The Human Condition:

Afflicting the Audience – February 5, 2017

Depression-era stamp

It was the journalist Finley Peter Dunne—writing in the character of “Mr. Dooley”—who coined the original of the saying that journalism’s job was to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” This has since become one of the rallying cries of the liberal/progressive mindset. I first heard it attached to the art of storytelling from a fan in the audience of a panel I attended in the early 1990s at OryCon, the Oregon Science Fiction Convention held annually in Portland.1

This artistic doctrine seems by now to have thoroughly caught on with a majority of novelists, poets, painters, movie producers, and directors. In practice, the doctrine demands that one of two interpretations or results be associated with any creative work.

The first result is that the only acceptable subjects of a story or expository documentary would seem to be people in the bottom twentieth percentile of society economically and preferably also persons of color, either female, homoerotic, or transgender, who are conspicuously without political power, obvious talents, or personal attainments. The subject—normally I would say “hero” or “heroine,” but that would imply some dominant positive characteristic and a position of responsibility—does not succeed in the story by virtue of personal strength or through the application of any special wit, talent, or insight, because that would suggest an access to powers or characteristics lacking in others inhabiting similar situations. Instead, the subject must endure in his or her negative situation and arrive at whatever success the story allows either through dogged persistence or with the benevolent assistance of some community element or social group. The subject of the story is not supposed to be unique or elevated in any way, as that would suggest he or she was part of an elite rather than a random member of the mass society. Stories told in this vein are intended to comfort the afflicted by never suggesting that their negative situation and current humiliation is a reflection on their lack of education or acquired skills, their diminished initiative, or some poor decision-making. No one is to blame for their failure except society at large or the establishment hierarchy in particular.

The second result is that any story or documentary which does not focus on a member of the afflicted underclass or someone in a minority and oppressed condition is required to be couched in the most ugly, hateful, bizarre, or nonsensical terms. People gifted with strength, wit, talent, wealth, or a history of attainment must also harbor psychological deficits, shameful secrets, or criminal backgrounds. Their success must be based on unethical activity. Such people must be depicted as cold and brutal, or unfeeling and yet unhappy, or obscenely pleased with themselves in their allegiance to a corrupt world order. If they have wealth, it must be unable to yield them either pleasure or security and must also be displayed in the most crudely frivolous fashion. If they have talent, it must have been magically acquired without the application of discipline and hard work. If they have intelligence and cleverness, it must be free of any association with study, education, or imagination. If the subject starts out normal—that is, possessed of some education, modest talents, capable attitudes, and a degree of innate goodness, like most people on the planet—then he or she must be subjected to degradations and humiliations at the whim of wealthy psychopaths which put the subject in the proper—that is, afflicted—state of mind. Stories in this vein are meant to ridicule the comfortable and remind them that their world and their attitudes are hollow, corrupt, mean spirited, and unworthy of decent human beings. No one is innocent of wrongdoing.2

Do I exaggerate? Oh, a bit. And for effect. But still, it seems that too many books, plays, and movies these days are full of wretched and unhappy people, struggling against conditions they cannot master, living hollow and unfulfilled lives, and ending up badly.

Now, I am not saying I want only stories that are peaceful and serene, full of happiness and cheer. That would be the best of all possible worlds as imagined by a Candide or Pollyanna—and no more real that the depressed and desperate lives depicted in current popular culture.

True and meaningful stories involve conflict and loss. The main characters—even the heroes and heroines—must struggle against opposition that tests their resolve, their mettle, their wits, their hard-won talents, and their humanity. But the characters must start with at least some of these positive graces. The conflicts must be resolvable, rather than engrained in the hostile injustice of an uncaring universe. And the loss must be retrievable, or at least capable of being ameliorated, replaced with something better and more lasting, or accepted with a renewed and refreshed spirit. Finally, the characters must learn and grow, develop emotionally and spiritually, and come out at the end of the story in a new, better, more complete, or more resilient psychological space.

As a novelist, I reject the doctrine of celebrating the afflicted and denigrating the comfortable. Of course, I’m going to favor characters who start with at least some self-awareness, which includes their knowledge—and the reader’s—about their own faults and deficits as well as their talents and strengths. And although the characters may start in a comfortable position, or at least with their boat on an even if unsteady keel, it’s my job as a storyteller to pull away the cushions, rock the boat, and toss the character out on a hard shore. This is how personal character and resolve are tested, talents revealed, and native wit and resourcefulness demonstrated.

My business is to tell an entertaining story that reflects a certain kind of life: the kind that my readers will find interesting, instructive, or enlightening. Since most of my readers are at least moderately well-educated and possess the ambition and energy to set themselves up in a position where they have the money to buy and the time to read books, I am writing for a certain kind of person.3 Add to that my own interest in complex situations; my fascination with technology and machinery; my occasional bafflement at the mechanics of personal relationships, puzzles, and politics; and my drive to follow the logical consequences of actions in the past which promise to affect the future—and you have a very particular kind of writer who hopes to attract a like-minded reader.

In order to “engage”—to use that literary word—and satisfy these readers, I create and set in motion a certain kind of character: skilled, resourceful, self-reliant, wary, resilient, and tough. Whether my lead character is a man or a woman—and I am comfortable impersonating either gender4—the character must be ready to cope with problems, struggle against adversity, weigh resources and take chances, risk death and dismemberment, keep moving forward, and not complain about the cruelties of fate, the tactics of the opposing camp, or the burdens of personal weakness. In short, none of my characters—or my readers, who I hope would want to be like them—has any notion of being either smugly comfortable or sorrowfully afflicted.

I also like to write books from multiple viewpoints. In my stories, A may know something that B must learn or can only guess. And C may be waiting on one side of a door on which D is about to knock—or which he will shortly break through. In these cases, where I and my reader temporarily assume the viewpoints and personae of many different characters, I shy away from having any outright “mumping villains,” psychopaths, or despised wretches driving my stories. Most people, I believe, are trying to follow their beliefs and do their best—although some may be mistaken in those beliefs, and their perceptions may put them in conflict with the people around them. I find it much more satisfying to toss the reader into a situation where every character has a little bit of right and a bit of wrong on their side, rather than paint some as virtuous heroes and others as dastardly villains. I think this is also a truer picture of the way the world works.

Finally, I would rather engage my readers with a positive vision of how things might be than disgust them with a horrific vision of how things supposedly are. I want to catch their minds with honey, not vinegar. But then, sometimes I’m just an old romantic at heart.

1. That same convention yielded another fan in the audience who insisted that the only basis for modern stories was “race war, class war, gender war.” Oh, my! Where do I begin with a vision so narrowly focused on, and so tightly blinkered by, the political sphere?

2. Unless, of course, the main character is a superhero. Superheroes are magical beings operating under their own rule sets.

3. I decided long ago that I’m not trying to write for people who have no educational background or knowledge base, no sense of curiosity or wonder at the universe, and no interest in reading for pleasure. Such people simply are not going to buy or invest their time in books. Duh!

4. When I write from a character’s viewpoint, I try to reflect the inner person, who has goals to reach, friends and loved ones to keep and cherish, personal honor to defend, self-respect and public reputation to win and keep, and a place or niche in the larger society and economy to maintain. These are attributes that go deeper than the affiliations of gender. While I might offer a physical description to place the character in the reader’s mind, I usually don’t bother with fixations on secondary sexual characteristics and bathroom habits.