Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.

WeightofThings

It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

25 Comments

  1. A review according to my heart – at last! I am tired of these reviews who give us an idea of the plot, the characters, say that it is “lovely reading”, etc. I like readers who told me of style, genre, language – readers who read; readers who connect their readings. Thank you so much for this review. I share it! 🙂

  2. Have not read either of these books, but I think I get your point

  3. Very interesting blog. In a film it’s very clear, isn’t it when our emotions are being manipulated because usually there’s stirring ‘cry now’ music being played. I just watched Selma and thought that was quite austere in the way it told its story and I liked it the more for it. In a book sometimes this is not so clear but if the writer hasn’t worked hard enough to make you care for the characters you won’t.

    • Thanks Vicky! I hadn’t thought about a comparison with films, but I think you’re right: books tend to be more subtle about what they’re doing – which, I find, can sometimes make it more difficult to put my finger on why one isn’t working for me.

  4. Yes, I haven’t read ‘The Weight of Things’ but I felt the same way about ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ as well as ‘The Kite Runner’ – they both had a type of heavy-handed authorial machination that I found off-putting.

  5. Just earlier today I was reading reviews about a book where some reviewers thought it was deliberately manipulative and playing on readers’ emotions, while others said it just steered clear of kitsch and was economical and effective in its simplicity. So perhaps manipulation is in the eye of the perceiver… I suppose I’ll have to read it for myself and find out.
    I often find this in poetry – a lot of the poetry being circulated online nowadays is designed to deliberately shock and move and provoke a particular type of response, and I’m not always sure I like that.

  6. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

    I couldn’t agree with you more strongly on this.

  7. This is a really interesting post. I understand (I think), and I can certainly respect, your desire the separate out more authentic from less authentic literature, and I get that you are suspicous of ‘trickery’. It would be facile, and unconvincing, to say ‘but all writing is a collection of tricks’ I get that. Still I have a problem. I think my sticking point is when you say:

    “I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery.”

    I don’t follow your reasoning, here. If you have been affected deeply by something, then you have been affected deeply. You might prefer to have been affected deeply by Tolstoy than by a pop song (say), but how you felt was the reality of the experience, surely, not the process that brought you to that feeling.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adam – and for pushing me to think more about that particular remark, which could do with fleshing out more…

      The distinction I’m trying to make here is not between different forms of culture (I’ve been moved deeply by pop songs and left cold by canonical works of literature, and vice versa), but between works which affect me deeply and those which affect me less so. I’m not saying (to use my two examples here) that Hosseini would have affected me as much as did Fritz, if only I hadn’t spotted what he was up to. I’m saying that reading the two books felt different – that, I feel, there was a different process at work.

      I guess what I really want to do in saying this is begin to find ways to distinguish the books that most interest me. I know it’s ultimately artificial, but it is something I want to think on further.

  8. I was thinking about this earlier today. I wrote a review of Martin John by Anakana Schofield which is a brilliant brilliant book. However, it’s manipulative in the way information is withheld from the reader and it means you get to a point of having some level of sympathy with the protagonist who’s a molester. What Schofield does though is plays with language and structure so even though you become aware you’ve been manipulated it’s so skillfully done that it’s impressive.

    It’s interesting you chose a Hussani novel as I couldn’t stand The Kite Runner. I was made to teach it otherwise I’d have thrown it out the train I was on before I reached half way. For me, the problem with the manipulation in that book was that it was to do with coincidence of character. It was very heavy handed making it obvious that there was an author at work as a puppeteer. And that, I think, is the difference: it’s to do with the skill of the author and the tools they choose to manipulate.

    Fascinating post and area for discussion, David.

    • Thanks, Naomi! It’s funny you should mention Martin John, because I read that just recently. I get what you mean: she kind of reorders the world so you see it his way, and come to at least some understanding of him.

      Interesting, isn’t it, that the book which more obviously plays with language is the one that feels less manipulative?

  9. Great discussion. I don’t mind being manipulated by a novel when it’s in a good way – as in a good thriller where the withholding of information to the reader is often crucial to the plot or character development. As you say, it’s when the authorial voice assumes a style that is trying to force us into liking and engaging with their novel that it so often falls flat. I didn’t really like The Kite Runner either!

    • Thanks, Annabel. You’re quite right: there is such a thing as being pleasantly manipulated by a book. I guess that, with a thriller, it’s part of the bargain we enter into as readers, and we accept it. Whereas, with more of a realist novel like Hosseini’s, the bargain is perhaps that it will be more ‘honest’.

  10. I think I understand what you mean, though I haven’t read either of these books myself. When a book gets so heavy handed with the way it presents a character, so that you essentially get the idea that you’re SUPPOSED to feel THIS way about this character/action, it takes you right out of the story, doesn’t it? It’s as though someone is telling you a story, but they keep interrupting themselves to remind you that so-n-so is the good guy or that such-n-such was so very sad. Sometimes authors do this is particular viewpoints, too, and even if they aren’t outright saying “here is the philosophy I’m trying to make you believe” it can still be very obvious — and it detracts terribly from my enjoyment of the book.

    • Oh yes, one of my particular bugbears is when a writer of fiction has a bee in their bonnet about a particular issue, and puts that issue before the fiction. On the other hand, I don’t mind being thrown out of the story per se; some of my favourite books do exactly that, but they make the ‘throwing out’ part of the story, in a similar way to what I’m talking about in the post here.

  11. I think it’s an issue of execution. All books manipulate, that’s what writers do. They put words on a page and seek to provoke responses in us through them.

    What’s wrong with books like the Hosseini (which I’ve not read, it looked obvious to me) is that we can see the stage-hands moving the scenery about. In a book like the Fritz (which I’ve also not read) that’s not such an issue as the language and fiction are inseparable. The movement of the stage-set is part of the play, there’s no disconnect.

    With books like the Hosseini it’s all a bit facile. It’s uses the equivalent as Vicky says of stirring music to tell you when to cry. Looking up I see Naomi refers to the idea of a puppeteer, which was my first thought too.

    I guess where I’m going is the problem with books like the Hosseini is not that they seek to manipulate, it’s that they do so in such a terribly obvious way. It becomes kind of insulting. Look how sad this bit is, look how thrilling this part, pretend to ignore the obvious authorial techniques which are neither so subtly done that you don’t see them nor so intrinsic that they become part of the art. But why should I?

    Colm Toibin writes in a perfectly naturalistic style. The structure doesn’t reflect the fiction (save for a certain quietness), but his technique is such that you don’t see the scenery being moved around you. You become part of it. By contrast Eleanor Catton inseparably intertwines structure and story. Not only do you see the scenery move, it moving is part of what you’re there to see. Either approach works.

    Of course, given Hosseini’s popularity both Toibin and Catton might well wish their fiction didn’t work even half as well as his doesn’t work…

    • Hi Max. That’s a nice way of putting it: that the scenery-moving is part of what you’re there to see. Yes, that’s what I like best.

      But your comment also makes me aware that I left out naturalistic writers who do it so well – and I would also count Toibin as one of those (the only one I’ve read is The Testament of Mary, but it was excellent). Perhaps we could also include a writer such as Evie Wyld, who writes a kind of heightened naturalism.

  12. As a fiction writer, I tend to think of it from a slightly different angle. Am I trying to convey/portray a very specific, quite possibly complex, unique emotional experience in the characters and world I’ve created—regardless of how it makes you, the reader, feel? Or, am I trying to create, via the rhetoric of fiction, a specific emotional experience in the reader that synchs with that of my characters in determinate ways?

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Aristotle said tragedy creates catharsis in the playgoer via its inducing of pity & fear at the fall of a great but flawed person. So, classically at least, the aim of literary (and performance) art is to create some form of emotional experience and, thus, by its nature, is necessarily manipulative.

    Your grievance, it seems to me (and I have not read either book), is that the writer of Mountains Echoed wants the reader to feel along with the character: it tells you what and how you should be feeling; whereas The Weight seeks to use its portrayal to provoke a response in the reader which the author does not seek to control. The former is chemical, the latter alchemical (transformative).

    Is that a fair reading?

    Best,

    Jim H.
    @140xLangame

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Jim. Yes, I think your reading is fair. It might help to outline what I find contentious about Mountains Echoed: at the start of the novel, a young brother and sister are separated, and she forgets him; we don’t see him again properly until the end, fifty years later, when the siblings are reunited – but he has dementia. So it’s a reunion that the reader can have but the character can’t, so to speak; it felt as though the author were tugging insistently on the reader’s heartstrings, without having earned the right to do so.

      In contrast, with The Weight of Things one senses that Fritz wrote as she did because that was the only way to say what she needed to say – and the reader is left to react however they will.

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