Posted on

Psychological expressionism

I think–and this is by no means a new thought that I’ve had–that it’s better not to slam books for something they were never trying to do in the first place. If something is not a genre romance, the author never promised that the book would definitely have a love story and a happily-ever-after, so saying that the author screwed up because it lacks those things would be unfair; similarly, you don’t have a bad author for not providing a solution to a crime at the end, what you have is not a genre mystery. It’s fine to then go on and say, “I prefer romance,” or, “I prefer mystery,” or, “Even outside those genres, I prefer those elements in my non-genre fiction.” But there seems to me to be a useful distinction between what you want and what the author was aiming for.

I was thinking of this with a book I was reading, because the way the cast of characters was drawn differed from a psychologically realistic portrait in ways that seemed clearly deliberate. Only the protagonist got to be a fully realized individual with motivations and desires of their own. All the other characters were specifically arrayed against them, not just in the ways that people sometimes do oppose one, but in universally loathsome ways. In ways that entirely precluded being a fully realized individual with motivations and desires outside the protagonist. And this was done so completely that it seemed impossible to me that it could be an accident. Everything about these characters was calculatedly loathsome–no one ever just happened to like a food or a mode of dress that might be perceived as neutral or even liked by some readers or not by others. Everything was at a fever pitch of hatefulness, all aimed at the protagonist.

It struck me that rather than considering this failed psychological realism, a better term for it might be psychological expressionism. That, like in a Munch or Kandinsky painting, the supporting characters were all there not to be realistically drawn but to evoke a feeling in and about the protagonist–in this case the feeling of being all alone and persecuted. I’ve seen others that are about feeling overwhelmed, which are less disturbing than the persecution complex book I was reading and eventually set down and did not finish. You can dislike this mode of characterization just as you are not required to like a particular style of painting. But I think it’s useful to dislike it as itself rather than as something else.

One of the weaknesses of psychological expressionism in literature, of course, is that when it’s not a clear-cut case, it can blur into theory of mind problems in the author–just as half-assed Expressionism can blur into attempts at realism wherein the painter really just can’t do faces very well. But I don’t think that invalidates it as a deliberate artistic choice. And once people are making it as a deliberate artistic choice, I want the vocabulary to talk about it. So here we are.