Friday, August 12, 2011

The tyranny of suspense

A couple of days ago Jonah Lehrer had a provocative squib in the Frontal Cortex, one of Wired’s science blogs. Lehrer reported the outcome of a study by two researchers at UC San Diego, who studied the effect of “spoilers” and concluded that “almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler.” Lehrer’s title summed up the results: “Spoilers don’t spoil anything.”

Lehrer goes on interestingly to speculate about the significance of the findings, but he misses the obvious. Namely: the research exposes the phoniness of suspense stories. Literature is not a game of suspense. We don’t read to find out what happened, but how—and how it could have ended differently.

In far too much bad fiction, suspense has replaced drama as the motive force of storytelling. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of fiction dedicated to the ignorant error—“thrillers.” Suspense, however, is the sworn enemy of good fiction.

To create suspense is to induce anxiety—that is, to cause distress. And naturally, then, the craving is for relief. You read as quickly as possible to discover what happens, to allay your uneasiness, to release the tightness in your chest. The outcome is not a literary experience—literature is the freedom to dream up other possibilities—but the unpleasant feeling of being manipulated. Anxiety has a “coercive character,” Karen Horney says. So does suspense.

Why then the widespread lust for thrillers and the obsession (as Lehrer puts it) with avoiding spoilers? My guess is this. Suspense has filled the vacuum left by the abandonment of tragedy in modern literature. Lehrer points out that, “for thousands of years,” the stories that were widely told and widely enjoyed were “incredibly predictable, from the Greek tragedy to the Shakespearean wedding to the Hollywood happy ending.” (That’s quite a jump, from Shakespeare to Hollywood, passing over the novel without a word, but Lehrer’s subject is science, not literary history.) The latest research confirms the preferences of those thousand years, Lehrer says: “We like it best when the suspense is contained by the formulaic, when we never have to really worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy.”

While he’s right about the worry—for reasons I’ve suggested—Lehrer is wrong about the containment. In fact, it’s just the opposite. (He’s also wrong about comedy, which still performs its traditional function.) What we like best is that things might turn out differently; Oedipus might not murder his father and marry his mother, or might not recognize that he has done so; Lear might not mistake a loving daughter for a hateful one. We are afraid for them—afraid that nothing can be done to avert their terrible tragedies—and we pity them when the worst befalls them. Lehrer is right that we usually know in advance what will happen. But how it happens—the accidental errors, the blown opportunities for repair, the avoidable recognitions—plays upon our emotions. The scuffle between inevitability and possibility, between containment and spillage, is the source of what used to be called the “tragic pleasure.”

(Romantic comedy operates on the same principle. As Lehrer says, the lovers’ coming together is “incredibly predictable.” The fun lies in the obstacles that hilariously delay the inevitable.)

By contrast, the resolution of a thriller is usually both pat and far-fetched. I don’t think I’ve ever read (or watched) a suspense story without feeling let down at the end. The difference lies in the emotions. Fear and pity are compliments to human freedom, to the possibility of change and variation in human stories; suspense and anxiety are the taxes paid by an impoverished culture of reading to the literary tyrant that occupies the throne once held by tragedy.


AJ said...

I actually disagree with your view of the thriller. The best thrillers are all about uncertainty, not merely anxiety. What you identify as the need to find out what happens in great thrillers is often the need to see how it happens.

Perhaps another aspect behind the popularity of the thriller is that a thriller is essentially an idealistic form in which chaos and disruption can be overcome. In many literary stories this is not usually the case--not only is literature not compelling to read, it leaves the reader with a sense of dread.

Andrew Fox said...

"Fear" and "pity" were certainly two emotions I experienced in abundance while reading Francine Prose's Blue Angel (which I picked up due to your recommendation). Would you classify this novel as a modern tragedy?