I’m Here For an Argument, Part 1

I recently finished David Zarefsky’s audio course on argumentation and reasoning. (Yes, I buy things out of mail-order catalogs. Leave me alone.) In that course he went into great detail in explaining how arguments work, what kinds of arguments we come across, how they succeed and fail. Many of these aspects of making and responding to arguments, I never paid much attention to before.

I started to wonder: how do we make arguments using fiction? I started to think about my own work. I’ve been working on a short story about zombies (I never claimed to think deep thoughts) and I realized that in that story I’m making points I think are important about friendship and fellowship, the nature of illness, and pacifism. But those points are a mess; I’m not arguing them very effectively, and I want to know why. These next few blog posts are the result.

Now I suspect that there is a large and rich body of scholarly literature on the subject, but I’m lazy and like to make stuff up. (I kid, a little. I’d love to read anything you care to suggest on the subject!) As it turns out, I can blather quite a lot on this subject, so I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts, which I’ll post over the next week or so, making adjustments according to the feedback I get.

What Argument Is Being Made?

I see arguments in fiction all the time: characters argue with each other, for an easy example, and the results of those arguments steer the plot or affect how the reader thinks of those characters. Those arguments are interesting, but they’re rarely used to make a larger point about life, the universe and everything. I’ll talk later on about some subjects that will make those arguments more effective.

The arguments I’m interested in here, though, are the ones where the author is the one doing the arguing. If you follow me on Twitter you know that I’m a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now that was a book that made an argument! Tolstoy really wanted you to know exactly what he thought, for example, of the Great Man theory of history. He wanted it so badly that he stops the action to just flat-out lecture on the subject.

Fiction can be more subtle than that.

First, let’s talk a little bit about the kind of arguments that are made in fiction, just make a broad sweeping generalization for the point of argument *ahem*. I am going to claim that there are two basic fictional arguments (these are my terms, and are probably poor ones):

  1. Arguments that explore an issue.
  2. Arguments that seek to persuade.

In an exploration, the author seeks to explore all the dimensions of an argument, either to illuminate its complexities or to discover an answer through writing. I almost called this one “the essay” — in the original meaning of the term, from the French “to try” an essay was intended as a short piece to try out some ideas, to put some thoughts down on paper. To my mind, you know a pure exploration when at the end, you can’t quite figure out what conclusion author comes to; usually both/all sides of the argument are portrayed with sympathy, and characters who are identified with one side of the argument or the other are not portrayed as irrational jerks.

There are plenty of good examples, especially among stories where the argument isn’t the focus. Douglas Adams did a lot of exploring, I think; it felt sometimes that he was dancing around a point without actually making it. Vegetarianism was one of those topics — DNA was, I gather, himself a vegetarian, but I feel from reading his work that he was more interested in exploring what that meant (talking cows that want you to eat them!) than making a point about it. I’d also like to mention Ken Liu’s short story Běidǒu, in the anthology “The Dragon and the Stars“. I still don’t quite know whose side he takes on the apparent conflict between progress and preservation of virtue, and it drives me nuts.

In a pure persuasive story, the author has a point the he or she wishes to carry the day, and is telling the story to make that point. Aesop’s fables, Jesus’s parables, Plato’s dialogues, and Ayn Rand’s novels all fit into this category. Frequently you find sympathetic characters who are dealing with idiots and assholes — half the books on my shelf as a kid basically used that structure to argue “grownups should leave kids alone!” And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Gosh, the Lord of the Rings also kind of fits that description” then either you’re getting ahead of me, or you’ve read Michael Moorcock’s essay.

Despite the examples I used, I’m not saying that the story itself is necessarily wholly argumentative, or even primarily so. I’m going to suggest later, though, that all stories make some argument to some extent (and that knowing what that argument is will help you write it) Many make multiple arguments, of both types. There’s a continuum at work here, and I think that if we consider the individual argument to be the unit under discussion rather than the individual story, it will be easier to categorize.

Now, I said something insidious in that description of explorations: does the author really explore all the dimensions of an argument? Not all conceivable dimensions are relevant, and of those that are, not all fit in the space allotted. Choices are being made, then, to determine what the dimensions of the argument are going to be explored, and those choices are not always the one a reader would make, and they’re not always made without an agenda. Seeming to present an array of dimensions gives the appearance of open-mindedness, but that can mask intentional exclusions: A narrative biography that “explores” the question of whether Gerald Ford was a great president or the greatest president isn’t nearly as exploratory as one that also explores whether he might have been a lousy one. Furthermore, when an author is very skilled at making a point, it can be done in such a way that it LOOKS like an exploratory argument… but somehow everyone seems to come to the same conclusion after reading it, don’t they?

On the flip side, many authors, in exploring an argument, feel that they need to come down on one side or the other simply for the sake of closure. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express can be viewed as an exploration of the question of what constitutes justice in a capital crime: when is it OK to commit murder? When is it OK to let murderers go free? (This was made much clearer in the wonderful made for TV version starring David Suchet, by the way) Christie herself seems to waver, but a mystery needs a resolution. Her solution is for Poirot to lay out the facts of the case two different ways: one that captures the true but emotionally difficult solution, the other a palatable lie. Poirot himself does not choose which interpretation carries the day, and I think in this way Christie got away with only weakly coming down on one side of the argument.

As I said earlier, there’s a continuum at work here, and I think that knowing where your story is on it, will help you accomplish your goals more effectively. That raises questions: if you make an argument and the readers disagree, does that detract from enjoyment of the story? As Dorothy Parker said of Mussolini’s novel The Cardinal’s Mistress (which I suspect made a few minor arguments…), “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Is that, rather kinetic, potential reaction a reason to bury your arguments deeper, or muddle them with a little more exploration? Conversely, if you fail to come to a strong conclusion, will your readers throw your book across the room anyway? I don’t have answers to these questions, but they’re worth thinking about.

Many thanks to Andromeda Yelton for her comments on Part I. In Part II, I’m going to discuss what I believe to be another, orthogonal, axis: who in the story makes the argument? Do the characters make the argument, or does the world? I’m already written the first draft, but I’m open to suggestions.

As usual, I’m probably full of shit. Feel free to say so in the comments below. 🙂

(ETA: Part II is up!)

8 thoughts on “I’m Here For an Argument, Part 1

  1. I think there’s also a hybrid situation, where you can’t really tell whether the author is exploring the issue or not. That comes up when you have a specific character who clearly believes something, and argues for it, but there isn’t necessarily anyone else in the story at that point who has something to say in opposition. So it can come off as the view of the author, even when the author was just trying to, say, have a fully-fleshed out villain. Is this a question of authorial skill? Is it necessarily a problem if the reader wrongly concludes “gee, that character is really convincing, and the author wouldn’t have written that way if they weren’t speaking through that character”?

    I am genuinely unsure what I think about this.

    1. Hmm. I see your point. In general I would say that identifying an argument with a villain is a way of discrediting it, but that’s not always the case.

      There’s a separate issue here, too: at what point is it appropriate to distinguish authorial intent from the result on the page? I’ve seen quite a few writers get into, ah, lively discussions over the arguments that their readers think they are making. To some extent, there is some projection going on: the reader wants the writer to be making this argument, saw that argument made by that writer in another story or an interview (and so has good reason to expect to see it in this one) or starts to believe it and then sees evidence for that belief everywhere. On the other hand, that’s a reason to strive for clarity, and certain psychoanalysts would say that the reader might be picking up on a subconscious point.

      I think that I would prefer to stick to authorial intent, but except for my own stories I do not know authorial intent for most of the examples I use. So I’m conflicted as well.

    2. Let me clarify my response a bit: by authorial intent I don’t mean what the author personally believes, but what argument the author is intending to advance. For example, consider Niccoli Machiavelli: I’ve generally always heard that he did not believe the arguments that he made in The Prince. It’s not necessarily clear what he hoped to gain by making those arguments, but his intent was (most likely) for the reader to come to the stated conclusions.

      The problem of the persuasive villain, then, strikes me as potentially a loss of focus? Or possibly of intentionally making an argument that the author does not personally believe for the sake of causing the reader some unease, of inducing a moral dilemma. That seems to me to be an exploration, then, but almost at a higher level. I’ll have to think about that. (Or someone smarter than me will have to post 😉

      1. “for the sake of causing the reader some unease, of inducing a moral dilemma.”

        I love that tactic. When neither the hero nor the villain is strictly “right,” that makes the strongest argument, to me. I love ambiguous good and evil because it explores the issue without at the same time saying “This is definitely the conclusion you should come to about issue A.” People who are that sure end up with “Atlas Shrugged,” which features that lovely 50 page rant on all of Ms. Rand’s particular beliefs. I find a more subtle approach both more thought-provoking and more convincing.

        1. It’s funny you mention that, because I’ve always felt that there was a certain insecurity at play in Atlas Shrugged. I often talk about it as Rand being so afraid you won’t get the point that she has to stop the action and beat you over the head with it. I’m sure that her adherents view that speech as the crowning moment of the story (inasmuch as a couple dozen pages can be a “moment”) but to me there’s always been the whiff of desperation to it.

          The people who are really sure of both themselves and their powers of argument, I think, tend to take exactly the more subtle approach you mention. There’s risk there — though there is risk in all arguments — but there’s a greater payoff when the subtle approach works.

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