Facing grief and trauma in genre fiction

I’m a fan of adventure stories and genre fiction. Genre fiction covers a lot of ground, but you can probably guess what I’m talking about: fantasy adventures, intrigue, sci-fi thrillers, that sort of thing. Not, generally, the stories that literary critics make happy noises about and call “art” or “good literature.”

I don’t think genre writers should mould themselves to the expectations of literary critics. The personal tastes of many of those critics don’t match mine very well. They have too little appreciation for plot, for things happening, to really fit my tastes. But there are a few places where I think the general approach of genre fiction feels… emotionally dishonest, stunted, or like it (sometimes) does us as readers a disservice.

This puts me at risk of agreeing with those literary critics on a few points, which makes me (as a long-time ardent genre fiction fan) a little nervous. 

As you might guess from the title, my quibble revolves around characters’ experiences of grief and trauma in genre fiction. The pattern I see is that genre fiction doesn’t deal deeply or honestly with the impact of the traumatic experiences it puts its characters through. It prioritizes the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the problem solving… and leaves healing from one’s wounds—or picking up the pieces of one’s emotional and social life, or facing one’s lasting pain—entirely out of the picture. Facing trauma and grief, to put too-small a name to it.

A general caveat: I think the patterns I’m discussing here have changed somewhat since I was a kid. It is easier now to find exceptions to the pattern I talk about here, and the pattern may be shifting. But the pattern is still visible, and will probably be recognizable to anyone who’s read certain sub-genres (mil-fic is an easy example).

Where this kind of genre fiction does deal with that trauma and grief, it frequently responds with the blaring one-note horn of limited (toxic) masculinity: anger, revenge, and action, with no time set aside for reflection or any other emotional experience (generally regardless of the gender of the characters involved). I’m not surprised, really: I see in this the parallel discomfort modern American society has had with any discussion of emotional experience, or any need for psychological aid, spiritual counseling, meditative practice, or anything else meant to soothe and heal (maybe excepting the use of drugs or sex as an escape).

I don’t want all of my adventure stories to fixate on the main characters’ desperate need for therapy. That’s not the solution I’m looking for. But it would be nice for more of our genre fiction to, as I’ve seen more examples of recently, deal honestly with the impact of going through all of these exciting, interesting times. How is it that our heroes learn to cope? How are they breaking under the pressure of being heroic? Who’s supporting them, and how? Where are the quiet little moments of Frodo leaning on Sam in the face of terrible odds and endless danger?

I want to read stories where the heroes’ struggles in the face of unyielding badness are more palpably human, less opaquely stoic. And if our heroes are stoic, I want to see the work they put into maintaining that stoicism, holding that balance, despite the exceptional lives they live. It’s the failure to show this side of our heroes that feels like a disservice to us as readers.

That’s especially true in anything that isn’t epic or mythological. What I mean by that is, the further from the banalities of life the focus of the story falls, the more leeway I give it—if you’re writing about characters who are more-than-human or even forces of nature, I don’t have beef. But I’ll add that exploring the emotional depth of those characters (even off-handedly, I don’t need whole chapters about someone’s anguish unless that’s what the book is about) nearly always builds more connection for me and gives me a better sense of the character as a person. And I like that. The more I know what characters care about, and the more ways I have of exploring that, the better as far as I’m concerned. Especially if it’s done with a deft hand and subtly incorporated.

I hope that this old pattern will change. I can see ways that it already has, in the books I’ve enjoyed most recently. You can probably see me writing about those books, those stories, elsewhere on here. Let’s see more of that change.

Fury should be called Trauma

Brad-Pitt-Fury-Tank-Like a clown car, but with less comedy and more violent death.

War movies, in my mind, must tread a very fine line in order for me to consider them good.  I prefer for them to leave out bombast and propaganda, and I dislike seeing filmmakers pretty up what I regard as a fundamentally brutal and painful exercise in destroying human life.  To quote Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”  I don’t feel comfortable with anything that purports to show real life also showing war as a ‘good’ thing.  At the very least, it should be problematic and leave you feeling conflicted.  The problem, of course, is that if the film doesn’t also tell an engaging story few will go and see it.

I also recognize that I have very different expectations and desires for what I’ll call “action movies,” and I’m somehow more ok with an action film showing combat and war in a more glamorous or unrealistic light.  The recent A-Team movie, for example, totally ignores many of the realities of war and combat (and physics), and I was ok with that.  Some old WWII movies (like Where Eagles Dare) fall into the same category, though they seem to do a far worse job of overtly signaling their lack of contact with reality.

When I saw it, I wasn’t entirely sure where Fury stood with regards to this distinction between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and that left me uncertain of how I should feel.  As you might guess by the title of this post, much of the movie delivers an intensely traumatic view of the war… no, that’s not quite it: the movie follows a group of men who have been as traumatized by the war as seems possible, without having them break.  Even that may be pushing it, since the men certainly seem broken when you look at them more closely.  They’re just still able to do their job, which is killing others before others can kill them.  This, in my mind, is part of what makes it such a good war movie.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Fury does have an odd change in tone at one point.  It’s almost as though it consciously tries to straddle the divide between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and suffers for it.  This doesn’t make it a bad movie, but like I said above, it does leave me less certain of how I should feel.  I’ll give you more about this (and some other non-spoilery things) after the break.

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