A few days ago I started a chat about literary fiction. In Part 1 I said (a) if I want to read something touching, I like it to be delivered with subtlety; and (b) that while I can enjoy moustachio villains, bad coincidences, and sadism in 80s entertainment lit, I resent it when an author mingles these elements with Serious Topics.
In Part 2 I spoilered the book that prompted these thoughts: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. (FYI I read the graphic novel adaptation.) What I disliked about it were: the mustachio twirling villain, the bad coincidences, and the rape/child molestation/child suicide sensationalism.
Grapthar's Hammer when a regular hammer will do. If you're writing pulp fiction then slamming the crap out of a nail is what's needed--shocking twists and crazy turns are part of the fun. We'll tolerate (just barely) a psychopath spending twenty years training man-eating pigs to take revenge on Hannibal Lecter, ending with a kidnapping and some brain eating. But the best literary fiction draws itself short of such anvil dropping, because it just isn't necessary for the purpose of most stories--to draw out emotion, or touch on a theme.
An author can use a series of indignities, like Death of a Salesman. Or a series of heartbreaking events that unfold slowly and painfully-realistically, without melodrama and fanfare, like A Fine Balance. Or a quiet evening that lays bare the intense sadness of a life, like The Glass Menagerie. Or a big stormy noisy story about something not inherently awful, but awful for the characters, like the "mendacity" of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Or the author puts the characters in a House of Horrors but employs a light touch because the situation is already so awful it doesn't require embellishment, like Maus (will discuss more next time.) Or the horror remains in the background, and the author only employs one big thud--like the guy suddenly fidning himself in a vast field of dead bodies, in The Killing Fields. Or most of the violent action is far away, but we see its impact on the members of a remote community (the Congo's independence in The Poisonwood Bible.)
Hosseini could have employed any of these techniques and The Kite Runner would have been improved. Okay the bully rape scene happens, but he doesn't appear later in the story, and the raped servant needn't be so blindly servile. Or he gives in to the bully and is assaulted anyway. (Speaking of which, why don't the bullies take the kite in the end? Weird.) There could still be an orphaned son, but he doesn't have to be abused, he could just be lonely, or traumatised at losing his parents--withdrawn and mistrusting for any number of poignant reasons. He could have become a street kid, old too early, hard to love (like those monsters in the favela movie.)
All these things in one book, it's too much. rape! betrayal! death! secrets! orphaned! coincidence! molestation! fight scene! betrayal! suicide! EASE.
Next time I'll talk about Maus as a counter example.