Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is it necessary to humiliate your characters?

So I was happily reading this new and highly acclaimed novel. And then I stopped. Because, well, I had reached my limit on watching characters get physically humiliated. I won't go into detail, largely because I am squeamish. But the fact that I decided not to read any further got me wondering. Am I just squeamish? Isn't humiliation a powerful and real experience, which deserves a place in fiction just as much as any other emotion?

I would answer yes on both counts. But I sensed something else going on here, similar to what I've suspected any number of times while watching various movies and TV shows. The writer (or director) seems somehow to be gloating--if not outright enjoying the scene, at least calling attention to his or her daring in creating the scene in the first place. In other words, the characters suffer on behalf of the writer's quest for authenticity. This seems especially egregious when live actors must actually undergo the experience, or some convincing simulacrum thereof. I can't help thinking that a power game is going on, not only in the story, but in the making of the story. And I don't like it.

Maybe that sense of sadism is a natural side effect of depicting humiliation; the author is in the odd position of both creating the humiliation and sort of standing over it, watching, unable to help (because the story demands that the humiliation occur). The reader's in that position, too, because she imagines and therefore recreates the scene. I suppose this complicity can be an informative experience.

It also seems to me that the artistic depiction of humiliation (not to mention its comic counterpart in mainstream movies) is a recent trend that is only picking up speed. A humiliation scene is the equivalent of having your characters use smartphones--it shows you're contemporary. You "get" how the world works today. It's a calling card of realism.

I'm not speaking of stories about war and torture, in which humiliation has a different valence--it's acknowledged as a tool of an oppressive regime. I'm talking about "first-world" stories, garden-variety suburban tales of alienation, where this ugliness seems like an attempt to fulfill some function that the story otherwise might not manage. It's almost an insistence on the story's significance, and on the power of the author's words to stir strong feelings. Maybe suburban life *is* humiliating in a way that can only be expressed through the exaggerating airing of intensely private experiences. Anyway, it's only happening to fictional characters, right? And authors don't owe their characters any protection.

I still don't like it.

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