Against “Shock” Fiction

In 20th c. Literature on January 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm

14568293Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post reviews a very appealing article by Jonathan Dee from Harper’s in 2005. In the article, called “Ready-made rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction,” Dee outlines an unimpeachable case against the whole genre of “shock” fiction.  His argument has significantly influenced my thinking about the purpose of literature and what makes a work of fiction work, and is worth going over in some detail.

Dee calls out by name Neil LaBute, A.M. Holmes, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, and Dennis Cooper. I have never been drawn to any of these writers, save Self, but have been forced to rethink LaBute’s films (I moderately admired “In the Company of Men,” but was turned off by the deeply unsubtle “Your Friends and Neighbors”) in light of Dee’s blistering and brilliant broadside. Dee begins with the thesis that the job of good fiction “is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation.”  He argues that none of the authors here (he trains most of his fire on LaBute and his “troupe of hideous men”) achieve this–instead they write characters that do terrible things for no reason, and feel nothing. For Dee, works which consist little save a fusillade of “shocking” acts are, from from being transgressive, thought-provoking, or daringly original, actually shallow, and lazy. The shock approach excuses the authors from the hard work of creating believable characters with conflicting desires and complex sources of motivation, while allowing them to take cover behind the claim that “this is how things really are”–diffusing criticism before criticism can even get started.

Dee’s thinks that this is not how things really are, that human affairs are actually far more complex and interesting, and that the “this is how things really are” defense is a pose and an exercise in bad faith.  His essential argument is as follows: “What’s really intended to provoke us is not what they feel but everything they don’t feel {…} It’s a way of ducking what a more sophisticated writer might consider his primary artistic responsibility; namely, a credible motivation for his imaginary characters to say and do the things they say and do.” While admitting that not slipping into easy moral judgments is a good strategy for writing, Dee shows exactly why shock fiction does something far more banal: “Since a reader’s final judgment of a character represents the terminal point of that character’s development, the writer is well advised to delay the reader’s ability {…} to arrive at that point. The method for frustrating that inclination is not simply to ignore everything associated with morality altogether but actively to complicate it, to provide multiple judgments, multiple moral viewpoints, within the work of fiction itself {…} Books that generate that sense of opposition internally, by credibly advancing more than one idea, are working at the highest level. Books that depend for their sense of opposition on the straw man of a presupposed bourgeois mentality outside the fiction itself–on shock value, in other words–are working in conditions of profound safety disguised as risk” (Emphasis mine).  This is a beautifully done paragraph, both marvelously concise and containing a marvelous truth about what matters in literature and what does not.

Reading Dee’s criticism called to mind my doomed effort to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Holy Mountain.” Jodorowsky is of course the director of “El Topo,” a surreal desert film about which he is famously supposed to have said, “If you are great El Topo is a great picture. If you are limited than El Topo is limited.” This is a clever way of saying, I guess, “You’re either with me or against me,” and does have the effect of pretty well boxing the viewer in. Holy Mountain goes above and beyond El Topo, overloading us with shock “value” such that, as in the case of Cooper and Palahniuk, shock seems to be the only value recognized. Now, I am fully aware that some hipster film buffs will look down their noses at me for suggesting this, but Holy Mountain is flat boring. Here’s how Slant Magazine describes the opening to the film: “A thief has been crucified in the desert, and after being rescued by a dwarf who revitalizes him with a joint, he ventures into a nearby totalitarian regime where storm troopers execute dissidents in the streets with birds flying from their open wounds. He joins a unique traveling circus where the conquest of Mexico is reenacted by hoards of costumed lizards and frogs. It’s not long before he discovers himself imprisoned within a hall of mirrors and surrounded by plaster versions of Jesus Christ.” All of this activity transpires in the first twenty minutes, which is as far as I made it. Turning off Holy Mountain, I wasn’t so much shocked as just weary. The mind, after all, can only absorb so much grandiously heretical religious symbolism before simply succumbing in a heap of deadened critical nerve endings.

Holy Mountain is in some ways not the best comparison with the kind of fiction that Dee is talking about. It is not at all minimalistic, as LeBute can be, but in fact pushes surrealism and overt symbolism past its breaking point while forgetting that to be about everything is, ultimately, to be about nothing. But being about nothing is exactly what Dee accuses Cooper, La Bute and company of being about: “To claim significance for a vacuum is easy; in the rueful words of Flannery O’Conner, something has to be in a story in the first place before it can then be artfully left out.” Stylistic differences aside, I wouldn’t want to read Dennis Cooper any more than I would want to watch the first 20 minutes of the Holy Mountain on a loop. Give me Dickens, Thackery or Trollope any day.

All in all, LaBute gets taken apart in the piece, but Palahniuk “the belief that an undefined existential boredom if sufficient motivation for even the most extreme behavior” and Cooper “the Emptiness of Modern Life is presumed to take the place of character development” come in for some pretty heavy weather. For me, Dee has forever turned me off so-called transgressive writers who “{work} in conditions of profound safety disguised as risk.” I might, however, still take a peek as Self sometime, whose The Quantity Theory of Insanity I read with interest, and who is perhaps unjustly included in Dee’s pantheon of modern writers who are about nothing.

  1. I freely admit I may have been pointed in the wrong Ballard direction, and short stories are a favourite genre of mine. I promise to hunt them down and see what I think.
    I also stand by Judge Dredd as a splendid example of the graphic novel, even though based in the comic format. In fact I firmly believe graphic novels to be a much maligned and misunderstood genre. One which may in fact deserve a post (read rant) on.

  2. Clever of you there Darren, but the trouble is, you read the wrong Ballard! If I recall, you read one of his post 2000 novels and “High Rise”–both do run on a bit–I’m not familiar with Mega City 1, but I get the feel of your point anyway. What you missed is the splendid early stories, the real gold. These are anything but shock fiction–they are lyrical, inventive, show a feel for character and a great feel for place. They are grand, and I stand fully behind them.

  3. Funny we get this post not long after a hard look at Ballard, who by my reckoning could well be added to the list of authors mentioned above. I’m struggling to remember a characters name or redeeming feature from my two attempts at Ballard, but what does seem to stick in my mind is the banality of what happened to them, which if I read above correctly is what defines “shock fiction”.
    In fact I had an epiphany while reading your Ballard posts. You see, I had just been to the huge new Kinokuniya book store in The Dubai Mall, where my two purchases were a manga book purporting to teach one how to read and write kanji (not yet gone through) and “Judge Dredd The Complete Case Files 10” (half finished within 30 minutes of getting home).
    It was not long into the latter that I realised Ballard was merely an inhabitant of Mega City 1, but not half as much fun without the pictures.

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