Betrayal, the Train-Wreck of Literature

There is no easy answer as to why we keep sales humming for books many would profess are not worth their time. "Betrayal" Lit, as so-called by The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove, is an inexorable "channel" in our culture of celebrity. Yet, before there were celebrities, there was still betrayal, and writing about it. Consider the Greeks. Consider The Godfather. What’s the seduction? 


The seduction might be There, but for the grace of God, go I. This is simple schoolyard psychology, especially potent in the case of public figures whose choices force us to judge (John Edwards is an almost perfect example, adultery being the sine qua non of Opportunity for Social Judgment). Each week brings fresh lambs to the slaughter.

Grove asks an academic to consider why we care. He writes:

"There isn’t a single answer," says MIT literature professor David Thorburn, "but we have a special fascination with the shenanigans of celebrities and literary figures—who, for some of us, are a kind of celebrity. It has to do with the intimacy we feel either toward a figure we admire or a writer we care about, so that we know them as people. Indeed, we know things about celebrities that we don’t even know about our ordinary acquaintances—and that carries over into our fascination with various forms of backstabbing and revenge."

Thorburn points out that some cultural historians liken our collective fascination with tabloid stories about misbehaving movie stars and politicians, to the ancient Greeks’ enchantment with myths about the gods on Mount Olympus. "The gods were not worshipped because they were good, they were worshipped because they were so fucking powerful," Thorburn says. "They were essentially human beings who were misbehaving on such a grand, Olympian scale, they were fascinating—and surely betrayal and backstabbing were part of that mythology."

In the end, though, the appeal of betrayal lit may come down to its surprising capacity to comfort and reassure. "Some scholars have said in explaining why people love soap operas that it’s because the characters in the soap operas are suffering so much more dramatically than the poor schmendricks who are watching. There’s always some subset of resentment against the wealth and fame of celebrity, and people who take such apparent pleasure in these stories of betrayal get kind of a special thrill. 'It serves them right!' 'Somebody stabbed Jack Nicholson in the back?' 'Good for them!' "

Comparing an Edwards aide to the Greeks might be overstating the case, but the underlying relationship between emotion and commerce remains. It is not enough to see our public figures sweat. We want to hear details from an eyewitness.

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller on ​the multiple dimensions of space and human sexuality

Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.

Think Again Podcasts
  • Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
  • What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
  • Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less

Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.

A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.

Sponsored
  • How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
  • To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.