Moral Fiction

A distinguished novelist and teacher argues that we should look to serious fiction for moral complexity, not moral certainty

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.

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