Frustrating Fiction

In search of a better novel

Jon Bell
4 min readJan 1, 2021

The world of literature is so vast that it feels silly to complain about. If you don’t like one book, you can pick another. If you think one genre is lacking, there are others. Literature isn’t monolithic. But there are still certain tropes and clichés that crop up a lot.

For example, men often have trouble writing women convincingly. Not just because it’s hard to imagine someone else’s lived experience, but because sex often gets in the way. Someone wrote a great parody about it:

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

I’ve seen the same thing when women write men. I remember a line in Harry Potter that went read like “He got irrationally mad at the adult because he was acting out because teenage boys are strange for some reason that no one can understand knows.” It wasn’t that bad, of course. But it felt pretty out of place in the context of the story, especially as someone who has been a teenage boy and knew how poorly Rowling was explaining it.

But the most frustrating thing for me in fiction, the thing that immediately transports me out of the story, the reliably clunky cliché, is cynicism when discussing politics. Here’s how almost every author sounds to me when they’re trying to describe politics any more complex than Star Wars:

Butch didn’t care much for politicians, and the way they always needed power. He liked people who got things done, instead of incessantly talking about power and drama and other things that were stupid. Because Butch was a real person, who actively contributed to society, unlike those bottom feeding politicians and their power and their backroom deals and whatever it is they did that was definitely not as important as writing dystopian science fiction, where motives were pure and results were always attainable. Butch didn’t need power because he was pure of heart and spirit. He preferred to make actual things, unlike those dumb politicians. Who were stupid. Unlike people like Butch who weren’t sheeple and saw the world for what it was. Power’s dumb. Yeah.

This sort of writing, and I see it everywhere, sets up an incredibly shallow series of motives. Why did the politician take action? Because he’s bad. Why did the main character take action? Because he’s good. Is a character discussing tradeoffs and nuance? They must be calculating, craven, and in favour of the status quo. Is there someone who doesn’t have much need for nuance because right and wrong is plain as day? You’ve found the hero!

I think this literary crutch comes from a lack of understanding and experience. I think if an author were to run a business, or be part of the leadership of a large organisation, or even manage a small team of people, I don’t think the characters and analysis would feel so flat. And the cynicism wouldn’t be so think. But more importantly, the stories would get better!

Imagine a story about a politician who got her seat representing the progressive wing of her party. But now it’s been twenty years and her once-liberal views are considered centrist, or even conservative, by the standards of the day. But through years of soul-searching, the politician believes that she’s able to help her cause far more than she could as a feisty and uncompromising politician. And it’s not just an opinion, she can point to dozens of examples of passed legislation that she was only able to pass by working with her political opponents. So let’s say that’s the rough sketch of the story.

What do we do with the story? Should we shoot fish in a barrel with another “those in power don’t care about anything but themselves” parable? Or could we write a deeper investigation into how part of caring about an issue is learning how to be effective and working to something larger? And how inevitably that leads to compromise? Which means working with your opponents, a position that looks a lot like giving up, even if it leads to better results?

I know which story I want to read, I just wish there were more examples around. Instead we get “people in power are always bad and the only thing to do about it is never stop fighting,” and I sort of feel like I’ve read that story enough for two lifetimes. (It also happens to be the mindset that leads to war crimes and genocide, which is a whole other topic to explore.)

Authors, show me the real world, where people all think they’re doing what’s right. Where no one wakes up and says to the mirror “time to be a villain!” Where everyone’s motives neatly predict their actions, and the disagreements aren’t about good versus evil but instead different opinions about the way to achieve goals. Put me in the minds of people who think differently from me, and help me to understand them. Show me how I would have made the same decision if put in their shoes, and I’ll buy every one of your books.