On being morally manipulative

Over at Deep Genre, there was a discussion that started off talking about the film, The Golden Compass, but ended up much more interesting to my mind.

An author made this remark: “The book was morally manipulative to the 9th degree. I strongly disliked it, and it’s no surprise to me that the movie only make it worse.”

This comment niggled at me for some time. Now I can understand perfectly that some readers might not like the message of the books, and may heartily despise Pullman’s atheism, just as there are many who can’t stand C.S.Lewis’s brand of Christianity in the Narnia books, or even George Orwell’s politics in Animal Farm.

But morally manipulative??

Is an author morally manipulative when he or she writes a book that reflects their religious beliefs or philosophy of life? Was the commentator meaning “immorally manipulative” in that he was trying to get children to question their religious beliefs (if indeed, he was?)? If so, then was Lewis also morally manipulative when he tried to encourage children to be good little Christians? After all, that implies that he was also trying to manipulate Muslims/Buddhist/Jewish/atheist/etc/ kids away from their present religious persuasion!

I don’t know, but I thought the comment distinctly unfair. Just because an author holds a belief and writes stories on themes reminiscent of those beliefs does not mean that we have a right to condemn them as manipulative. Perhaps it would be more honest to say they are holding true to themselves.

(Anyway, I am more likely to criticise a writer when their themes/beliefs swamp the story in moralising, and you end up with self-righteous prose that is as tiring as it is ineffective.)

What do you think?


On being morally manipulative — 11 Comments

  1. If she felt half as disgusted as I felt when I read the last book of Narnia I’d say good on her – she knows how it feels when you read a book by an author whose views and beliefs violently clash with your own. Join the club.

    As if it’s somehow OK to push Christianity, but not atheism.

    Ow – come on.

    Everyone has a right to a view. IMO (and I have read the book, but obviously not yet seen the film, since it only comes out in Oz on Boxing Day) there was nothing particularly manipulative about the book other than that for a change the ‘religious’ dudes were the bad guys.

    I thought the setting refreshing and the ideas outside the cliche YA fantasy box. But if you move outside the box, you are always going to cop some flak. This remark seems to be part of that.

  2. I am still trying to come to terms with the elephants on wheels. I read the whole series but I didn’t like it very much, I prefer hios detective books. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I am happy for other people to love it. I agree about the last Narnia book though. I always felt that both the LOTR, The Hobbit and the Narnia books were fairly didcatic but I liked them and so I just got over it.

  3. Personally as a non author but avid reader, I get teed off if anyone harps on beliefs to the detriment of the story, I haven’t yet read Golden Compass but I now own it (ebook) and will shortly get round to reading it. The last Narnia book was OK in my perception, not good, but OK. However, I have recently been reading Donita K. Paul’s Dragon books. The stories aren’t bad, but there is an over abundance of religion which, although disguised, is recognizably intended to be Christian and too much so. There are other religions in the world. My father was an atheist but believed in children having a Christian upbringing to teach them right from wrong.

  4. I haven’t yet read the book or seen the film, but I did go and read the discussion page.

    I may be being monumentally thick or unenlightened (and it wouldn’t be the first time!) but I still don’t really understand what the person meant by ‘morally manipulative’, nor has she yet explained either her use of the term or examples of where it can be found in the text/film.

    I agree with glenda that heavy-handedness with the allegory, moralising or didacticism, can be very tiresome, even if one shares the same belief system. But I wouldn’t say that I was being ‘manipulated’ just because someone was throwing chunks of didacticism or slamming atheistic pish-tush in my direction.

    Actually I think ‘manipulation’ would be something far more subtle, perhaps almost subliminal, and require a fair amount of skill to achieve without being rumbled. And specific examples of where it has (allegedly) been used, and how it works – and thus how it may also be avoided – could be rather interesting. 🙂

  5. PS – press reporters and politicians do a fair amount of ‘moral manipulating’, don’t they? But how often do people take notice of that? ;P

  6. Pity they didn’t make a better movie out of an interesting book, though. I have just re-read the first volume, and enjoyed it all over again. All the nonsense things that puzzled the film reviewer were explained perfectly in the written word.

    If ever there was a case for reading the book first, this is it.

  7. And some not so subtly, too… but I maintain that we should not condemn a piece of literature/art on the grounds of the writer/artist’s stance alone. We may perhaps say his stance is silly , but a work of fine literature is still fine if it is well written, even if we don’t like the message.

    Taking a stance and adhering to a theme is not moral manipulation.

    We can, of course, condemn someone if they try to manipulative us with lies passed off as the truth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.