Recently I put aside a book after only 2.5 chapters. When I say ‘aside’ it was actually tossed into a charity box never to be seen on my bookshelves again, I was so annoyed with what I’d read.
It wasn’t a particularly ‘high-brow’ novel, but it was written by an author whose books I have always enjoyed in the past, but now I will approach any other books by this author with a sense of wariness. In fact it may take me a while to even go there again.
So, what was the problem? The main character had supposedly suffered from a history of mental illness. Depression to be precise. It wasn’t something that had occurred once, many years ago and then obliquely referred to, not one part of the back story that maybe highlighted the character’s action/reaction to a particular plot point. Oh no. It was a lengthy description, going into considerable detail about how it had impacted on the character’s life and relationships and how it had manifested. Tears. Lots of tears.
For anyone who has never suffered from a major depressive illness, crying buckets of tears probably would seem pretty depressing. But if you have any experience of depression, you will know it is not sorrow that you feel nor the absence of happiness. It is the absence of vitality and motivation, it is a lethargy and sense of worthlessness that can confine you to the interior of your home and the darkness of your thoughts. Perhaps a minor bout may be a weepy, tissue-sodden experience, but the depiction in this book did not ring true. It felt completely unreal.
As a writer you form a contract with your reader that you will strive for authenticity, even in fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism novels where the reader is invited to suspend their disbelief, their sense of the ‘real’, the writer must still deliver authenticity.
Sometimes the credibility comes from ensuring your character’s reactions/actions are true to the personality traits and the story you have created. Other times it may require research to provide the believability of your work. Paying lip service to, or writing what you think is the reality is not a winning move.
This doesn’t mean I needed to read a detailed account of the character’s anti-depressant regime or the counselling or whatever else was undertaken to deal with the depression, but a little more than weeping at a TV ad was needed.
It could just be the author didn’t want to go into the grim detail of mental illness, perhaps it might have been perceived as a bit of downer in a light-hearted, escape novel. Well, don’t go there – at least not in 2 pages of description.
As a writer, reading is not an optional extra. Reading shows us the good and the bad, it helps hone the craft we’re trying to master. So even though I was annoyed by the writing, it taught me a very valuable lesson – the importance of being able to walk in shoes I’ve never tried on before and have my readers believe the exact opposite.