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N in azaleas

Help me understand..

On the way back from work, I was musing about the aversion to "Mary Sues" that is so prevalent. Why is a hero/heroine that does the right thing and for whom things work out so bad? So then, I got to thinking about why do I read books?

The reasons tend to be situational - I read to research if I'm upset and need to make a decision, I read to better understand people if I'm stable and curious, I read to learn new things when I'm well-rested and feeling stale, but usually, I read to escape when I'm tired, stressed, or upset by "the real world." At such times, I love escaping into Fairy Land, whether in the form of folk or fairy tales or SF or fantasy or murder mysteries or chick lit or whatever. I have always had a marked dislike for "realism" in my fiction, beginning with those S.E. Hinton books that were so popular in my childhood. I think I disliked them because they were full of dirt, danger, violence, and yuckiness - and I didn't want to experience any more of that.

All that said, I had a remarkably sheltered life in many ways. Maybe to someone with more real-life suffering, there's comfort in knowing survival is possible even in the most brutal circumstances. Or maybe, readers have stronger boundaries than I do and do not experience the yuckiness directly, viscerally, as though they were undergoing it themselves.

So, help me understand. Why do you read? And, if you hate "Mary Sues", why?


I think what makes a Mary Sue isn't so much that things work out for them (Elizabeth marries Darcy, Dorothy saves Oz, etc.) as that the internal universe of the novel warps to accommodate them. Their flaws, if they have any, are superficial ("oh, I'm such a klutz! Watch me trip over the curb so the hero can catch me!"), and their good qualities are unrealistically good ("my god, she's never had a voice lesson in her life, but she's the best singer I've ever heard!"). The other thing that's a warning flag for a Sue is that the other characters may talk about how smart, talented, etc. she is (or he, in the case of a Gary Stu), but the character never seems to do anything demonstrably intelligent. We're just supposed to accept the author's word that the character is All That.

As for why I read ... I think I've got a definite escapist trend in my reading, if only insofar as I prefer sf, fantasy, or non-contemporary settings ("modern realist" "literary" fiction is something I'm quite done with, at least for now). I read history and science to build up my mental library of stuff (never know when it'll come in handy, and sometimes things bump into each other and generate an idea for a story that I want to write). And I have a bunch of books that I turn to for "comfort", although they're probably not what most people would think of as particularly comforting -- Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum comes to mind. But there's a quality to it and the other comfort books that sort of resets my brain, and re-establishes the things I value. Or something like that.

Oh snap.

Man I am a mess tonight. Disregard this one.

Edited at 2008-09-25 04:55 am (UTC)
I'm going to second hangingfire's comments. It's not that the story works out for them, it's that the universe bends to require your opinion of them to be good. Particularly when the author can't write their way out of a paper bag to convince you of it. Don't tell me how wonderful the heroine is, show me. But make her realistic enough to have some flaws along the way, because otherwise it's boring.
Mary Sue characters are usually ones whose abilities are so over-the-top that there is no longer any meaningful plot - she just waltzes in and fixes things. Of course, on occasion that can be fun; I don't always hate a Mary Sue story.

I read for the reasons you mention above - to learn, to escape, to experience bits of the world that I don't have direct access to. Like you, I'm not terribly fond of books that are gratuitously violent and yucky.

At the same time, though, I'm glad that such books allow me to understand how yucky the world can be without my having to experience it myself. This allows me to be sensitive to others' problems - which makes me more liberal politically than I otherwise would be.

And books that show the darker side of life can leave me feeling grateful about my own sheltered life, and can put my own puny problems into perspective. When there are people out there being killed, raped, beated, starved... perhaps that meeting tomorrow with the loud obnoxious colleague isn't such a horrible fate.


I'm with the three above me =)

I don't care much for ambiguous endings. I like the good guys to win and the book to end properly... but I like them to do so in an orderly fashion that I can believe without needing to stretch plausibility. If there's any question of the outcome of the future- I want it to be slightly rose tinted. I want to know that the characters are going to be fine even if they still have difficulties.

Some of the worst books for me are ones where the hero or another main character dies or otherwise just fails miserably... The End. I do enough failing on my own, thank you very much. I can handle dirt and grime- even rough and downright disturbing novels. I can't stand City of Angels though (which is always the example that comes to mind) because it sucker punched me. I don't care that the main character learned something special and that he managed to get on with the rest of his life with a memory... I was set up for a love story and I did not get my happily ever after.

I think the sheer number of romance novels I've read in my lifetime has conditioned me to loathe books that don't end "properly". Once I put it down, I don't want to have to spend hours contemplating it just to feel comfortable with the ending. I've got no problem re-reading books (and I do occasionally just start a book over as soon as I finish it to understand what I missed) but I tend to let people do the discovery work on new books/series just to avoid having a new book surprise me with a sucker punch ending.

Luckily the only type of novel I read that I can't get Alan to read first is incredibly formulaic. Romance novels always always and forever end neatly. There must be a code somewhere about it. I've run into 5 books in 10 years that didn't end properly- and 3 of those ended properly in the sequel. I can pick up any romance novel in the world and not have to worry about the ending. Some might just be terrible- but the ending is virtually always tidy.
THIS is me. Ugh.
I feel the same way you do about realistic fiction. There's enough pain in real life--when I read I want to escape for a while. : )
N in azaleas

September 2009

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