Posts Tagged ‘Alejandro Jodorowsky’

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: Continue Reading