Thematic Cheating


Can a book be well-written, but bad?

Hell, yes. In many ways.

A book has to be well written on many different levels to be a good book. Here are some of the levels at which a book must be well written:

– Mechanics: It must have good spelling and grammar.
– Craftsmanship: The characters, plot, pacing, setting, etc., should be competently constructed.
– Theme: It must say something good rather than something bad or just wrong. Sometimes people will call such a book “well-written, but bad.” They might say that of Atlas Shrugged.

But there’s one more level that hardly gets any attention, that even “great” books bungle frequently:

– Honesty: It must make its argument without cheating.

What’s that about an argument? Well, one useful aspect of Dramatica theory is the idea that every dramatic novel is an argument. There are all sorts of exceptions, especially for short stories, comedy, and action novels. But there’s a large class of dramatic novels that have themes that argue that one thing is wrong and another thing is right. (The argument isn’t always obvious. I recently blogged about how “Raiders of the Lost Ark” makes an argument about the value of faith, and of relationships over things.)

Atlas Shrugged

The argument in Atlas Shrugged was obvious: Libertarianism and free markets are morally superior to two-party democracy and socialism. You can disagree with the theme, but the novel didn’t cheat. It showed socialism having a bad outcome, and libertarianism having a good outcome. That good outcome might not be believable, but it was all out in the open. There was no sleight-of-hand used to make one thing give a good outcome and then attribute that outcome to something else.

Lord of the Rings

There’s a episode of thematic cheating in Lord of the Rings where Middle Earth is spared because Frodo saved Gollum. This is supposed to be an argument. Yet these circumstances surrounding the way in which Gollum accidentally saved Middle Earth are so unlikely that we can safely say they will never happen again. The only way in which it is an honest argument is a few interpreted as saying that the universe is built in such a way as to reward “virtuous” behavior. (For a counter-argument, see: Earth.)

Star Wars

“Star Wars” makes an argument about trusting your feelings rather than, say, a rifle scope, a targeting computer, or any other authority based on science and logic. So Lucas made the stormtroopers, who use rifle scopes instead of the force, the worst shots in the known universe. The final conclusive argument is that (spoiler!) Luke uses the Force instead of his ship’s computer to target the vent on the Death Star, and it works.

You could say that Star Wars is making an argument about how the world should be, rather than about how it is. But I think that’s too stupid for more words. Making an moral argument about what kind of physics the world should have is stupid. No; people take the Force seriously, as symbolic of the oneness of all being, or the Aleph, or the Buddha nature, or Qi, or human nature, or something.

But if you’re making a symbol, you’ve got to have a reasonably-simple map between the real world and your symbol. The situations where trusting your feelings in your fantasy world works must in some way resemble those where trusting your feelings in reality works.

Now, maybe there are situations in life where you should trust your feelings rather than logic. Choosing a profession. Getting married. Eating the five-scoop double-death-by-chocolate sundae at Friendly’s. But if there is one time in the world when this is wrong, one time in your life to trust a computer instead of your feelings, it when you have one chance to fire a projectile at a target 2 meters wide while flying past it at several times the speed of sound.

(That final battle scene in Star Wars is copied, from start to finish, from a World War II movie, The Dam Busters. It’s a true story in which the dam (Death Star) was destroyed by astonishing bravery combined with science and trust in logic. It’s a great movie that disappeared from sight because somebody had the brilliant idea to name the British air force unit’s black dog “Nigger”.)

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess wrote later, I think in Playboy, that the argument in A Clockwork Orange is that it’s morally better for people to be evil of their own free will than to be socialized by the government. The government tried to use behaviorist psychology to condition Alex not to enjoy raping and killing people. In the end, the government failed, but then Alex grew out of this behavior, because it was just a case of boys being boys. (This final “growing out of it” chapter was deleted from the American edition.) The lesson is that attempts to socialize people using science (a) don’t work, and (b) aren’t necessary, because people are basically good, except when they’re teenagers.

There’s already some cheating here, because Burgess declared by authorial fiat that conditioning couldn’t work. But that wasn’t enough for him. He had to make the attempt to use conditioning morally repulsive.

So first, he made the government a repressive dictatorship. Repressive dictatorships are bad; therefore, using science to reduce crime is bad.

(This is only half-cheating. You could argue that the problem with using science to encourage certain behaviors is that it’s the sort of thing that appeals to repressive dictatorships. But in that case, the story should have been about using science to discourage people from social unrest, as in Brave New World, not to discourage them from raping and killing.)

But that still wasn’t enough for him. So he gave Alex one sympathetic trait: Alex loves the music of Beethoven. Then he made the behaviorist psychologists do their conditioning while playing the music of Beethoven in the background. That didn’t even make sense; pairing the images of violence that they were trying to condition him against with the music of Beethoven would make him enjoy violence more, rather than less, according to their theories. But when they succeeded in temporarily making Alex dislike both raping and Beethoven, Burgess then shouted, “You see! They made him hate Beethoven (and raping)! They’re BAD!”

Philip Roth, The Human Stain

As I wrote in a previous blog, this story’s argument is that we are helpless against morally-rationalized mob persecution. A small town college administrator must hide the facts about his life because American society is too prejudiced to be trusted with the truth. He falsified his life story, which would ordinarily be considered immoral; but he was justified, because he would have been persecuted unjustly for the truth. Near the end of his life, though, he is instead persecuted unjustly on a charge that would have been dismissed people have known the truth about him.

But, the consequences of this persecution, even in the scenario that the writer invented to show how bad it was, just aren’t that bad. The guy resigns from his job, and is looked down on by a bunch of people whom he’s better off without anyway.

So Roth added a subplot: The 75-year-old administrator is dating a 35-year-old woman. He has to hide this from the town, too, because people under 75 don’t approve of 75-year-olds having sex.

But this wasn’t bad enough either. So Roth added a crazy Vietnam vet ex-husband of the woman, who kills the main character. So now we see that the tragic outcome of all this prejudice and intolerance was the innocent main character’s death. OR WAS IT?

No. It wasn’t. The main character’s death was caused by a stereotyped psychotic Vietnam vet, which was sneakily bundled together with all of the lesser persecutions by the townsfolk. The incident which had the greatest dramatic effect, which is supposed to be a part of the theme of persecution, is not an incidence of persecution at all. It subtly, dishonestly says that small-minded persecution will kill you.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The plot of Gatsby is: Gatsby falls in love with Daisy, but isn’t rich enough to marry her. He goes off to seek his fortune, becomes fabulously wealthy, and returns, but Daisy is married. So every night he stares at the light of her house from across the bay. Then he dies, having everything, and nothing.

The argument is something about our inability to get what we want, or maybe that money can’t buy you happiness. The cheating here — and it’s minor — is that Gatsby is done in not through any failure of his long-term plan, but due to a freak case of mistaken identity.

Voltaire, Candide

Candide is a counter argument against the Enlightenment theological/philosophical claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The plot of Candide is as follows: Bad things happen to good people. The good people look to the Lord for help. Worse things happen to the good people. Repeat.

This would ordinarily be seen as cheating. Voltaire wanted to argue that God does not, in fact, protect good people from bad things, and that one can easily imagine worlds in which things turned out better than in this one. So one could argue that he just made those bad things happen, and that they wouldn’t have in real life.

But they did. Voltaire, being a rather clever fellow, realized his argument would be invalid unless he described bad things that had actually happened to (presumably) good, or at least not particularly bad, people. So he based some of the incidents in Candide on true stories of the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. He tried not to cheat, at least not as much as he could have.

Though Voltaire at least semi-cheats in that he has the bad things happen over and over again to the same three characters.  What’s more, many of these bad things permanently scar them, to the point where they can’t even enjoy the semi-happy ending they’ve earned by the end of the book all that much.

Real life would probably kill any people who suffered as much as Candide, Pangloss and Cunegonde.  The noveltortures them — they suffer rapes, hangings, eviscerations, piracy, and all sorts of abuse again and again, each time almost being killed, and usually with sadistic Hope Spots.  Admittedly, this is meant as a deliberate Deconstruction of the more common sort of picaresque romance in which they would have narrowly escapedthese horrible events in order to have their virtues rewarded at the end.


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