Moral Fiction

A distinguished novelist and teacher argues that we should look to serious fiction for moral complexity, not moral certainty
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A month or so ago I read an account of an event that took place in Atlanta earlier this year. During his trial for rape a man overpowered one of the courtroom guards, stole her gun, and killed three people. Escaping, he ended up in the home of a twenty-six-year-old woman, and took her hostage. While she was his prisoner, the woman read to him from the inspirational book The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. The accused rapist saw the error of his ways and surrendered to the police. When this event became public, the book shot to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Ask yourself: can you imagine this happening if she had read to him from one of the great classics of moral fiction—from Middlemarch, or Jude the Obscure, or Moby-Dick, or War and Peace?

Another story: A group of scholars, anthropologists, and art historians were assessing the likelihood of a cross-cultural aesthetic standard. The scholars gathered a group of African mask makers, spread a collection of masks before them, and asked them to decide which was the best. The mask makers immediately turned the masks over and looked at the backs. They all agreed on which one was best. When they were asked how they knew, they said they could see which of the masks was most worn on the inside. The most-worn mask was the best because the masks were used for ritual, and the one most often used intrinsically had the most power. It was therefore the best. If the best and most powerful mask maker is the one whose product is used most often, does this mean by analogy that Danielle Steel is a better, more powerful writer than William Trevor?

I have told these stories in order to make clear my understanding that those of us who care about serious fiction are drastically marginal in the culture in which we live. When we talk about the moral aspect of fiction—that is, its concern with questions of right and wrong—we should be very modest indeed about assuming that such an aspect has a connection to behavior. The most successful literary novel would be considered a crashing failure if the number of copies sold was calculated by the producers of Fear Factor or American Idol. This may be nothing new. Some people like blaming the postmodernists, or even the modernists, on the grounds that the death of narrative marked the death of fiction as a moral force. I tend to blame technology. But what is the use of all this blame? We are where we are. On the margins.

Far greater minds than mine have considered the relationship between art and morality. Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley come immediately to mind. In our own day John Gardner, a distinguished novelist, a learned and serious man, wrote a book called On Moral Fiction. It was published in 1978, which happens to be the year I published my first novel, Final Payments. So to return to Gardner's book is to return to my youth as a writer—a time that seems younger, more buoyant, more innocent, than the present.

I think Gardner is both too hopeful about the nature of fiction writers, about their instinct for the truth, and too dire in his belief that bad art creates bad natures. He says, "Show the artist a Nazi Frankenstein monster and his reaction is simple—'Get it out!'" This is, unfortunately, not true. Consider Celine and Ezra Pound, to name only two writers who had no trouble with fascism. And I think Gardner is too confident in his belief that artists are more moved than others by ethical considerations. He writes, "What ... artists care about—what they rave or mourn or bitterly joke about—is the forms of truth: justice, fairness, accuracy." The terms are too large, the range of people who could be defined as artists too great, to deserve such a generalization.

I believe that if your primary motivation in life is to be moral, you don't become an artist. You do good works. Perhaps, like Chekhov, you divide your time among healing the sick, bearing witness to appalling prison conditions, and writing masterpieces. But if Chekhov had turned from a bleeding patient—had let up the pressure on the tourniquet—to put the finishing touches on The Cherry Orchard, this would not have been a moral act. And insofar as we would rather he let a peasant die than fail to create the play that has given us such joy, insofar as we mourn a stolen Vermeer more than a kidnapped Iraqi child, we have to understand that we are in the grip of something (and it may be something wonderful, something without which life isn't worth living) that, whatever it is, isn't moral. We are able to endure the idea of suffering in the flesh more easily than the destruction of the uniquely well-wrought urn. We choose beauty over goodness. That is who we are. This is not admirable. But we should try not to forget that rejecting the idea of beauty for the idea of the common good has a very bad record.

Isak Dinesen brilliantly limns this conflict in her story "Babette's Feast." Babette, master chef and communard, has been taken in by two pious Scandinavian spinsters after being forced to leave France because of her radical political activity. Years later she wins a lottery and spends all the money to make a memorable feast for the sisters who have sheltered her. Afterward they ask if she will return to France. She says that she cannot, because the world in which her art could be appreciated was destroyed by the communards. A friend asks if she regrets her part in its annihilation. Oh, no, Babette says—it was a very bad world. But yet I mourn it, for only the people in that world could understand my art.

You see the problem—and its flip side. I don't agree with Gardner that bad art creates bad morals. Some of the most heroic people I know have decorated their walls with paintings on velvet and think Louis L'Amour was a genius. If good fiction created good morals, English departments would be utopian oases. In my experience they are sometimes dreadful and sometimes wonderful. Just like the rest of the world.

For Gardner, the enemies of moral fiction, by which he means "hard-won, defiant affirmations," are writers who dishonor the seriousness of their calling, writers who are more concerned with technique than with content, writers who think of their work as a species of play. "Motion, glitter—texture for its own sake—has come to be the central value in the arts," he writes.

Although I would certainly have taken that position in 1978, the events of the past twenty-seven years have sapped my energy for such a fight. In 1978 Jimmy Carter was in the White House, only a few experts had heard of a fatwa, and the catalogues of mainstream publishers didn't include the category "Christian fiction." Moreover, the realities of the marketplace have ensured that the experimentalists Gardner vilifies probably can't even get published anymore. As a feminist coming of literary age in the seventies, I spent a lot of time pointing out the ubiquity of horrible images of women perpetrated by revered male writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Updike. Nothing has changed; I still don't want to read those guys. But feeling as I do that we are all rowing in a boat that is being swamped, I have less will to attack my fellow oarsmen. And I am leery of using the label "immoral" or "amoral" when what I really mean is people who do something different from what I do. If you take Gardner's position, that fiction more concerned with the play of language than with human behavior is "false," then what do you do with a book like Finnegans Wake? I would like to think that anything that gives joy because of its mastery of language must be on the side of the angels. Or at least it is not on the side of the devil—should he exist and should he be taking sides.

And so, for all its passionate energy, Gardner's book seems sometimes to be skating dangerously near the thin ice of special pleading. He juxtaposes trivial or frivolous or false art against true art, which "clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns."

It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. It does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or is lightning.

To question this eloquent ideal of Gardner's would seem churlish, and yet I do question it. I would certainly concur that true art celebrates, mourns, and does not rant or sneer or giggle in the face of death. But what would be the nature of the prayers it might invent? And what the weapons? And does true art really establish models of human action? Or, if it does, is that what it does better than any other medium? I have had fiction at the center of my imagination for as long as I have had a memory of a self, and yet my models of right action—the ones who have really helped me in the struggle to be good—are not fictional characters. I may have wanted to be as cool and witty as Elizabeth Bennet, as ferociously passionate as Jane Eyre, as endlessly maternal as Mrs. Ramsay, as ethically indefatigable as Dorothea Brooke, but in moments of moral crisis I have not said to myself, "What would Dorothea Brooke do in this situation?" Not once. When I have modeled myself on my heroines, I have done so in order to make myself more desirable, not more ethical. I made a bad first marriage, thinking I was Clarissa Dalloway marrying Richard "for solitude." In moments of moral crisis I have sometimes invoked models from history: Joan of Arc, Nelson Mandela. But my moral exemplars have tended to be people I know, such as my uncle Joe, who probably never heard of Melville, though the name Moby-Dick might have rung a bell.

So when we put together the words "moral" and "fiction," we must be careful to remember that we mean something very special and very limited. Fiction that aspires to the condition of art must work in a way exactly opposite to the way pornography works. Pornography offers images to elicit a very direct and very predictable response: sexual stimulation resulting in orgasm. The pornographer knows his market, and knows to what use his product will be put. Fiction writers have no such luxury. We never know what we're doing—not really. I learned this to my sorrow once when traveling in the Caribbean with my children and a friend. We stopped to get lemonade at a beach stand. Two Labrador retriever puppies were playing in the sand. I asked the woman behind the counter if my children could play with them. "No," she said. "I don't like them to be friendly to too many people, because I have to keep them away from the coloreds." I ran with my children down the beach. Later, when the power gave out at our house, we were forced to go to this same woman for food. As she served us hamburgers, she said, "The thing that insulted me most as an American voter was Geraldine Ferraro. The idea that I might even think of voting for a woman as vice president of the United States!" When she heard my friend using my name, she asked if I was the writer. "Oh, my God," she said, "Final Payments changed my life."

In 2005 what would be at stake in naming some kinds of fiction as moral—with the concomitant understanding that some would then have to be named immoral? What is lost if we give up the category? What is gained if we invoke it? Why should we use these terms for black marks on a white page that perform the trick of making us believe that people who have never existed are as real as our best friends? As a species we seem to have a relationship to story that is very deep indeed. We want to sit around the fire and hear what happens next. But why? Why isn't life enough for us? Why do we need these alternative lives—neither ours nor those of anyone we might have known? Are we after a predictability that life in the body doesn't offer? And if part of our pleasure is moral—if we want the hero to triumph and the villain to be punished—is that proof of the inherently moral nature of our consciousness? But what about Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair? No one in her right mind likes Amelia better; no one in her right mind would say that Becky was morally superior. Consider the vexing question of charm, and the colorlessness of life without it. Is this a moral issue? Should color and charm be redefined as virtues, along with honesty, fortitude, generosity, a sense of justice, and filial love?

Not all virtues are equal to all people at all times. At certain historical moments some virtues may be more important than others. At the time of the writing of the Iliad, Greek culture could be kept alive only by a warrior class; courage in battle was of primary importance. What virtues are most needed now? Most readers of serious fiction would probably have a list different from those of most Muslim fundamentalists and evangelical Christians. The latter might have a lively sense of the sin that reading certain books could lead to—a sense that would seem quite foreign to the former.

I am no stranger to what I would like to call literary protectionism; in the Catholic Church of my childhood certain books were forbidden to me under pain of mortal sin. The range of the interdiction was wide; it traveled from Voltaire to Erskine Caldwell. (I would like to say this is a thing of the past in Catholicism, but recent actions taken by the Vatican lead me to believe that that is too hopeful a position.) The Church fathers would have said they were protecting me from the temptation to leave the comforting bosom of Mother Church, sparing me the blandishments of atheistic freethinking and the seductions of free love. Broadly speaking, then, impiety and unchastity were the sins they feared most, the ones feared by fundamentalists of all stripes.

For most readers of serious fiction in 2005 these words are archaic and irrelevant. We serious readers, even if we call ourselves religious, are more concerned with oppressive religious and civil structures than with the dangers of a life unsheltered by them. As readers of novels we stake our claim in the territory of the individual—for the novel, in its form and its history, is a celebration of the honorable task of creating an individual self through reflection and experimentation in the stress of a lived life. Some novels treat the relationship of the individual to the community—but this is the exception rather than the rule. Fundamentalists believe that individualism has gone too far—that the notion of personal good has trumped a sense of responsibility to the larger group. Most often, though, this idea is called up in regard to sexual issues; when the issue is whether to pay more taxes so that wealth can be spread to the group, the sacredness of the individual is brought to the fore. What some of us call compassion, others call naiveté. Those of us who are accused of being naive point to the fact that the desire to repress freedom results in deaths that can be laid directly at its feet, whereas the dangers of unchastity or impiety, whatever they may be, have no direct connection to firing squads or torture chambers.

In a country where pornography is ubiquitous and twelve-year-olds on school buses are performing oral sex, I can understand the longing for a return to a world in which the idea of chastity is once more in the conversation. I can understand a revulsion against unbridled individualism, a longing for community in a world where families are fragmented and loneliness can eat into the soul. I can see that strict rules—even, or perhaps especially, tied to punishment—might seem the only way to stem the chaos in which we feel we are drowning. We in the West must come to grips with the fact that we are vulnerable to people we are used to thinking of as our inferiors; that gender roles are confusing and vexed; that the economy seems to be spiraling out of control, with no one to understand it.

But the novel has never been very good at shaping people up in predictable and orderly ways. Sometimes, as in the case of Tolstoy (I once knew someone whose father gave up a fortune after visiting Tolstoy on his estate), a novel can help eat into the cancer of greed. The novel is uniquely qualified to provide some virtues: the virtues of compassion, openness, and attentiveness. Serious fiction is uniquely qualified to combat the sound bite. It says to us that the truth of human beings is often more complicated than we think. What we might like to call the truth is often made up of several truths, including the first thing we thought, its opposite, and something in between. Some things cannot be known without careful pondering; horror can sometimes be averted only if we take our time to look and think and look and think and look and think again.

In her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, about a group of women reading novels during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini's successors, Azar Nafisi tells a story about a student's homage to her former literature professor.

One day she had been watching the trial of a secret-police agent on television when a familiar voice, Dr. A's, attracted her attention. He had come to testify in favor of his former student ... who had been enrolled in the university's night classes ... a prison guard who had apparently been charged with beating and torturing political prisoners ... [Dr. A believed the guard] to be a compassionate individual, a man who often helped out his less fortunate classmates. Dr. A told the Revolutionary Court: "I believe it is my duty as a human being to acquaint you with this aspect of the accused's personality." Such an action, during those initial black-and-white days of the revolution, was unheard of and very dangerous ... It was said that mainly because of Dr. A's testimony in his favor, [the guard] got off easy.

The student concludes that "Dr. A's action was a manifestation of the principles he had taught in his literature classes."

Such an act ... can only be accomplished by someone who is engrossed in literature, has learned that every individual has different dimensions to his personality ... Those who judge must take all aspects of an individual's personality into account. It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else's shoes and understand the other's different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.

The moral complexity of this story makes it attractive to the kind of mind that is drawn to serious fiction. Should the guard have gotten off easy? What about justice for those he tortured? These intriguing and unanswerable questions are the territory of great fiction—a territory we would be a far poorer commonwealth without.

If the moral good of fiction stems mainly from a habit of mind it inculcates in the reader, styles are neither good nor bad, and to describe some fictional enterprises as false is pointless. Garcia Maquez's magic realism sheds a light on tyranny that is no less illuminating for its kaleidoscopic nature; Toni Morrison's opulent, curvaceous sentences give us a taste of the poison of racism, as do J. M. Coetzee's angularities. Gogol's ironies breathe air into a stifling room; Trollope's tenderly comic tales of a vicarage paint a portrait of everyday heroism; Proust's evocation of Bergotte, the writer holding up as an artistic ideal Vermeer's perfectly painting a little patch of yellow, gives us a model of selfless devotion to work. All these, in all their different ways, point to something we find difficult to name and yet know as our treasure.

Pope John XXIII once said, "An old world disappears, another one is being formed, and within this I am trying to conceal some good seed or other that will have its springtime, even if it is somewhat delayed." When those of us who read and write fiction invoke the category of the moral, I think we need to look to Pope John's modesty of tone. The precious seeds of complicated thought and large awareness may lead to something, or they may not. They are seeds only; and when they mature they will have been absorbed into a growth (leaf, flower), invisible or transformed beyond our recognizing. But what is there without these seeds, these vessels of possibility, and what they promise? Without them we would be locked into fear of the other, rigid adherence to inhuman rules, delusion about the true nature of the world. We would find ourselves entrapped in the corral of the familiar. And we would be confronted with the terrible conviction that when we ask the questions that alarm and chill us, we cannot hope for conversation, for someone to whisper across the ages and the miles, "I was thinking of that too. It is what you thought. But listen to me: it may be less frightening than what you imagine. Follow me through this wood. It winds, and it is dark. But you are not alone."

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