So I have been thinking about this a while. The idea that ‘Fiction,’ (by fiction, book, work, etc I am talking about any novel, poem, story, etc) in the broadest sense, ought be ‘moral’ is a bit passe. This may be a due to a misunderstanding, or misapplication, of the word ‘moral.’ Moral fiction ought not be construed as didactic fiction. Nor should it necessarily be tinged with explicitly religious sensibilities. The ‘romances’ that populate most Christian bookstores are, in all likelihood, immoral. I freely admit I have ripped this title from John Gardener’s seminal statement On Moral Fiction. If I were to posit two other pillars in my understanding of the morality of fiction I would include David Foster Wallace’s This is Water and George Steiner’s Real Presences. All three books have the twin virtues of brevity and clarity.
So what is a ‘moral’ work. I moral work, in my understanding, is one that not only reflects humanity, or a slice of it, but humanizes the reader. I realize affective modes of criticism are not popular, and truth be told, I am perhaps the biggest critic of the easy, affective, applications of Reception Theory. This theory reached its nadir in Stanley Fish’s formulation of Reader-Response Criticism. By nadir, I mean his theory is neither useful or interesting. It may be correct in some understanding of the word, sure each reader does reconstitute their version of a given novel, but it only leads us in onto ourselves. The great pulse of literature is out into the world.
It is clear, then, this moral standard is hard to apply. How would one recognize a ‘moral’ book versus an immoral, or perhaps just amoral? Furthermore, can a book’s relative morality modulate based on the reader? I think the answer to the latter query must be yes. Consider these three quotes on the nature of fiction/art/etc:
John Gardener: ‘Art rediscovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness’
David Foster Wallace: ‘Fiction’s about what it means to be a fucking human being’
George Steiner: ‘How do we have this assurance, what allows us to discriminate, even within the class of ontological difficulties, as between the necessary and the factitious, and even between “the real” and the “more real.” ‘
So basically, it seems, there is something irreducibly human to moral fiction. Its most foundational levels , i.e. ontology, moral fiction function on the same plane, or an equivalent plane of reality, as real life. We don’t read moral fiction so much as live it. The process of engaging such books is not so much a process of self discovery but a process of self immolation. Moral books fracture our ‘Sense of Self,’ in Charles Taylor’s terms, and expose us to ourselves by putting our own minority report of humanity in direct contact with what it means to be human. Again, I realize I am simply stating what ‘moral fiction’ does, rather than articulating how to recognize it. That is the problem. How does one know what water tastes like? Or that one likes steak but not fish? Or red wine but not white? One just knows. One experiences them at a personal level and just knows which they prefer. They have tasted and they have seen.
To that end, I am not going to wrap this up with a neat way to figure out what’s what. Rather, over time I hope to post little blurbs about books/poems/etc that I find particularly ‘moral,’ or rather humanizing. I realize my views could be construed as elitist, but really I think they are as far from that as possible. If humanity is the goal, that must, by nature, be the most egalitarian understanding of literature possible. A few final provisos. This is very hard to talk about in English. We only have one word for ‘know.’ I know 2+2=4 and I know my best friend. One readily sees these are, in fact, two radically different ways of knowing.
Taking it even further, I know Bono. I know who he is, I listen to his music, I have read about him but I do not know him in the way I know my best friend. I am not in human relationship with him. I pick Bono specifically because I would say I am in relationship to his art. I know it, not just about it. There is a reason the KJV used to say things like Adam knew Eve as his wife. The type of knowing it described can only be understood as intercourse. Running among. Perhaps this is our problem with literature today, we no longer have a healthy erotic of art, one predicated on deep commitments and mutual vulnerability. But I digress. My point is just this, I am talking about knowing, not knowing about.
Finally, while I, as a white, middle class, American, male will never fully know what it means to be a poor, black, woman that is why I must read her. Literature is my only hope of knowing, not just knowing about. The root of my belief is that we are both humans. We are more alike then different. I can know the humanity of ‘the other’ (I hate that word so much, we really need a better word) through their fiction, what they create. The books I will share are predominantly DWM’s (Dead White Males), they are what has moved me. They ought not, though, be construed as a determinant or exclusive list of moral fiction. For example, I missed out on Shakespeare as an undergrad. How can you write about humanity with out writing about Shakespeare? Well, I guess I’ll try :-). In truth, I think the best rises to the top. It is the great tragedy of human history that for most of it women and minorities have been excluded from having a voice, but I cannot go back to Medieval England and create a Hispanic Female author. What I can do is consider how women are portrayed in Beowulf and look forward to a place when all voices can be heard. Perhaps that is the essence of humane reading. Doing what we can, where we can. Anyhow, I will have to tie this off for now. Flame away.
Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction, (Basic Books, 1979)
Steiner, Geoge, Real Presences, (UChicago P, 1991)
Wallace, David Foster, This is Water, (Little, Brown, and Co., 2009)