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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Feb. 12, 2006

Suspending Disbelief, Jumping Sharks, and other ambiguities

Words are a writer’s tools, just as a hammer and nails are the tools of a carpenter. Without the proper tools, and the understanding of how they work, a carpenter can’t build squat. And a writer ain’t going to do much better, neither.

Ooooh. Look, I was unintentionally clever. See, I used “ain’t” just to be facetious, but it allows for a relevant digression. You see, there used to be the phrase, I’m sure many of you recall: “Don’t say ‘ain’t’ ‘cause it ‘ain’t’ in the dictionary.” The point being that ‘ain’t’ was seen as poor grammar and inappropriate. The irony is, of course, that these days ‘ain’t’ is, in fact, listed in most dictionaries (though my spell check program is going crazy!), so that old axiom no longer holds the way it once did. With that being said, ain’t is still seen as rather slangy -- I used it, yeah, but I wouldn’t if I had been writing this piece for Saturday Night or The New Yorker (or The New Yawrker if ya prefer).

But despite the debate as to whether it‘s appropriate to use ‘ain’t’, no one generally disputes its meaning. There ain’t no ambiguity with ain’t.

But there are words and phrases which do carry a great deal of ambiguity. And I got to thinking about that recently…largely ‘cause I had to write something, and I figured it’d been a while since we’d devoted an essay here at PDF to the literary arts.

Of course, a pet peeve of the wordsmith set is the distinction between “imply” and “infer” -- the former means what someone suggests, or intimates, the latter what someone interprets. If I imply something, you infer my meaning. Put another way, Sherlock Holmes might infer meaning from a clue. To be fair, there are times when the difference can be subtle. Nevertheless, the distinction is there. Sometimes, people like flaunting their understanding of the difference -- in the Dennis Quaid remake of D.O.A. (wherein he plays an English professor) a joke scene is built upon that, as was a scene in an episode of the Canadian action TV series, John Woo’s Once a Thief (starring Sandrine Holt -- be still my heart! -- Nicholas Lea -- Rat Boy, to X-Files fans -- and Ivan Sergei -- for whom I have no witty tag line). But many is the time when people still get it wrong. It’s particularly bizarre when you see it in a movie or TV show (as I did just within the last couple of weeks, though I can’t recall where) to think that this scene must’ve been vetted by editors and executives, gone over by directors and actors, and filmed in front of an entire sound stage of people…and no one realized they were using “infer” wrong!

But generally, as with “ain’t”, the meaning of words is fairly clear cut. But phrases…ah, there’s something else. Particularly phrases relating to pop culture. For some reason, these can engender a great deal of confusion.

You may have heard the phrase “To jump the shark”. It’s a term that has become popular -- with its own website URL, yet -- and relates to TV series. Specifically, it relates to the point that so many long running series seem to reach when the series experiences a marked decline in quality. The writers have just run out of ideas and the whole production is running on empty. We’ve all seen it happen with even our favourite shows, the point where we kind of think “if only they had cancelled it last season, when it was still good!”

In a general sense, that’s what “jumping the shark” refers to. But the specifics are vaguer, because though everyone agrees it signifies a point of no return, the significance of that point is debated. To some people, it refers to the episode that first reflects the coming malaise, the narrative desperation that will taint the remainder of the series. In short, it refers to a really bad -- or at least an ill-conceived -- episode. Yet some people have interpreted the meaning otherwise. They use it to refer to a good episode -- the last good episode, the one sooo good, in fact, that everything after is a let down. See? The general meaning remains the same -- the episode that marks the demarcation between the good and the bad creative eras -- but the specific meaning is at polar extremes.

I have no right to comment, since I hadn’t even heard the phrase until a year or two ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s intended meaning is of a bad/ill conceived episode. After all, it takes its name from an episode of the sitcom Happy Days where Fonzie, while water sking (I think), jumps a shark. Personally, in a sitcom about 1950s mores, I can’t see such a scene as being regarded as anything more than desperate and ill-conceived by fans.

Another phrase that comes to mind -- indeed, the one that I was thinking about when I started this -- and a phrase more relevant to readers of this website, is “suspension of disbelief”. It’s more a writers’ term, so I don’t suppose there are any websites devoted to it, but it’s a phrase you’ve probably heard. And I, for one, always thought I knew its meaning. And I still think I do. But then a funny thing happened. I was watching the movie Basic Instinct years ago (hey, I was young and foolish), which is about a writer -- well, okay, it’s about a bi-sexual femme fatale who may be a serial killer…but she’s also a writer. In one scene, the writer (serial killer or no) provides a definition of the phrase “suspension of disbelief”. She says, in order for the reader to suspend their disbelief -- y‘know, that they‘re reading a fiction -- the writer has to make everything as real, as authentic, as meticulously researched as possible, in order for the reader to believe it.

Yet if you had asked me, I would’ve said its meaning was the exact opposite. Suspension of disbelief is something the reader does as a favour to the author, an agreement, if you will, to forgive a certain ludicrousness, in order for the story to unfold. Former editor Jeffrey Blair Latta defined that as a contrivance in this editorial. As long as there are not too many of them, and they are necessary to the story, the reader -- particularly of fantasy and SF -- is usually willing to forgive a contrivance, and to willingly suspend their natural disbelief.

Maybe that’s the difference between my definition and Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas’ definition -- perhaps there are two phrases “suspension of disbelief” and “willing suspension of disbelief”. But I don’t think so. So maybe I’m wrong…or maybe I just misremember Basic Instinct (after all, I’m still not sure who did it!) But I don’t think so either.

But for writers, words and phrases are tools…and it’s funny how there are some tools it’s harder to get a grip on than others.

Of course, sometimes I think mistakes are done on purpose. How can that be? you ask in horror. Tell us! TELL US!

Well, sometimes I suspect writers use the wrong phrases and terms precisely because they figure their audience doesn’t know any better, and to use the correct term would seem more confusing. I’m thinking about all the times I’ve seen references to the uberlab The Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta in movies, books, and TV. And almost inevitably, it is erroneously referred to in the singular -- by characters who are supposed to be scientists!

And I didn’t even get to talking about how AD (Anno Domini) is a prefix, not a suffix -- and almost no one gets that right anymore (of course, technically, AD has been replaced by CE -- the Common Era -- anyway). Or the fact that, technically, Neanderthal is supposed to be pronounced Neandert’al (one of the few times I saw it pronounced right on TV was years ago by the Canadian comedy duo, Wayne & Shuster -- and even they only pronounced it right once, presumably because an executive then told them to cut it out and stop being learned).

But even if such errors are deliberate, it’s perhaps more troubling. Willful ignorance is perhaps even less forgivable than accidental ignorance. Because it’s insulting to the audience, and to the very tools of a writer’s craft: words and their meaning.

D.K. Latta, editor

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