The Moral Hazards of Storytelling

People may find themselves right now picking up books that they had once not imagined having time for. What makes you pick up a certain book from another is sometimes hard to understand. Once you pick up a book and turn to the first page, one may find themselves hoping that the book will satisfy their desires. Once you sit down with a book, at least for myself, I am haunted by the threat of wasted time through a disappointing reading. I personally find myself guilty of this thinking; yet, it is counterintuitive to the satisfaction gains that I have gotten from reading books in the past. My inability to sit down with a book right now is perplexing. However, this common dilemma speaks to the pressure readers put onto authors, and how authors may change their writings to make more profits through an expanded readership. Take Stephen King’s novel Misery for example, author Paul Sheldon is tormented by one of his most obsessed readers Annie, who tortures Paul to re-write his book to her envisioned end. This fictional and unrealistic example shows the affect books have on readers.

Moral hazard may manifest differently depending on if one is writing a fictional story to a nonfictional story. Investopedia defines moral hazard as the risk an investor or contract signer takes when closing a deal, for the investment of trust depends on the contract former to be transparent. In other words, if the contract originally made and signed does not disclose important details about risks involved in the signing of the contract, then this transaction has a high moral hazard. Moral hazard is an economical term, which I am applying to the risk’s authors take in writing and publishing their work. In Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House moral hazards that are traversed include writing about sensitive topics such as addiction, race, finances, mental illness, and healthcare. In the nonfictional book, The Big Short the main moral hazard dealt with revolves around the topic of the stock market crash and the portrayal of important figures involved in it. In each of these books, one main event sets the backdrop of the narrative, and that is the stock market crash of 2008. Flournoy’s character Cha-Cha and Lewis’s presentation of Steve Eisman, are two individuals who are central to the book. In each book the authors, knowingly or not, either conceives or experiments with the concept of the origin story, which can potentially pose a moral hazard in storytelling for readers.

The making of an origin story is utilized by writers primarily to make it so readers can identify and support the character. Creating the origin story and the deliverance of it, is the hero and antihero’s biggest source of rally cries. Take for example the Joker, when his origin story is successfully formed with his own interests, the narrative attempts to explain, and, to a degree, justify his criminality, thus making one look at him more sympathetically. When the new Joker movie came out there was a plethora of mixed reactions and reception to a movie that seems to sympathize with someone who commits criminal offenses. In both books we had to read, the idea of the origin story was explored in characters and real figures surrounding the stock market crash, an event that had severe social and economic ramifications, of which disrupted life as people had once known it.

Nonfiction storytelling to fictional storytelling are at two opposite ends: with nonfictional narratives posing more of a potential for moral hazards than fictional storytelling. In the nonfictional book, The Big Short the book goes over important figures in the stock market who foresaw the impending collapse. In order to deliver a story of these collective men, Lewis needed to make these men lose some of their complexity to fit into the demands of delivering a story. In the small group discussions we had in class, I found myself referring to these real figures as characters. Interestingly, in the afterward Lewis performs the same mistake: “most of what I knew about the financial crisis I knew from the characters of my book” (266). I will admit that when I refer to his nonfictional work in this essay, I will be using the word book, yet, full disclosure, I do not like to even call it a book because it is too often associated with fictional writing. I can see why for myself and others we would make this little error in calling the people characters, yet for an author to do this is more alarming.

One of the central and first characters we are introduced to is Steve Eisman. Eisman’s origin story, which went about explaining his involvement in the subprime mortgage crash, rests upon the tragic death of his son. The cynicism he had towards the stock market was connected to this tragic death. Lewis quotes Eisman saying that he felt the death of his son, “was just my big deal” (Lewis 12). On page four, Michael Lewis describes this man’s physical features: “He dressed half-fastidiously, as if someone had gone to great trouble to buy him nice new clothes but not told him exactly how they should be worn. His short-cropped blond hair looked as if he had cut it himself. The focal point of his soft, expressive, not unkind face was his mouth, mainly because it was usually at least half open, even while he ate. It was as if he feared that he might not be able to express whatever thought had just flitted through his mind quickly enough before the next one came, and so kept the channel perpetually clear…it was the opposite of a poker face” (Lewis 4). The visual characterization juxtaposed with the authors own insights on Eisman’s identity can be subtle, or not noticed by a fast reader. The repetitive use of similes to make the imagery more vivid is used to impress Lewis’s simplified version of this man. The interpretations he makes are not positive; rather, taken together, all these additional characterizing remarks through similes make this man out to be a man-child. This is an example of indirect characterization by the author, and it shows the great influence an author has on our perception of real people. A disconnect could form between readers forming their own opinion of this man when this sort of characterization is intensely domineering.

Eisman was familiar with literary writing, particularly with his love for reading comics. Comic books are inconceivable without a good origin story. Eisman expressed that he “favored those [comics] that took familiar fairy tales and rearranged them without changing any of the facts, so that the story became less familiar, and something other than a fairy tale… ‘and it leads you to look at the earlier episodes differently’” (Lewis 19). Eisman’s insight speaks to the importance of having multiple and diverse narratives. The Eisman created in The Big Short with Lewis narrating the events through a first-person perspective would not be the same Eisman per say if he himself controlled the narration. Eisman put his trust in Lewis to portray him accurately, and if Lewis were to fail, Eisman could make claims against Lewis. In a way, therefore, it is safer for Eisman to have a miniature autobiography written about him, rather than one written by himself.

The story is told in the first-person point of view by a peripheral narrator. This point of view was chosen because Lewis is telling the story of others not a story that is about himself per say. This point of view functions to displace the storyteller. The only time the I of the narrator outwardly manifests is in the prologue and the epilogue. The narrator, Lewis, is deceptively uninvested in the story because he has not characterized himself through dialogue, or actions. The book could be taken as an extended, unending dialogue by Lewis, yet this is an unnatural way to view the book. Not to mention, if my observation is correct, the only time he identifies himself is in the first line of the novel: “Eisman entered finance about the time I exited it” (Lewis 1). If this holds to be true, then Lewis is creating a family tree of sorts by starting the book off with him as a character who exits, metaphorically, where the other characters enter. The tree is symbolic of the life of the stock market through bond traders through the ages.

Flournoy’s novel The Turner House at the very start of the book has a family tree diagram of the Turner family descendants of Francis and Viola. In this novel, family dynamics are central to the contents of the book and the conflict within it. Origin stories, like Cha-Cha’s quest to explore his, has its roots in the family unit. The novel starts with the story of the haint appearing in the Turner house big room. This haint, or ghost, is the earliest memory that is recalled consistently and is at the source of the mystery element of the book. Cha-Cha learns from Viola that his father saw haints too. The idea of being like your predecessors, or parents, is explored through the haint.  The haint is inherited from Francis to Cha-Cha. I believe the haint is symbolic of the racist oppression these men experienced, especially economic hardships through the housing market. The first haint appearance is retold by Lonnie who described what she remembers witnessing: “the form of a pale-hued young man lifting Cha-Cha by his pajama collar out of the bed and toward the narrow window. Back then a majority of the homeowners in that part of Detroit’s east side were still white, and had no empty lots” (Flournoy 2). Cha-Cha describes the haint encounter as though it had “tried to run [him] out of the room” (3). Together, these two descriptions of the haint illustrate it as being an aggressive evictor. An increase in evictions came as a result of the stock market crash of 2008 and from the practices that led to the crash. Lelah Turner is evicted from her house in the first chapter of the novel, an eviction that leads her to the abandoned family home. The original Turner family house itself was the victim of the destructive practices of wall street investors greedy practices, of which resulted in the fall of the stock market. The adjustable mortgage rate for the Turner home increased drastically leading Viola to “owe about forty thousand, but that house, even though it’s the nicest one on Yarrow, is only worth four thousand dollars” (Flournoy 36). This absurdity is an injustice that was not entirely created by the family, yet it is for them to deal with.

Startlingly, the concept of ghosts and haunts is present in the nonfictional book The Big Short. In this nonfiction book the prologue is titled “Poltergeist”. Poltergeist is defined as “a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as loud noises and objects thrown around”. What is this poltergeist symbolic of? How I take it is that the poltergeist is a person’s legacy. The book shows how what seemed to be little decisions can be transformed to produce disastrous consequences at a later time. The concept of an origin story becomes defiled by the ghost. If one generation does not take responsibility for wrongdoing, then it burdens or haunts the generations afterward.

Lewis’s relevancy as the storyteller of this nonfictional composition is explained best in the prologue and the epilogue. Lewis discloses in the prologue that he worked as a bond salesman; thus, he was himself involved in the stock market in the past. This disclosure is to eliminate any potential moral hazard, yet is this successful? The phrase “I expected” is repeated three times in the prologue. This phrase is used in the context of him expecting his readers to take his writing (Liar’s Poker) to serve a purpose differently than what they had taken it for. Lewis does not explain how some people could have read that book as a how-to manual. Instead, he unconvincingly defends himself claiming that his intent was the opposite. The title of the prologue and the prologue itself is used to explain why he wrote this nonfictional book. As a matter of fact, the title represents his main motive–which could be, mainly, the haunting of his past involvement in the stock market. Does this poltergeist haunt him or will he let it haunt others? The narrative structure of the book, through point of view and characterization, frames the answer to this question to be more upon others than himself.

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