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On Moral Fiction

I have a book, pages yellowed and stiff as if I’d been born much earlier than I was actually born, that my brother gave me when I graduated from college. He inscribed the front page, which is why I know when he gave it to me. Otherwise, I’d have to depend on my memory, which is a bit stiff and yellow about the edges, too.

The book is John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. I don’t know if anyone reads Gardner much anymore. I know that men of a certain age, who were already stiff and yellow about the edges when they were my writing professors, loved John Gardner. I never had much use for his fiction, which seemed to be speaking to an audience much older and male than I was, but I did like this book. And I was touched that my brother would give it to me as I finished school and was about to embark on my life of art.

Fast-forward a few years, and my brother is in advertising, and I’m a homeschooling mom, but the book hasn’t lost its relevance. I skimmed it and found that my young self had helpfully underlined all sorts of important bits. Amazingly, they sound just as important to me now as they did then.

Gardner wrote, “Nothing could be more obvious, it seems to me, than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production’s moral worth.”

He goes on to say a lot of things, but the main point I took from his argument, and have held onto ever since, is that whether you try to or not, any time you create a work of art you are making a moral statement. So since it’s unavoidable, you might as well think about what moral statement you’re making, just in case it turns out you’re making a statement that you don’t really want to stand behind.

This comes up now because my kids and I have spent the last two years – the time in which both kids have been homeschooling – listening to lots of audiobooks together in the car. When my son was in school, it was too hard to share books because his sister and I would want to listen while he was in school. But then our lives coincided a bit more and it became a project of sorts. We have listened to three series that I think Gardner would have had strong opinions about, had he lived to read them.

First, we listened to all of Harry Potter in the space of a few months. It was an interesting exercise – HP started to invade my thoughts about everything. It is clearly a series that has a lot of compelling content. But in the end, after all that build-up, I felt like we experienced an enormous group shrug. OK, well, good thing it’s over now so we can listen to something else.

It’s not that we didn’t enjoy it – we all did. But in the end, it seemed like there was so little to sink our teeth into. Harry, as a friend of mine pointed out, really didn’t “grow” that much as a character. He started out pretty good, he stayed pretty good, then in the end his goodness triumphed over evil, just as predicted.

It wasn’t an immoral tale, certainly. But I was left wondering, Does HP give us anything to aspire to? Have we learned anything? Do we feel better equipped to face the challenges of our lives? The answer was that resounding group shrug. It was a good tale, worth listening to, and I don’t think it damaged us to listen to it. But if Gardner is right, HP’s ambivalence is a statement in itself, a message where one was not really defined.

The second series we got into started simply because we found out that the author had published the first novel as a homeschooled teen. That sounded interesting, so we decided to check it out. The series, Inheritance, is all the rage with young teens I know. It certainly was a gripping tale, full of swashbuckling fighters, glorious dragons, lithe elves, and Icelandic-style scenery as a backdrop. Our hero, Eragon, is a farmboy who becomes a sort of accidental hero after he finds a dragon egg. Eragon has to grow immensely into this role. Nothing is ever easy for him. (Believe me – by the 50th time you read that Eragon felt some part of his body give way as he did some amazing deed… you get the point that he’s suffering!)

We were stymied in finishing the series, however, because I refused to buy the audiobook and the last book had a long waiting list at the library. So while we waited, we started on our third series, which we’re just finishing. This series, Tiffany Aching by Terry Pratchett, has a lot of surface similarities to Inheritance: made-up land, lots of magic, fairy folk. There the similarities end, however. Pratchett is a master writer with a slew of adult novels under his belt. His books not only feature a sly, intelligent humor that makes you sure this man knows what he’s doing—they are also firmly grounded in a moral universe of Pratchett’s making.

We finished Inheritance because we’d come so far and we needed to know how it ended. By the end, we were referring to it as “Blood and Guts” due to the enormous amount of violent imagery. The author would often pause to have his hero bemoan the amount of violence he was required to engage in—a nod toward morality—but then again he would rise up to drive his sword through an endless parade of bodies, telling us in gory detail about the sinews snapping, the fluids draining, the surprised looks on the doomed faces.

The other thing that hit me wrong about the series was indicated by the name: This series of books is all about how you can’t change your destiny. You are who you are, you are fated to be swordsman or victim, and you play your part no matter what. In the end, Eragon has learned many things, but the biggest lesson he’s learned is that none of his struggles changed anything. He’s on the white ship sailing off to his destiny.

I have to say that I found this a repugnant message to give young readers. As Gardner said, whether you mean to teach a lesson or not, what you choose to put into your fiction teaches a lesson. And the lesson learned from Eragon’s travails is that some of us are just born with great drama, and it doesn’t matter what we do to the little people on our rampage across history.

It’s so interesting that the end of Inheritance was sandwiched in between visits with Tiffany Aching. Tiffany is also a farm girl who gets caught up in something much bigger. But on every step of her journey, Tiffany pauses to think. She notices how her actions affect people. She makes decisions, and she takes responsibility for her decisions when they hurt other people.

The first three books are largely free of any gross violence. The fourth, I Shall Wear Midnight, starts with a shocking scene. A 13-year-old girl is beaten so viciously by her father that she loses the baby she’s carrying. Plenty for me to cringe at as the book opened and we listened in the car. However, by then I trusted Terry Pratchett, and he has not violated that trust. He is a writer who wields his pen with great assurance. There is no ambivalence about right and wrong, no sense that there’s no reason to fight, never a suggestion that someone can’t grow into being something more than they are today.

My kids had probably never heard anything so personally, horribly violent as they did at the beginning of Pratchett’s final book in the series. Nothing in HP or Inheritance was so personal and true to life. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into discussions about just how and why a 13-year-old gets pregnant! But I don’t regret letting them listen to it. By the end of the book, Tiffany has unraveled the mess, not to make it perfect, but to make it as good as she can.

And that’s why she’s good, and why she’s moral, and why, if I wanted my kids to emulate any of the many people we’ve gotten to know in the last year—Harry, Ron, Hermione, Eragon, Arya, Roran, Rob Anything, or even Slightly Bigger Than Wee Jock Jock (gotta read Pratchett to understand!)—my vote is for Tiffany. She’s a hardworking, imperfect, thoughtful person. She’s not always nice, because she knows that nice is not always the most important thing.

But she is moral, as are her books.

Posted in Books, Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting, Writing.


7 Responses

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  1. Sue VanHattum says

    >There is no ambivalence about right and wrong, no sense that there’s no reason to fight, never a suggestion that someone can’t grow into being something more than they are today.

    I think I agree, depending on the meaning of ‘ambivalence’. Sometimes right and wrong are very complicated. Sometimes we love people who do wrong. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. Maybe ambivalence is not the same thing, but Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls (first in a trilogy), is full of these complications, and that’s what makes me like it.

  2. Suki says

    I actually think that ambivalence is what’s good about Harry Potter – when it’s there. The most beautiful scene, to me, was when Harry watches Snape’s memories and realizes that this person he thought was the embodiment of evil was actually a complicated and “good” person. But I found the simplicity of much of the rest of the series a big let-down. I haven’t read Sea of Trolls – I’ll check it out. Thanks for writing!

  3. Meg says

    I’m with you on liking John Gardner’s writing about writing, but not liking his actual writing! Have you read his Art of Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist?

    • Suki says

      I think I read Art of Fiction many years ago. I will have to check them both out again!

  4. Diane says

    Along these lines…my son is working hard towards being an author. One book that we have found helpful to aspiring writers is The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success.

    It “reveals the foundational concept at the heart of all successful box office movies and other stories. It is a principle that has been passed down from ancient times. It is a principle that modern research has shown is in all great stories that connect with audiences. If you ignore this principle, your story is doomed. But if you consistently apply it to each character, scene, and dramatic beat, it is the principle that will empower your storytelling, and illuminate all the other techniques you bring to the craft. It is the guiding principle of writing that allows films and all stories to be great.”

    “In brief, the Moral Premise describes how successful motion pictures are always structured around a psychological (or spiritual) premise based on true moral values, and how screenwriters can appropriate the structural elements of the moral premise to write successful movies.”

    It is very interesting! http://www.moralpremise.com/

  5. Suki says

    That sounds interesting. Of course, it’s also important to consider why you’re writing and who you’re writing for. If your son’s goal is to write blockbuster movies, that’s one thing. But if his goal is to write novels that really move people (even if it’s a small number of people), he might want to read other writers’ opinions about what good writing is. As someone who can’t remember a blockbuster movie she has enjoyed lately (oh, wait, I did actually like Avatar, but not because I thought it was the deepest thing I’d ever watched), I have to say that my inclination would be to make sure that I *didn’t* do what blockbuster movies do! So “vive la différence” — there’s room for all of us. Some of us just inhabit bigger, more lavish rooms! 🙂
    Thanks for writing!

  6. Parmalee says

    Outstanding blog!



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