What Novels Tell Us About Our Society

Total government corruption is no longer far-fetched.

Back before the economy tanked, I used to buy books which purported to teach how to write.  After grinding through several, I found a quote from Isaac Asimov, "Just sit down at the typewriter and write what occurs to you."  He added that writing down was easy for anybody who could use a computer but that occurring could be an issue for some.

One of the books pointed out that if an author wanted a novel to sell, it's vital to have characters speak and act in a plausible manner based on what readers believe about human motivation and how the characters operated within their society.  If a character's actions or dialog would strike a reader as odd, the writer had better explain.

The book pointed out that it was not uncommon for a man and woman in a story to pretend to hate or dislike each other in public while being secretly in love - Romeo and Juliet come to mind - but that the opposite never appeared in a story.  Few people would believe that it was possible for two people to act as if they were in love in public while secretly hating each other.

This example illustrated the point that a novel would never sell well if people couldn't identify with its fundamental premises about the plot or with the actions and motivations of the characters.

What Novelists Tell Us About Ourselves

If this insight about a necessary characteristic of successful novels is true, our novelists are telling us that our society is in deep trouble indeed.  Let's connect a few dots.

When I was in high school in the early 1960's, novels I read presented all government actors as good guys.  US Marshals wore white hats and fought for truth, justice, and the American Way.  FBI agents fought crime while prosecutors tried to lock up bad guys instead of seeking publicity to get them elected governor.

1970-Era Bad Government

Soon after I graduated from college in the late 1960's, I read a novel set in a near-future where medical records were computerized and every person's record included their tissue type.  The President's brother had a bad heart.  Unfortunately, he had a rare tissue type and no replacement hearts were available despite his impeccable political connections.

The bad guys hacked into the medical database and found a young woman whose tissues matched the President's brother.  They then solicited a bribe from him to jump the queue for a replacement heart.  The last step was to arrange for the girl to die in a carefully-coordinated auto accident, after hacking into the DMV computer to create a fake "organ donor" card so their EMTs could harvest her heart.

When the hero and heroine found out and sought proof, they were nearly murdered by FBI agents acting at the behest of the President's brother.  In the end, the truth came out and the President resigned even though the novel made clear that he'd had nothing to do with either the crime or the cover-up.

I remember feeling queasy as I read the novelist's depiction of how readily the FBI agents were willing to murder - was this an accurate depiction of the attitude of the FBI?  Were J. Edgar Hoover's critics right after all?  The novel made me wonder about my government and to think of it in a different way.

When Pres. Reagan ten years later said that government was the problem, I was not surprised or confounded; when FBI sniper Horiuchi murdered Vicki Weaver as she stood in her husband's cabin holding her baby in her arms, I wasn't totally blindsided as so many Americans were.  For me, truth had merely caught up with fiction: government agents were willing to commit murder.

2010-Era Bad Government

I recently ran across a novel centered around a series of murders which were eventually traced to an inner-city brothel.  The brothel-keeper had a sideline of filming customer behavior for the porn market.  Management didn't use the films for blackmail because customers would realize the source and might retaliate; they simply sold them on unlabeled as to the names of the performers.

One day, the director of America's national security apparatus produced an accidental snuff film by being overly harsh with an uncooperative brothel employee.  Management didn't realize who he was and passed the film into their distribution channel like any other.  When the bureaucrat found out, he had his minions start offing anyone who had anything to do with the establishment.

After the heroine survived a gun battle in which one of the director's agents was killed, she and her sidekick resolutely swore to bring the director to justice because "nobody is above the law."  Despite this pledge, the novel ended without the director being pulled down.  This author presented a scenario where government agents not only committed multiple murders, they murdered with impunity.

Another novel centered around a District Attorney who had collected blackmail information on the police chief, the mayor, and other town officials.  In order to be permitted to pursue a murder investigation which seemed to be leading to the DA, the hero had to break into the DA's office and steal his trove of blackmail material.

In my youth, fictional good guys didn't do that sort of thing; it wasn't necessary.  Corruption wasn't that well entrenched in the world we lived in then and would have seemed implausible in a work of fiction set in something resembling the real world.  Not so today.

How Common Are Government Crooks?

We've seen how high-ranking Democrats can take bribes and avoid paying income tax with impunity.  Money and power go together.

Can murder with impunity be far behind fiction?  There are many people who already believe that's the case as any number of conspiracy websites demonstrate.

Are fiction and conspiracy theories simply the feverish ramblings of overactive imaginations?  We used to think the conspiracy theorists were nut cases, but novelists who are attuned to what's credible and what's not are telling us that more and more people are believing worse and worse of our government.

Are the novelists deluded?  Or are they the leading edge of a murmur of fear from an unsettled American public who doesn't know quite what to believe, but has a vague sense that something has gone badly wrong in high places?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Just because something seems plausible to the general public doesn't make it plausible, just as the opposite is true.

I don't think that the government has actually changed much over the past fifty years, albeit I've only just barely been alive for most of the last fifty years. I think the difference is that people are willing to admit the failings in their government and that people fear their government more now than they have in the past.

Which may not be an all bad thing. After all a populace that knows their government is capable of wrong doing will be willing to admit to it when it is presented to them.
June 23, 2009 10:38 PM
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