Monday, December 3, 2012

Purposeful Ignorance

As a one-time Philosophy major, my ears perk up whenever I hear people talking about moral dilemmas. I know, it's dorky, but I kinda can't help myself.

The other day I heard a piece on the radio about the concept of purposeful ignorance; or the decision to ignore wrongdoing. The phrase, and discussion that followed caught my attention because it's possible to draw parallels between that concept and the one of suspended disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is something all fiction writers require from the people who consume their work. Vampires and werewolves aren't real. We know that. And yet, millions of people suspended their disbelief long enough to whip through thousands of pages about Edward and Bella and write countless more pages of fanfiction.

The place purposeful ignorance and suspension of disbelief part ways is the same place that separates fact from fiction.  But, I started to wonder, is it that simple? In many cases the lines between fiction and fact are, at best, fuzzy. Or to put it another way, one person's factual retelling of a series of events can sound like fiction to another person who experienced the same set of events.

Maybe fiction isn't as safe as we think it is.

Is the enjoyment of a novel that describes all kinds of wrongdoing based, in part, on the author's experiences, repurposed and packaged in the guise of fiction, another kind of purposeful ignorance?

 If so, it gives a whole new layer to the phrase 'guilty pleasure'. That being said, I'm pretty sure our societal duty not to ignore wrongdoing (murderers, shoplifters, those inconsiderate people who speed through crosswalks) isn't imposed when we pick up a work of fiction.

In fact, it's the one place where we get to enjoy all that bad behavior without any personal least that's how I'm rationalizing my love of detective novels and twisted family sagas. What do you think?


Kristen Wixted said...

I'll jump right in because I am fairly obsessed with TV episodes of Law and Order and the (now ended) Closer. I love watching how the detectives figure out the murderer and I never feel bad for anyone.

Sounds good to me!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

As long as they get the bad guy in the end, I'm all right with that.

Connie J Jasperson said...

Good should triumph, for me to really enjoy a morality tale. I am naive that way!

Marilyn said...

I think it's perfectly all right to escape into a novel. It helps me cope with real world problems when I identify with the issues a fictional character faces. The Lord of the Rings helped me through junior high, when I felt like some kind of Middle Earth creature caught in a dark and evil land...I don't think I could have made it without the escape valve of fantasy!

Barbara Watson said...

Escape is good and important, but all in all, I still want the bad guy to go down.

Anonymous said...

As long as there's consistency, I can pretty much go along with whatever plot unfolds.

Carol Kilgore said...

Of course you're right! Especially since I write crime fiction. And I enjoy writing from the villain's point of view, too. Maybe I should see a shrink :)

Johanna Garth said...

Kristen, I never do either, but suddenly I'm wondering if I should.

Alex, sometimes I like it better when the bad guy gets away.

Connie, but your books aren't naive at all!

Marilyn, I love the idea of using fiction as an escape valve to work through things that are too difficult to address in real life.

Barbara, is it upsetting/unsatisfying if the villain doesn't?

lb, me too. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but I need it.

Carol, writing is your shrink!

Morgan said...

Oh, I totally agree with you, Johanna... It's SO fun to live through these other characters... and I totally consider it rationalization, LOL!

Liza said...

As long as I'm reading through the POV of a good guy, I'm ok.

Unknown said...

Not to mention we grow as individuals, too. We can learn from the characters' mistakes. :D

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Giant Freaking Robot posted an article on Facebook which claimed gun sales are at an all-time high in the U.S. and blamed the zombie fiction craze. (Personally, I think Hurricane Sandy and predictions about the apocalypse might have something to do with it, too.)

What's scarier? People who buy guns in case zombies are real? Or people who buy guns in case they need to shoot people for groceries?

Nicki Elson said...

I love to love a bad guy...fictional bad guy. It's safe naughtiness. Though I can't stay immersed in dark themes too long without feeling a little icky.

Deana said...

I used to hate conflict in shows, movies, anything. Now I'm okay with it as long as it all ends good. I just can't help it:)

Hart Johnson said...

I think one of the greatest skills an author can have is making bad behavior understandable... sympathetic, even. I am a shades of gray gal (not 50 Shades of Gray, but as opposed to black and white) and think MANY rotten things people do have real reasons. But ADEQUATE? Now THAT makes a good story.

Clare Wilson said...

I don't know if enjoying literature about criminal/wicked behavior is a bad thing. First of all, usually we prefer it when the bad get their come-uppance, which means that we haven't totally indulged in purposeful ignorance.

Second, I think that much of the time real criminals in life are too scary and monstrous for us to appreciate as human. And yet, we wonder why they act the way they do. Being able to get inside their head in a work of fiction gives us understanding of their humanity, which is important I think - both so that we can give pity where it's needed and so that we can learn how NOT to act like that.

Anyway, this is my first time commenting on your blog, but I've been reading it for a couple of months now. I enjoy your posts very much :)

jenny milchman said...

I love the phrase, and love having a place where we can watch the badness--and the baddies usually get punished.

Diana Wilder said...

Enjoyable! I think, as readers, we're in a different situation from someone actually seeing wrongdoing unfold and looking away. (That terrible incident on the NY subway where a photographer, seeing a man on the tracks about to be hit by a train, snapped a photo that made the front page of the POST). He had an excuse, and it may be valid; I'm not praising or condemning him.

However, people on the tracks could have run to help the man or tried to.

As a reader, though, you're up in a cloud, watching things happen, seeing motivations, knowing more than those dealing with the events. You have no influence on the action, you can only enjoy or deplore it. And you can relax in the care of the Storyteller and see what happens.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


Arlee Bird said...

I think willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on the belief of possibilities. Most of us would say that werewolves and vampires don't exist, but there is that sliver of possibility that they could.

Exploration of the remote realms of what might be based on what we know draws a reader into the fictional world to enjoy that what if experience. The more fantastical and unbelievable, the probability that the audience for that fiction will be smaller if any at all.

But, sure, to vicariously experience that which we hopefully will never or will improbably be able to leads us to live the nightmare or the dream in the pages of fiction.

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