The fangs of a snake might seem to overpower the fangs of a spider, and on the surface it can appear as though the match is uneven. But we can’t forget the impulsiveness of the snake and the patience of the spider. And we must remember a black widow sits nicely on the tongue of a viper. Its patience is beyond the fast acting poison in its bite.
We like to think of ourselves as civilized. We’d never want to watch two creatures battling it out to the death. And it would true. We don’t want to see it. So why do we? Why do we turn on the news and watch as people oppress other people, playing out the dramas of the worst parts of the human condition?
This post came about by two interactions. One was with my friend Brandon. When we were walking the track at Northeastern State University here in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, he asked me about my novel. And oh did I tell him. That’s one question you have to be careful of. Ask me about my writing and I’m going to talk incisively for about fifteen minutes straight. I’m sure he regretted the question after he asked. The other? It was from an exchange with a fellow blogger here on my website. They left a comment on my post about handling controversial topics in literature, Biting the Hand that Feeds Us: Handling Controversial Topics in Fiction, Art, and Life. Again I started rambling with this individual. I’m a relatively quiet person until you ask me to talk about literature, and then I’m annoyingly vocal.
So why is it? Why do we love controversial topics on the news, in books, and at the movies? On the surface we might appear to be diabolical and love to feed off negative energy, and to an extent that might be true for some of us (I have a few exes who might fall into that category), but ultimately there’s more to it.
“There are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.” — Neil Gaiman
My novel, Uncle Called Him Spider, features the battle of arachnid (Dean) versus reptilian (Snow). My protagonist (Dean) is arachnid and my antagonist (Snow) is reptilian. Both are unlikable. And to a certain extent you empathize with both as the novel progresses. Since Dean is the protagonist you have a little more reason to root for him but by his ruthless actions you don’t really want to. Since you know less about Snow you want to root for her but she is more ruthless than Dean. Seemingly if you knew more about her you might find yourself at a loss of who to champion.
So what do you do? The same thing you do when watching a spider and snake fight. As you watch, you can’t help but have empathy for both and not want either to die in the battle. But do you turn away? No, you don’t. You keep watching. Why? Is it because you want to know the outcome? That would be part of it. But I argue there’s a little more.
“To the unspoiled, even a snikebite is a loving kiss. But to the spoiled even a loving kiss is a snake bite.” — Mikhail Naimy
There’s a missing component to modern literary novels. They’re soft. Literary novelist are supposed to hold a mirror to society and force us to confront issues like racism. You find more value in a Hollywood movie like Get Out, which confronts liberal racism through the Horror genre. Are contemporary literary novelists pandering? Do they seek to conform to ideological versions of society so as to not insult a privileged and weak-minded audience? Or are literary writers cowards who underestimate the pallet of the modern literary reader?
I know, you’re wondering why we watch the spider and snake battle to the death. It’s because we can see ourselves reflected in the battle. We’re looking at a mirror, and by watching the brutality on the news like the brutality of two predators fighting to the death, we have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Its introspection we thirst for. We need to see the worst parts of ourselves reflected in others. There is no other way to purge our own bloodlust. And we literary writers should be brave enough to satisfy our readers with the opportunities to self-reflect.