had been.
The first few pages of Maureen Johnson’s book The Name of the Star had me hooked on both the paranormal mystery plot (murderous ghost!!) and main character Rory’s particular brand of humor. I loved not only the suspense of the mystery, but the world the book presented: one where ghosts are real, and people like Rory have to deal with them. That one paranormal element takes The Name of the Star out of the territory of straight realistic fiction, but it also drives the bulk of the story. I’d enjoyed those fantasy elements- they created interesting problems you wouldn’t see in other stories. The book made me rethink my expectations for all non-realistic fiction.
A friend of mine often chose fantasy or sci-fi over realistic fiction, and obviously I would do exactly the opposite. He told me he knew people who preferred sci-fi or fantasy because it provided an escape from the real world. I explained that my preference for realistic fiction came from the desire to see the world from someone else’s perspective, not to escape it. That conversation only supported my expectation that fantasy or sci-fi stories couldn’t affect my worldview as much as realistic fiction could.
That expectation goes hand in hand with another: that the characters wouldn’t be as interesting to me or seem as real, because fantasy/sci-fi stories seemed more plot-driven than realistic fiction. Because everyone knows you can’t have an engrossing plot and fascinating characters- no story could possibly be that good!! … Just kidding, plenty of them are. Twin Peaks, one of my all-time favorite shows, and The Name of the Star both pit great characters against paranormal forces. A “great character”, to me, is one who has come to feel real to you even if the supernatural things they are mixed up in are not. I’ve realized that they exist in all kinds of stories.
These stories affected me in their own ways, although many events I watched through them didn’t mirror anything I’d experienced (or even could possibly experience) in real life. Twin Peaks gave me a new appreciation for the bizarre and unexpected… and taught me to never, ever eat creamed corn. The Name of the Star and Twin Peaks are paranormal stories that can be just as eye-opening as any realistic fiction, depending on who consumes them. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder (or something like that).
Not every story has to have some big take-away, anyway. When I talked to Kathleen Hale this past March, this part of our exchange was very thought-provoking for me:
Lisa: What, if anything, do you hope people take away from No One Else Can Have You?
Kathleen: I hope that they love it! And if they don’t, I hope they hate it. It’s a very weird book and I’d rather people had strong feelings about it than not.
Fiction writers tell stories- they’re not writing manifestos or self-help books. If a story affects people for the better, that’s fantastic, but it can be nice just to enjoy a good story for what it is. I still believe that reading books and watching movies can help you to gain perspective, but that’s too subjective and personal to determine the “value” of everything you watch or read. I can’t ignore the importance of being entertained and challenged by pop culture, and those things can happen no matter what genre you choose. Imagining new realities is just as important as feeling like you have a better understanding of the real world.
When I read The Name of the Star, I was completely fascinated by the “rules” of Rory’s ability to communicate with ghosts. Why was it happening? What kind of “great responsibility” would come with these powers? Ghosts or no ghosts, Twin Peaks is just completely weird (in the best way). I’ve just begun watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I’m already loving the way it pokes fun at the idea of high school as a kind of hell. These stories are captivating without being entirely realistic, and now that I’ve changed my own ridiculously rigid expectations for the pop culture I’m taking in, I’m ready to fully enjoy it all.