Another Word: Reading and Writing and Moral Judgment
“I am a firm believer in whatever gets you through the night.”
—William “Bill” Boettcher, my high school Biology teacher.
A while ago, I was talking to a woman who is a Much Bigger Name in Genre Fiction than I am. She’s been publishing since I was just learning how to do all this, and some of her books and short stories were things I read while I was figuring out how to write. While we were talking, we stumbled on the subject of a workshop she’d taught recently, and how much it had dismayed her. Her students would, as part of the critique, point out flaws like, “the female characters are passive.”
Now, this was a weird conversation for me. I’m talking to this woman who is way more experienced, way more accomplished, and someone I’ve looked up to, and the problem that’s got her exercised is that there are too many strong women characters? I didn’t get it. So we talked some more, and slowly, I started to understand what upset her. Her students weren’t drawing any kind of line between questions of craft and questions of morality.
Since then, I’ve put the argument to a few other folks, and the way I phrase it raises hackles sometimes, so hang with me for a second, and let me walk you through it. I’m using strong female characters for the example, but there are as many different issues as you’d care to pick. The argument the students were making was this: Sexism is bad shit. If you write a book that really embraces sexist stereotypes, you’ve written what one critic of my very own called “an objectively bad book.” If you’re studying how to write, that pretty much means you don’t want to make an objectively bad book, right? It follows as the night does the day, that you shouldn’t write stuff with passive women, or women in need of rescue, or men who are motivated by grief over the death of a woman because those are sexist clichés, and sexism is bad, and don’t be bad.
Which is to say (and here’s where folks I like and respect start giving me the side-eye), fiction is best when it is morally instructive.
Let me elaborate a little. Let’s talk about Spiderman. The big quote that comes out of that project is, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The inversion of that is, “With utter impotence comes radical freedom.” If what you do matters, then what you do matters. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. So does fiction have power? If it does, shouldn’t some responsibility come with it? Or can we say it’s powerful when it has the effect we like and say that artistic freedom is more important when it comes out wrong-way-round?
I know a lot of readers. None of us come here because the books are empty and meaningless and carry no weight in our lives. We learn about some of the most important things in our lives vicariously through fiction. I don’t know about you, but my opinions about love and fairness and what it means to be cool and what it means to be sad – how to grieve, how to love, how to think about God – all have roots in books. How Peter Wimsey saw Harriet Vane was actually important to me. I still have some verbal affectations I lifted off characters I read about in high school. My ideas about right and wrong track back to Senior English.
I’m not an outlier on that. I’ve known a lot of people for whom books have been profoundly important, and not always books I like. I know a fair number of folks who imprinted on the novels of Ayn Rand, for instance and the short stories of Anais Nin.
Fiction isn’t powerless. And if the author just ignores the politics of their work, that doesn’t mean the book becomes apolitical. It just means they wrote their own defaults. Think Black people are lazy and violent, but your work isn’t about that? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts it’s in there.
Reading is the same way. Aidan Moher over at A Dribble of Ink, set himself a public challenge to read as many books by women as he did by men. That’s a moral statement. Just by doing that, he’s said that gender equality is important, and that work by women deserves the same attention and audience as work by men. And more than that, he’s said—again, just by doing it—that his own internalized sexism needs a conscious override. He’s trying to be a better man and to create (in a small way) a better world by the way he chooses what he reads.
I did something similar when I was in my twenties. For me, it wasn’t about gender, but race. It’s how I first read Langston Hughes, for instance and Colson Whitehead. I’d already read some Walter Mosley and Maya Angelou, but it was a good excuse to revisit them. And it was a moral statement, even if it was mostly a private one.
How we read and how we write will always have moral and political implications. The only choice we’ve got is whether they’re unconscious or considered. Period. End of story.
Only it’s not the end of the story, right? Because that lady I was talking about before? The Much Bigger Name? She’s not stupid, and she’s not narrow, and so there seems to be a contradiction there. And truth is that I’m large. I contain multitudes. I believe absolutely what I said. But that’s not all that I believe.
There are two movies, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. They’re talky, intellectual romances that I love so much I almost don’t want to see the third one when it comes out in case they biff it. In the second movie—Before Sunset—Ethan Hawke’s character draws this beautiful and damning distinction between trying to be his best self and trying to be his authentic self. I don’t know if that speaks to other people as powerfully as it did to me, but I’m still a little devastated by it.
Wanting to live in a better world is great. Working for a better world is great. It only becomes a vice when it keeps us from loving the world we’re in—warts and all. My experience is that life is full of strong women and weak ones. Venal ones. Active ones. Passive ones. Complicated ones. Unhealthy ones. Men are just as varied and complicated and screwed-up. Their lives aren’t our societal best self, but they’re who we are, and losing sight of that is dangerous.
When I say that fiction is best when it is morally instructive, the image I get—and the one I’m betting most of you get too—is of an iron-spined Victorian woman who only reads Nice books. And the books I imagine her reading are thin, cardboard stories where everything comes out the way it ought to in a Miss Prism, The good ended happily, the bad unhappily; that is what fiction means kind of way. And because her imaginary morality isn’t mine, I find the thought horrifying. We’re right to distrust morally hygienic fiction, even when we approve of the morality that it’s championing. Hell, maybe especially then. It’s easy to forgive shallow arguments you already agree with.
I think there’s a tricky stretch when you’re starting out on something new, like learning how to write or paint or make art. The danger of fighting for moral standards in a writing class is that you might win. New writers are still forming themselves and their literary projects. Treating moral issues as if they were craft is asking for a literature of beautiful sermons.
Now, I love a good sermon. I reread Camus’ The Plague every few years, and it’s nothing if not a sermon. But I think Lolita is a good book too. And reading projects that pull you out into different kinds of authors and stories are wonderful so long as the moral aspects of your reading list don’t become more important than the joy you take in reading. It’s a fine line between thinking you should read something for moral reasons and thinking you should like it too.
I would never argue that the power of story—and it’s a real power—comes without responsibility. But I would say that responsibility is both to the better world to which we aspire and also the broken, compromised one we live in now. Both to the broader, deeper, sophisticated readers we would like to become and the guilty, familiar, selfish pleasures that brought us here in the first place.