I see a lot of movies -- far more than I blog about -- and I see many of them with my friend Barbara. Barbara is a tough critic. We enjoy arguing about movies. Often her objection is, "That was too manipulative; I don't like having my emotional buttons pushed," a comment that usually leaves me frustrated. All fiction, cinematic or print, is about manipulating the viewers'/readers' reactions. You are trying to get them to laugh or cry or gasp or wonder or sympathize or shudder. Authors push emotional buttons; that's what we do. So the question becomes, When is that legitimate and when not, and if not, why not?
One of the easiest ways to get an emotional reaction from anyone short of H.L. Mencken is to put a child in fictional jeopardy. The problem is that it's also one of the easiest ways to make a reader feel overly manipulated. It can feel not legitimate just because it's too easy. And yet children are in jeopardy all the time: from illness, from war, from famine, from sociopaths, from neglectful or abusive parents, from life. Charting the line between honest exploration of a child in danger and pushing Barbara's buttons is not simple.
Jodi Picoult, popular NEW YORK TIMES bestseller, uses the kid-in-danger formula often. In her latest, HANDLE WITH CARE, I think she crossed the line. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD] Six-year-old Willow O'Keefe was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease of very brittle bones that break at a touch. The majority of the novel concerns a law suit brought by her parents against a doctor. That far, the novel felt legitimate to me, especially since Picoult writes from everyone's viewpoint, using multiple first person with great skill. However, in the last ten pages of the novel, the parents win their law suit -- after which Willow falls through the ice on a pond and drowns.
I felt massively manipulated.
Yes, kids drown. But this was not a book about losing a kid that way. The ending felt thrown in for shock value, and I felt bitterly disappointed. But I also asked myself: Have I ever killed off a character just for shock value?
Yes. But not once past my first few "beginner" novels. And not through an accident unrelated to the plot.
Last week I found out that Gardner Dozois is taking my novella "Act One" for his Best of the Year. I am very pleased about this. The novella also concerns people born with disabilities -- dwarfism and a genetic change I invented -- but none of them fall through the ice in the last few pages. If Barbara read SF (which she does not) that is at least one charge I could escape. Did I manipulate too much in other ways? Well -- that's for my readers to decide. If any of you read the novella, please do let me know.