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31 July 2008


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The lectern / podium confusion was recently featured on the NPR show A Way with Words. As far as thrillers and manipulation goes...does at least part of you feel like Neo does when he sees the matrix? It's like you've gone through to the other side. This gives you power! It's not just thriller writers that are manipulative. Better writers are better at hiding their tricks. In a way, this is an argument for reading the classics. The story, the plot of a classic, is usually well known, so what you're reading for is great writing, or an unforgettable character, or an insight into the world, or some other wonderful thing.

I'm surprised you didn't mention Jodi Picoult as a master manipulator, she's supposed to be pretty bad.

Hm, I should have listened to that segment on lectern vs. podium; I'm not sure I'd know the difference. But "lecturn" was just so darn cute.
You probably have a point about writers' skill and the obviousness of their manipulation. I just finished and loved Ian McEwan's "Atonement," which was also probably manipulative, but I'll say this for it: I didn't know if I was supposed to cry, just sit quietly, or just feel very very bad. What a great book, even if sad.

I likes the classics. If I had world enough and time I'd read them all, you'd better believe it.

Every now and then I like to let a day go by without taking a big swing at Jodi Picoult, just to mix things up a little bit. You're totally right though. She's terrible AND a manipulator. She takes it one step further and manipulates interest by writing books with "stories ripped from the headlines." Master Manipulator. Blech.

Okay, I'm not going to take a stand either way (not because I don't have one...but because I'd rather just encourage more discussion...which hopefully this will), but you, Citizen Reader, like non-fiction, right?

Are you telling me that non-fiction books don't overtly try to manipulate? As opposed to most fiction books, which I will, for purposes of my argument, say are much more subtle in how they try to manipulate? At least fiction books are usually trying to manipulate your feelings as opposed to your beliefs.


That is a very fine distinction and point.

Hm. I like it more the more I think about it.

In answer to your first question: I heart nonfiction. Nonfiction is my first love. I live for nonfiction. So yes. To say that I like NF would be accurate.

In answer to your second query, yes, NF authors could often be seen to be manipulating their readers, although I think "persuade" might be a better term for what NF authors try. They try to persuade their readers that they have the most facts, the best information, the right viewpoint, etc. (Not all, but definitely some.) But here's the difference: I love it when people try to change my MIND. I can and have changed my mind on several major issues over the course of my lifetime, and hope to do so many more times. Trying to persuade me, to change my mind, to teach me, to provide more information? For that I can only be grateful.

But to change my feelings? That pisses me off. I don't mind a book that AFFECTS my feelings (hello, "River Runs Through It," making me sad and happy and thoughtful all at once) but I do not like it when a book tries to create my feelings. This may have something to do with the fact that I abhor sentimentality (note to Brandon: I'm stealing your wording from your "I abhor positivity" statement--thanks!). I don't like that in my NF reading either, which explains why Mitch Albom is on my list of least favorite authors ever, as is John Grogan.

That may be more than you needed to know. Whew! What a great question. And, p.s.? You should never be afraid to take a stand here, or that that wouldn't encourage discussion. We're all pretty used to saying what we want around here, and yet getting along all the same.

Excellent response to my question. I like your distinction between persuading and manipulating. :)

I really like discussions like this...they definitely foster my thinking!


Thanks CR and also Trish, I am just about overwhelmed by thinking about distinctions between manipulated feelings vs. beliefs, in fiction vs. nonfiction.

I loathe the term "over-thinking" but that is probably closely related to the fact that I have spent lots of time pondering what "over-thinking" (as opposed to reasonably thought-out?) might actually mean.

Also, loathe ALL Picoult, have tried all and failed to read ANY of her books. Plus, Ian McEwan writes gorgeously. I would read his rendition of the telephone book, to mangle some sort of old saw. Nope, not "plot-driven" but for sure word-driven? And thank god, not drivel.

My favorite mainstream fictions, off the top of my head are "Smilla's Sense of Snow" and "The Coffee Trader" and "March". Violent, character driven novels with a strong sense of place? But it is the wordsmithery and the unpredictability that pulled me in... I think, in reading nonfiction, you expect to LEARN something about a topic you are less-informed about (well, at least I do). But in fiction, you want to learn insight into something you are experienced with but unable to identify? uh, messed this up but somehow Dickens and Eliot help me sort out my personal demons.

slinking off,

Aren't all books, by their nature, manipulative? All writers are egotistic, with something to prove. All writers read something and then think, "Hmpf. I can do better." The correct term for this, I believe, is "inspiration." And yes, they all have certain tricks to try and keep you reading.

I think it's really a question of what you're being manipulated into. Thrillers aren't really meant for discussion--they just keep you reading for a few hours. There's no big message; you just put the book down and move on to the next. Maybe you hate thrillers because they're like eating fast food? I mean, when's the last time anyone had anything neat to say about McDonald's? "Marcy, I absolutely MUST tell you about the WONDERFUL Egg McMuffin I had this morning!" Yeah right. You eat your damn Egg McMuffin. End of story.

And what is it with you and thrillers? I think you secretly like them! First Patterson, now this guy. I think you like pigging out on your Patterson-Child Big Mac!

Okay, maybe I'm over-thinking things. (Ahem.) But if you really want to read a thriller that's actually quite enjoyable and thought-provoking, try "Fatherland" by Robert Harris. It's like a pulp mystery, but it imagines what things might've been like if Germany had won World War II. In "Fatherland," it's 1964 and Hitler is turning 75. He and American president Kennedy (Robert, if I remember correctly) are about to meet and make peace. Maybe not the most original premise, but I like Harris's execution. Much of the book is actually grounded in true history; the murder victims, for example, were real Nazi officers. Harris kept it realistic, didn't overimagine things. It's a page-turner, but it makes you think.

Laundress dearest,
Yes, I too liked the question of thinking vs. feeling, and manipulation in fiction and nonfiction. I am still chewing it over.

I'm with you on the Jodi Picoult, can't read her, tired of trying. Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is my new best friend. After "Atonement" I am ready to go on a McEwan bender--what a heady intoxicating world this world of fiction is! Have also always meant to read "The Coffee Trader," thanks for the reminder, will get on that next.

Are you motivated more by thinking you can do better than something you read, or by wishing you could create something as beautiful as something you read and loved?

Yes, of course, a lot of books are manipulative. But I don't know that they all are. I really feel that truly superlative books are the ones the authors had to write, regardless of what the reader does with them (or how financially successful they are). In fact, I would argue there's a direct relationship between how manipulative something is and how much money it makes. Jodi Picoult, Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love," all designed to yank on the old heart- and purse-strings.

Sigh. Maybe we're all over-thinking things! But I'll admit over-thinking always gives me a bit of perverse joy (if Mom had a computer, here's where I'd say, take that, Mom!).

And thank you for the Robert Harris suggestion. I LOVED Pompeii, manipulative or not, and have not tried Fatherland, partly because whenever I even hear the phrase "World War II" I cover my ears and go LA LA LA I CANNOT HEAR YOU LA LA LA. I should probably get over that too.

p.s. In my former role as a librarian and present role as a writer of reference books about books, I feel it is my duty to read and at least try to understand the appeal of thrillers, especially Patterson, because he is so popular. Rest assured that if I ever work with people who genuinely like thrillers and Patterson, I do not tell them Patterson's a no-talent ass clown (which is only my opinion anyway). I honestly try to find other books they might like, and I have a lot of fun asking them to tell me what they liked about Patterson. But this blog is not really my job, and so I can be honest. Poverty has its compensations, even if health care is not among them.

I'm with Brandon - there ARE some thrillers that have chapters longer than 3-5 pages and that don't have a cliffhanger at the end of every one of them. FATHERLAND was a very thought-provoking book. That's the kind of thriller I like. Other examples are "Brandenburg Gate" by Henry Porter and "Traitor's Kiss" by Gerald Seymour. I find that British former PRINT foreign correspondents, and even some American ones, tend to write well in this vein. I dunno, would you call John LeCarre's books thrillers? In one sense you could.

BTW, James Patterson ET. AL. novels are not as crazily popular this year as they used to be - perhaps too much white space?

Speaking of military thrillers, have you read any by Suzanne Brockmann? JUST CURIOUS. I admit I went through a phase (hard as it is to admit).

Of course you and Brandon are right. I have enjoyed other thrillers, and most of the time, I enjoy short-ish chapters. But all that white space is a bit, well, slapdash.

SO glad to hear the Patterson star may be waning? It's about time.

I have not read Suzanne Brockmann. I think I will add her to the ol' TBR pile. Do you like her?

I think thrillers are appealing because they don't require much thought and reader engagement. My mom and stepdad love thrillers. Not to say that they're stupid or anything. My stepdad likes Grisham because "he writes the way people speak." Which is true; Grisham won't ever be teaching a creative writing course. My stepdad just likes the undemanding prose. I guess I can't really fault him; after a long day of work at the Justice Department, after years of college and master's degrees, he doesn't want to read something taxing, or that makes him feel like he's back in school. He just wants to unwind.

Granted, he reads all kinds of books. He liked "In Cold Blood," and actually had a lot to say about it. But you'll never see him reading Tolstoy.

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