Greetings! This post brought to you by the word “ibidem”. Just kidding. Stop trying so hard, Dictionary.com. No one cares.
Today I want to discuss a very important subject: manipulative writing. Literature is a vehicle that allows readers to explore other worlds and acts almost as an independent universe. In this manner, the author of a novel is the ultimate creator; a god-like figure if you will. We’re all familiar with authors who kill off characters left and right (George R. R. Martin) or ones who are happiest when their characters are drowning in misery (Thomas Hardy anyone?), but we recognize that authors have creative license and can do whatever they choose with their worlds. However, there’s a difference between making decisive, plot driven choices and being a douchenozzle. Which writers are douchenozzles, you may ask? You might be surprised.
The subject of this post was inspired by one author in particular and it pains me to write this because I used to enjoy them so much. I’m talking about Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and Big Brother. WNTTAK was a really well-crafted novel and a very unique story about nature vs. nurture, but Kevin isn’t the novel I have an issue with. Shriver recently published Big Brother, and being a big fan I was quite enthused to read it. As a story, it’s reasonably compelling. It follows a woman named Pandora (yeah, no) and her brother Edison, who is morbidly obese. He moves in with Pandora’s family and his obesity disrupts their highly structured life. Pandora decides to move out of her house for about half a year and help Edison lose 200 or so pounds and in the process hopes to turn his entire life around. The story was an emotional read, as it covers the tense bonds of sibling love and also the intensely physical aspects of losing half your body weight. I had a few qualms about the character motivations, but I was willing to let that slide. Then I read the last few pages of the book.
A story about weight loss deserves a cathartic ending and Shriver delivered, or so I thought. There’s a wonderful scene where after reaching his goal weight, Edison and Pandora throw a party to celebrate their six months (or about that time) worth of effort. After so many pages of bickering between the siblings, Edison’s cheating with his diet, Pandora becoming ironically body-obsessed and almost starving herself, and Pandora’s unraveling family situation, having a conflict-free resolution party was a blessing. But then Shriver did an unforgivable thing. She tricked us.
In the beginning of the next chapter, Pandora decides to come clean to the reader. Remember the 300 emotionally intense pages you just read? Yeah, actually none of that happened. Pandora didn’t move out with Edison to help him lose weight. There was no sibling bonding, no character revelations, and certainly no plot. Edison died of a heart attack. Everything else was only Pandora’s wishful thinking.
When I read this, I was incredibly angry. Like Bradley Cooper throw your book out the window angry. Not only had I spent the last few weeks reading an emotionally draining and questionably plotted story, but it turned out to be a 300 page RICK ROLL! It’s like Shriver was saying “Hey, you, dedicated reader! FUCK YOU!” Right back at you, Shriver! This isn’t amateur hour! It’s not edgy or innovative to write 300 pages of story and then erase it all. It’s not on the same level as Fight Club or Jacob’s Ladder. In Fight Club, the plot happened, but from an altered perspective. In Jacob’s Ladder, the plot was abstractly represented by a “life flashes before your eyes” sequence. This is manipulative writing, pure and simple. If you build up the characterization of the protagonist and then go back and say “hahaha just kidding!”, you’re a manipulative writer. If you take out all of the Edison-Pandora weight-loss training which Pandora says never occurred, what you’re left with is an incomplete story. Without these scenes there is no conflict and no plot development. The story is a few chapters where Edison visits Pandora, leaves, and then dies of a heart attack. That is not a novel and it is certainly not a Lionel Shriver caliber novel. Now some of you might be thinking “but that’s what real life is like!” But I disagree with that. Literature can be realistic, but it is not “real life”. It requires a plot, character development, and thematic elements. Shriver’s manipulative ending ensures that in Big Brother, none of those conditions can be satisfied.
Moving on to another example of manipulative writing. He’s the man, the myth the legend, the paragon of mediocre teen literature: John Green. I’m sorry fan girls, I really am, but Green is an unimaginative writer. His books are formulaic, clichéd, and most importantly, ridiculous. In what world do people name their children Augustus Waters? Hashtag, maybe, but Augustus Waters? Not in this world, my friend. Not in this world. Anyways, my biggest problem with Green is his hugely successful book, The Fault in our Stars. Pretentious teen characters aside, Green creates a “realistic” world that nevertheless is completely subject to his whims. Take, for instance, cancer. We know from the beginning that Hazel Grace is terminally ill and on the verge of death. We are prepared for that. Augustus, on the other hand, is in remission, a.k.a cancer free. Cancer is unpredictable, yes, but it isn’t like the bubonic plague. It arrives with a vengeance and makes itself seen. Thus when Hazel is sent to the ICU because of cancer complications, we understand that this event is like a Jenga block and her tower will soon crumble. But then Augustus dies and all the realism in Green’s novel falls apart. Because Augustus didn’t die from cancer. He died because John Green wanted his fan girls to cry when their imaginary boyfriend succumbed to a horrifying disease. While it is plausible for Augustus’ cancer to return, his sudden and shocking death is hard to believe. Especially when Hazel’s cancer has spread to the lungs and is already on death’s door. Yet Green knew that Hazel’s death would not be as emotionally shocking as Augustus’, so he decided to bend the laws of reality and kill him off instead. That, my friends, is called manipulative writing.
I understand that it’s Green’s prerogative as an author to inflict sudden cancer death on whoever he wants, but that doesn’t change the fact that his decisions make for shady writing. Manipulative writing relies on shocks to stir the reader, not true emotional connection. George R. R. Martin can behead as many characters as he wants because their deaths make sense. Even when they’re out of the blue, like Rob’s, they MAKE SENSE. Cormac McCarthy can tell a story about Llewlyn in No Country For Old Men and then kill him silently off screen because even though it’s a nontraditional decision, it MAKES SENSE. But when Lionel Shriver redacts her entire story and John Green kills off a character for shock value, it’s not good writing. It’s fucking stupid.
I want to tie this subject in with Go Set a Watchman, but since I refuse to read the book and have only read summaries, I can’t discuss the novel with integrity. So all I’m gonna say is this. Atticus is not a racist, no matter what revisionist novel Lee was forced into publishing. I don’t care if she wrote GSAW before To Kill a Mockingbird. TKAM was published first, thus Atticus’ characterization is canon. The Atticus in GSAW is either a completely different Atticus, or else this book is a piece of manipulative trash that undermines an entire novel’s worth of characterization. So suck on that, New York Times Best Sellers List! And what the fuck? Why would you kill off Jem? Are you trying to destroy your legacy? WHO ARE YOU?
And that’s all I have to say on that subject. But one last thing. Larry McMurtry, I love you, but why in all that’s sacred did you kill off Newt in the sequel to Lonesome Dove? WHYYYY? I’m not accusing you of being manipulative, McMurtry, because your novels are a gift to us all. But you make me sad, McMurtry. You make me really, really, sad.
I know my opinion might be a tad controversial, so let me know if you agree or disagree. Everyone’s tolerance for bullshit is different and I guess I have less tolerance than many people because somehow The Fault in Our Stars was a best-seller and a hugely successful movie. You’re a monster, Green. A glasses wearing, nerd fighting, clone brother having monster. How do you sleep at night on you bed full of money?
Am I the only one wondering why Jennifer Lawrence keeps acting in David O. Russel movies? Am I missing something here? I know she won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook (of dubious merit), but I didn’t like American Hustle and I think Joy looks pretty crappy too. She’s too young for these roles and for god sakes, if she does one more movie opposite Bradley Cooper, I’m gonna fly the coop (see what I did there? Or is that phrase only in past tense?) All the actresses in Hollywood are like “but there’s no roles for 40-year-old women wahhhhh” and here Jennifer Lawrence is wasting her youth playing 35 year olds. What’s your game plan, J-Law?