Fiction & Morality

Yesterday, electrizer emailed me an article from Salon.com titled, Stories Don’t Need Morals or Messages. It brought up memories of past discussions I’ve had with other writers and a couple of experiences to boot.

My first semester of grad school, I had a professor who I still greatly admire and he helped so much with my writing and editing process but I was rubbed the wrong way when he told a fellow peer that her [terrific] story had no morality. 1) What does that even mean?? and 2) what exactly is morality in writing? It seems like an abstract concept. This was also coming from a man who writes explicitly about sex and mental disease. Really? Should that be the biggest critique of someone’s work? What about their craft and technique and story telling? I remember discussing this briefly with my friend afterward and she was also perplexed by this comment. Ultimately, she just ignored it.

For a year, I worked as supervisor in a government office that’s task was to research the reading abilities of students in that state and to also create standardized tests to evaluate their abilities and where they needed improvement. It was so flawed and there were only certain answers that were accepted even after our [adult] beta-testers would give answers that we all thought could be correct. However, if I remember correctly the passages weren’t “morality” oriented.

To travel even further back in to the future, I remember I received a choose your own adventure book  as a youth. It was about horses and I was really into it. Yet, halfway through I soon started to relize that the book wanted to teach me lessons with a touch of Christianity thrown in for good measure. If I started to take the path of having too much fun it would never let me go all the way to the end without consulting a clergyman and praying over it. What?! I don’t remember who gave me the book and they probably didn’t mean to gift me a bizarre choose your own adventure but nowhere on the cover was it mentioned that this was a “moral” book.

The subtitle of the Salon article is: A “stupid” test shows that the Puritan ethic lives on. Why do we insist on learning lessons from the books we read? The writing goes on to say,

In adults, the old Puritan attitude leads us to treat fiction as the delivery mechanism for instructional or inspirational messages. Whenever a novel’s merits are described in terms of the “life lessons” that it “teaches,” you can detect that old uneasiness over the “sporting lie” being appeased.

She makes good points but my critique of her article is that it gets slightly muddled and she never really gives clear examples to support her argument. Which is a shame because I’ve always hated the notion that writers have certain responsibilities when writing or that readers need to have their personal expectations met.

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8 comments

  1. I mostly read out of entertainment and curiosity. I don’t mind stories that do not have morality. There’s something about such stories. And sometimes, literary people only overanalyze the text even if the writer has already admitted there’s nothing really on it. 🙂

  2. I think there is a certain morality or idea about “how the world is or functions” in every story :even when the story has no morality the author is “showing, not telling” that there is no morality. So, although I don’t enjoy sermons – disguised or not- I think that it’s inevitable to express the author’s views about the world when creating a story. It’s all right with me as long as it’s not the story’s core centre or theme. Enjoy your readings and have a nice day!

    1. Yes. A writer’s world view (or sometimes the complete opposite) can be inherent in their narratives. However, what peeved me was that the article talked about how many people expect a Puritan (re: [judeo-christian] religious morality) aspect of the stories they read. Like the rest of the commentors, my purpose with books is to derive pleasure of a good story; I also view them as an artistic endeavor.

  3. I agree “world view” should be present, and much of what gives a novel tension is the struggle between what is perceived as “good” or “evil/threat” but a REALLY creative novel turns that on its head. I think rather than conventional morality, a novel should tell its own story. Should that involve a struggle against temptation or what have you, so be it. BUT a novel is a novel, not a “how to” book for whatever faith/ethics system you choose to follow, so yeah. morality= not necessary. conflict, world view, meaningful characters, well constructed plot=necessary. 🙂

  4. I suppose our tradition goes all the way back to tribal campfires, when story telling included cautionary tales or created cohesiveness for the group. In that sense, story telling had the burden of mortality. But I think we’re well beyond that now. Stories, at least to my mind, exist independent of any agenda or philosophies. The good ones do at least.

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