People often describe authors as artists or craftsmen, but have you ever thought of them as master manipulators? I recently had a conversation during which a friend informed me that they never read fiction because they “didn’t like to be manipulated”.
At first my reaction was one of incredulity. How can anyone not enjoy stories? And how could such a cold word as “manipulation” be used to describe the process of journeying through someone else’s imagination?
But really, I suppose, that’s exactly what it is.
I have read tales depicting snowstorms so realistic that I have found myself huddled under a blanket in mid-summer and downed gallons of water to quench unreal thirst in sympathy for fictional characters stranded in equally fictional desert lands.
The other night I woke up feeling sick and calmed myself back to sleep when I “remembered” the cause: I had drunk several litres of blood after dinner. It was only the next morning, when I was fully awake, that I realised how odd this was. I had become so absorbed in the story I was reading in the evening that later, in my half-awake state, I’d actually thought I’d lived it.
Clearly, as a reader, I am very suggestible. I should keep that in mind when planning what to read before falling asleep – fewer vampire novels; more stories about sunshine and rainbows. When I get into a book, I really get into it. I absolutely experience the life and emotions of the characters.
And isn’t that what every writer strives for? To get the reader to care? To paint pictures and scenes with words so readers really believe they’re standing in that street? Sitting on that couch?
Of course, as both an editor and a reader, I regard all these experiences as signs of powerful writing – indications that the authors have the ability to captivate their audiences with nothing but words.
My compatriot, I suspect, would suggest that I must suffer from some form of readers’ Stockholm syndrome to view such manipulation in so positive a fashion.
I can’t really take issue with this stance that fiction is a manipulative experience to be avoided.* If someone prefers not to have their emotions falsely tugged or their adrenaline tested by make-believe events perhaps, on the face of it, that’s reasonable. Maybe not everyone is okay with waking up believing they might actually have drunk three litres of blood – who am I to judge?
But it does seem a shame to avoid one’s own imagination in this way.
There’s a kind of magic that takes place when a writer creates something – a person, a scene, a world, an event – with words; but the reader has to submit, yes, yield to the manipulation, in order for the spark to catch.
In some ways, it is a matter of trust. The imaginations of both the writer and the reader must come into play. The reader must trust the author to allow his or her words “in”; the author must trust his or her readers enough to set the words free in the first place.**
I’m still not sure I can see this as harshly as the word “manipulation” implies. There’s too much joy and exhilaration to be found exploring my own imagination and that of others.
I think good writing should touch your readers’ hearts, they should believe in your characters and their experiences. I think a true test of a story is whether your reader emerges at the end believing, even if it’s only for a moment, that it was all real; and I am far too biased to be able to see this as a bad thing.
What do you think? Have you ever felt manipulated by a writer (or a story)? Did this spoil your experience? Are you anti-fiction? How do you feel about trust between author and reader?
* I didn’t ask my friend how he felt about arguably similarly manipulative artistic enjoyments such as art, music or film. And of course, there are another ten blog posts in the idea that even (or especially) non-fiction writing can manipulate too. News, biography, autobiography, history, politics… there’s plenty of fodder there!
** Because let’s not forget, the author is dead. Death is a pretty big price to pay for a little mental manipulation… And now the internet is around and online discussion prevails, there are a lot more corpses.