The original idea of this post was going to be titled “Why There Gotta Be So Many Dead People In These Books?” I’m tired of reading stories where people die, or might die, in what seem like manipulative ways. It just seems too easy, to build tension through holding our hand over that most existential on/off switch. I mean, if it’s a war story or a pandemic story or a spy story, then yes, we might reasonably expect that someone could be offed. But the rest of the time, let’s play that note with just a little more reserve, shall we?
There’s a related feminist critique of one specific model of the woman-without-agency, the sexual assault victim as a stock character. If we need to add menace to a cartoonish male character, we can have him sexually assault someone. (Elmore Leonard’s book Out of Sight is hideously guilty of this.) If we need to add empathy for an otherwise uninteresting female character, we can hint at her unresolved feelings about a sexual assault that she endured. It’s a lazy way to ramp up the stakes at women’s expense, yet again.
But as I was thinking about all this, I started to think that maybe we can understand something about genre in fiction as an examination of which level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is most central to the plot. You’ve all seen Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which he proposed that our needs are arrayed in a tier, with our more specifically human needs resting upon those that assure our basic mammalian existence.
In Maslow’s structure, the two foundational layers are about survival. Level 1 is physiological: food and water and warmth and air. There are plenty of books about that, mostly adventure novels. The hero is:
- trapped below the surface of the sea with not enough oxygen in the scuba tank
- caught in an avalanche, an earthquake, a landslide, a snowstorm
- stuck in space
You get the drift. The basic stakes are that the hero may drown, suffocate, freeze, starve, and so on.
Horror and thriller and wartime novels are mostly about Level 2, safety. In this case, the threat comes not from hunger, but from malice. Something’s trying to kill us, dude! That’s a pretty good premise for a story, from the campfire onward. Who knows who’s out there in the dark, waiting to bludgeon us with their bloody hook…
Romance novels are almost entirely concerned with Level 3, belonging. The whole point is that a lonely person becomes not lonely, finds a partner with whom they feel connected. But not just romance: most TV sit-coms, for instance, are Level-3 shows. Nobody cares about the plot of an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Frasier or Friends or The Flintstones: the whole point is that the gang remains intact and bonded by episode’s end.
Magazines are mostly Level-3 endeavors; we might read about cars or homes or yoga or dogs or any of the hundred thousand things a magazine might be about, but at their heart, they’re doing the work of welcoming us to a community who care about those things. They show us a lifestyle, and help us feel as though there are others who share our enthusiasms and perhaps we could join them. The message of almost every magazine in the world is the same: you are not alone.
So what do we do with Levels 4 and 5? The four Rabbit novels of John Updike were almost exclusively Level-4 books about self-esteem, as Harry Angstrom unsuccessfully tries to regain some sense of capability in a world that no longer offers him an easy path toward it. Joan Didion’s Play It as it Lays shows us Maria’s loss of self in a movie-making community that no longer has a place for her.
Level 5 books about self-actualization are maybe the most rare. Think of Dancer, Colum McCann’s fictionalized story of Rudolf Nureyev; think of The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis’ novel of an orphaned girl who becomes a chess champion. Siddhartha and The Story of O are the head and tail of the coin of the kind of self-actualization that comes from self-negation, two distinct but related forms of nirvana.
There aren’t really genres organized around Level-4 and Level-5 needs, are there? Too bad, ’cause that’s what I’m drawn to write about. Literary fiction picks up those themes more frequently than commercial fiction, which may be why I’m so frustrated when those books lose their discipline and just bump somebody off.
Now let’s get meta for a second. I’m not arguing that Maslow provides us the right way of reading a text, merely an interesting way or a useful way. What I’m trying to do is to rough up the surface of the ball so that someone else can get a grip on it.
And really, that’s what any theory is. That’s what any metaphor is. And that’s what most teaching is, at least in the humanities where I live. My job is to help someone see something they’ve seen a thousand times, and to rough it up enough to get a new grip on it instead of letting it slide past. My job in the classroom was to do that enough times, in obvious enough ways, that my students could themselves learn how to scuff the ball and produce their own friction.
Man, I miss that.