Emotional manipulation in fiction

Well, let me start by saying that all fiction does have some degree of manipulation. Heck, fiction itself starts from authors creating settings, characters and atmosphere and I think sub-consciously they do aim for a certain kind of reaction from the readers. But, what if you come across a book with content that is just blatantly and excessively manipulative – the kind where you feel like you are being “told” how you are supposed to feel?

A Little Life is always going to be one of my most unforgettable two-star reads. It pushed, no, tore the envelope of emotional manipulation into a million pieces by inserting scenes, plot “twists” and laborious descriptive paragraphs of both extremes – the goodness of friendship amongst wealthy men with insanely successful professional lives and the relentless violence against the human body and soul. A few days after reviewing the book, I was searching for the author’s interviews online and .. I don’t know what I was hoping to find, but I guess I just wanted to read Yanagihara’s thoughts about her own book. I just read a few of her statements and what struck me is her admission that the negative extremes (related to abuse) was intentional. I was taken aback because “manipulation” is usually seen as a negative opinion in book reviews.

Which brings me to my next question:

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For me, it doesn’t. At least not while we are on the topic of this discussion post. Knowing intent doesn’t nullify the judgment I might have already made based on the content of the book. If I had judged the author, then yes, having an insight helps to know where the author was coming from and maybe I would change my opinion about the author. But NOT my thoughts on the book.

So, is saying that a book is being overtly manipulative a constructive point of criticism in book reviews? Is it something that plagues any particular genre(s) of fiction? I have grown up reading literary fiction, so it is one of my favorite genres. There is a lot I love about them, but one thing I found quite annoying, especially in books dealing with “heavy” topics, is the lazy scene placements or descriptions which are cues for me to start crying.

This brings me to:

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  1. Well, it just feels disingenuous. If the characters are all well-developed with a personality that sings “Original”, we will connect with their journey THROUGH the story’s progression. There is no need for any other “extra effort”.
  1. Sometimes, less is more. I just feel like in some stories, especially the “issue-based” books, too much of “explaining” or “dwelling” causes desensitization towards the issue, thereby doing a disservice to the cause.
  1. I feel like sometimes, this is just used to cover other basic shortcomings of the book. I also feel that narrative humor is sometimes undervalued in favor of dense moments of drama because there is a perception that the latter is more likely to get critical acclaim (?)

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So, what do you think? Is this something that is more common in “issue-based” book than, say, the funny and lighthearted reads? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

(Note: Image credit: https://www.brusheezy.com/backgrounds)