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Monday, March 19, 2007


Morals worth having

Stories, whether we mean them to or not, contain a moral. This doesn't mean that they're preachy, or that the author is setting out to deliver a message, but a moral is inherent in any properly told fiction.

The reason for this is structural: stories proceed on a certain internal logic, and the way people behave and events go in them reveals some fundamental assumptions. It wouldn't work to change assumptions halfway through: if you begin a story presenting a world of dog-eat-dog, and resolve the situation by having everyone suddenly become sweet and supportive for no good reason, or begin with a story about the virtues of old-fashioned family life and then produce a climax in which your hero starts acting like an Ayn Rand tycoon, then your readers will be frustrated, because the moral has been inconsistent. Similarly, a rambling story where the events don't follow a satisfying sequence can lead to readers wondering, 'Why are you telling me this?' - which can be viewed as a story that lacks a moral. The absence of a moral and the absence of a point can be inextricable.

A moral, in other words, is a one-sentence condensation of the overall worldview that has driven the story forward, a precis of the kind of world the author has shown us. It doesn't have to be a moral moral, so to speak; it can be an ethically neutral principle like 'The world is full of surprises.' It can be very simple - I'd say, for instance, that the moral of Bareback boils down to 'People are fallible'. Aesop's fables are useful examplars because the structure entirely revolves around making a point - but it's worth remembering that Aesop's morals generally express the principle 'people will take advantage of you if you don't use your common sense', or 'you can't trust what people say because they have ulterior motives'. (The Wolf and the Lean Dog, for example, could just as easily be taken as an incitement to do others before they do you as any kind of incitement to virtue.) I'm therefore using the concept of 'moral' as a structural concept rather than a philosophical one. It might involve ethics, but it doesn't necessarily; all it involves is worldview. A moral needn't be a revelation in itself, but what's important is that the moral should be consistent - and a moral that reader can stomach.

Stomaching it is important. There are some books I can't be having with because, basically, I don't buy the moral. Show me a square-jawed action hero torturing evil, evil bad guys with grim virtue because he needs the truth, damn it, and you've lost me, because the moral there is 'It's a dark world, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, damn it' - and I personally can't swallow any moral that involves the phrase 'damn it': 'damn it' is a refusal to think, a tendency to confuse action with honour and to demonise people while dreaming of being the one good man, and that kind of thinking ends in soldiers torturing civilians and policemen beating suspects. Other people will have other kinds of moral that they can't stomach (examples welcome), but if the story's worldview is too hostile to the readers, then that isn't the book for them.

There's one thing, though, that's a common failing in the morals of inexperienced writers and that I'll always counsel against as an artistic disaster as well as a moral one: pettiness.

A few years ago, I was at an event where various aspiring authors read their work aloud. It was a mixture of people; I knew some of the readers there (I can't remember if I was reading myself, but I think I was), others I didn't. In any case, one young man stood up - between eighteen and twenty-one, undergraduate age - and announced that he was going to read a story that showed two different kinds of behaviour that, I quote, 'piss me off'.

To which my instinctive question was, 'Why?'

The story itself was not very good. It involved a scene of sexual crossed wires between a man and a woman; the man was exploitative and predatory, the woman naive and sentimental, and both, clearly, were disliked by the author. There was nothing wrong with the subject in itself, but it immediately raised the issue of why he was bothering to write about characters he disliked. His preliminary speech gave the answer: he wanted to expose behaviour that he found annoying, in both sexes. The trouble was, he was shadow-boxing: wishing to show the behaviour as irritating, he had prevented himself from thinking about it sympathetically. If you can't sympathise with your characters - which is not the same thing as condoning them - then you can't write them convincingly. They become two-dimensional, and who wants to hear what two-dimensional people are getting up to? They aren't real. So my question remained: why was the personal irritation of someone who didn't sympathise with people worth immortalising in fiction? I'm sure he was capable of greater things than that.

The boy was young and inexperienced, so he may have become a better writer since, but no one I attended the reading with liked that story. The reason can be found in its moral, which was 'People are stupid and irritating.' That wasn’t a moral worth delivering, because all it did was reveal a flaw in the writer's sympathies. Anger is a legitimate artistic motor, but anger carries principle with it: things should be thus, and I'm angry that they're thus instead. Anger invokes something other than mere dislike; it engages with the world, actively, aggressively, tackling things outside itself and calling for change. Irritation, on the other hand, is a small emotion, which separates you from others. Anger is about the world, irritation about you - and readers who don't know you personally won't be overly interested in your gripes, unless you've got something more universally applicable to say. Anger opens up, irritation shuts down. His moral, in short, was petty, and no one wants to hear a petty moral.

Pettiness is toxic to art. Art reveals the artist's mind, and in fiction, the artist strives to see into other people's. If all the artist wants to see is that other people have annoying habits, then his or her mind is closed off from the world, and that's not a place worth visiting. Going into a writer's fictional world and finding it powered by petty emotions is entering a room without windows: the view is not enjoyable. There has to be something there. It may require thought, effort, insight, hard work, but it has to be done, because nothing less is worthwhile.

This does not mean one should begin a story with a moral in mind. That usually leads to disaster, or at least, forced scenes, two-dimensional characterisation and heavy-handed point-making. A moral needs to be inherent in the structure, but that doesn't mean that the structure should beat readers over the head with a moral. It's better to write the story as it needs to be written, and let it follow its own logic. The point at which the concept of a moral becomes useful is when you're redrafting. If something doesn't feel quite right, the moral is a useful lens through which to look at it. Inconsistency can be the result of a change of moral; a sense of pointlessness can indicate the lack of one. It is, in short, a tool you can ues to guide you in the right direction towards a streamlined, coherent story that says something worth saying.

Heavy stuff for a Monday morning :).

I remember one (unpublished) SF story I read where the moral seemed to be that the way to deal with terrible events was to cover them up and pretend they hadn't happened. Er, not for me.
Yes, it's interesting how a weird moral can create problems. I remember being at a writing group where someone produced a story about a violently bigoted Ulster Unionist who hated his daughter's boyfriend for being Catholic. The resolution was that he found the man wasn't Catholic after all - which seemed to suggest the moral 'Don't assume someone is a dirty no-good Papist without firm proof.' Boy, did that story cause an argument...

But if it's too heavy for a Monday, try this: a website with some lovely pictures of puffins. Puffins!


Odd that you should mention Ayn Rand, because reading some of her doorstop novels (Atlas Shrugged, etc) became one of those eye-opening moments, not just because of her philosophy, whatever its virtues and flaws, but in revealing to me how powerfully a system of belief and morals can be handed to the reader through fiction. Part of why stories can affect us so strongly, down where it's soft and sensitive and squishy and fragile, is because we often lower our defenses when it comes to reading (or many types of media/entertainment, for that matter). When we open a book, we're not just cracking open the pages, but our mind as well, inviting that author in with their ideas. We leave ourselves vulnerable in the hopes that we might gain something from the story, whether it's a new perspective, a warning, a lesson, something added to our lives. So when that "hidden gem" turns out to be something, as you said, petty or worthless, or maybe even destructive, we spurn it and wonder why we wasted time on this particular author or story. That's one of my biggest goals in writing, is to never leave the reader feeling they've wasted time reading one of my stories.
Mm, I've just been trying to struggle through The Fountainhead. I have to say I'm finding it pretty poisonous. I'm resolved to finish it, but I have to keep taking rests because there's only so much hatred I can stand in one sitting. I think I'm reading it mostly because it makes me feel combative: I want to be able to say that I did read her book all the way through and still thought she was wrong, as it's never a good idea to declare you disagree with someone without having heard them out. (Though if I'm going to read Atlas Shrugged I want somebody to pay me.) But she's a good examplar of how strong an agenda fiction can be pushing. It's a good way, as well, of reminding yourself that a work of fiction is always the work of one mind, and subject to the opinions of that mind. She's a particularly interesting example because she herself asserted that the way she lived her life and her fiction were both deliberate expressions of the same principle: she pretty much invited author-book comparisons. (Not to her credit, based on what I've read.) But fiction is always someone's work, and comes out of a mind stocked with all sorts of things.

Fiction sometimes tells the artistic truth, and sometimes it tries to convince you of a truth that isn't real - that's where propaganda comes from. I think that's why people can react so intensely to a fiction's principle: like you said, you make yourself vulnerable to it when you read, and if you feel it's somehow malign, the recoil can be quite violent.

Much better to keep your mind as open as possible when you write, I think. Good art is always convincing; you don't need propaganda to be persuasive.
Puffins! Neat. Do they catch all those fish at once, or, if they don't, how do they hold onto the catch while catching more? A conundrum.
Maybe they scooped them all up when they washed ashore?
The Fountainhead...good luck with that one. I made the mistake of telling a friend of mine that I tried to avoid men who read Rand, men that liked "Fight Club" a little too much, and adults that hide from life in their parents' basement. This friend had never read Ayn Rand. She thought my "rules" were funny and so decided to read Fountainhead. I now have a Rand-quoting friend. She completely missed the point that I was not recommending Ayn Rand's views!
"Pettiness is toxic to art." I will nod to that, but toxic can be used to advantage given the right tonic.
And, reader's aside: Hello! I really enjoyed Benighted.
Hello and thank you!

Rand-quoting? Oy vey. Have you tried showing her 'The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult'? (http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard23.html) Or the movie The Passion of Ayn Rand? (Very good film in its own right, actually, good performances.) Rand is a weird author. It's not that she preaches artistic liberty, free will and self-respect; those are good things. It's the way she abuses language. She takes a term that no one can quarrel with, redefines it to suit herself and then concludes that people must agree with her opinions because they approved of the concept before she redefined it. Like 'humanity'. One of those writers who can hate almost every human being in the name of loving humanity, because 'humanity' to her means an idealised image of it that only a few people can live up to. Which isn't what the word actually means. She gets to hate people and claim she loves people because she's messing with words. Very dishonest. Kind of like her villains, actually.

She's kind of hard to discuss, because she anticipates criticism: she has a reasonable ear for common appeals to virtue, and puts them in the mouths of her deepest villains. The result is that if you condemn her work you end up sounding like Ellsworth Toohey. But the Toohey camp don't take common viewpoints and subject them to a reductio ad absurdum; it's more a fictionalised ad hominem attack. They link together reasonable and wildly evil points as if they naturally followed from one another, but actually they don't - which takes some untangling because of her writing style. Her reasoning doesn't so much march inexorably forward as charge, shields raised on all sides, at such a pace that a dissenting reader is left running to keep up, panting 'That conclusion doesn’t follow from the previous one' to a warrior logic too deafened by its own war-cry to hear him.

She has this odd black-and-white concept of idealism - have you noticed that, however different her characters supposedly are, they all understand the ideal in exactly the same way? They perceive it dimly or clearly, accept it or reject it, but it's always the exact same thing. She worshipped Victor Hugo, who also wrote about idealism, but Hugo understood that idealism is filtered through personality. Look at the characters in Les Miserables; there's Enjolras, her favourite, the cold man of action, but there's also Jean Valjean, for whom idealism means always putting others before himself, and Javert, for whom idealism means dogged justice. Totally different, but all idealists. Not so with Rand. Her people have no idiosyncrasies, no quirks, no traits that are not directly related to whether they are embodying good or bad principles. Heroism is not just the essential criterion by which people may be valued, but the only means by which they may be perceived at all. Every minor character is part of the struggle one way or another; if they aren't fighting on her terms, then like Spielberg's tyrannosaur whose vision is based to movement, Rand literally cannot see them.

Which leads to the weird sense that all her 'individuals' are just like one another. One bit that always stuck in my logical craw was the Stoddard temple and the sculpture of Dominique. To Rand, it goes without saying that the heroic architecture of Roark and the heroic sculpture of Mallory will be aesthetically suited to one another, and that the best model for Mallory's sculpture will be the heroic form of Dominque Francon. The possibility that two artists might share ideals but express them in individual styles that jar visually, even while they harmonise philosophically, is not considered; still less the notion that a woman might be philosophically in tune with two men while not being their physical ideal. For anyone, that's a wish-fulfillment idea, but for an artist, it's just bizarre.

But I think the real problem with Rand is that she just doesn't know what she's talking about. She writes about people with the earnest disgust of someone who never found much to like in her fellow-creatures, and assumes that anyone who says they do must be lying to cover an agenda. That doesn't sound to me like someone who actually understands the emotions she's condemning. That, and happiness. How often do her characters enjoy their lives? Do they ever buy something with their wealth that they can enjoy uncomplicatedly? Eat a delicious meal? Feel a good mood without needing to relate it to a philosophical war? I think she was never happy; she certainly couldn't convey it. People I know who used to like Rand say they ran out of interest in her when their own lives got a bit happier and they realised that it would be no fun to live like her characters, because her characters never enjoy themselves.

She claims to be all about the spirit of life, but doesn't like living things unless they're conquering other living things. Life to her means buildings and machines, inanimate things, and a frantic self-defence or stark indifference that keeps you separate from the world in case it contaminates you. A writer is not in favour of life when the world only exists to be guarded against or conquered, when individuals are isolated fighters contemptuous of almost everything. It's absolute negativity, dressed up as positivity because she's mauled the terms. It's death calling itself life.

I don't think she's an idealist. I think she's a fantasist, who felt some grim desire to make her fantasies into ideals to justify them. You notice how every single good character looks like her ideal type? She seems to have a genuine belief that a short man or a stocky woman is a kind of slur on mankind by their very existence. Free will, it ain't. Fantasy, it is.

Sorry if this was too ranty; I'm trying to clear some of the poison out of my system, and the lady's too dead to get her feelings hurt reading this.

(pant, pant)

Here's a nice website with a picture of some cute mice, to vary the tone:

I don't agree that all successful stories have morals to them. Often writing is sucessful because it doesn't come down on any message and instead provides an ambiguous set of meanings...

I agree though that structurally stories do lend themselves towards morals.

And also I agree that for authors to express morals is not a bad thing and that pettiness is annoying.

Petty novels can be really enjoyable however (though your example sounds absolutely terrible).

I am a big fan of Michel Houellebecq and his novels are both petty and have no definite moral.

And he must be good because he is a international bestseller!!

To be honest tho it is less the pettyness that is the problem and more the petty expression of it. If things are expressed well then they become larger than they are, and so pettiness can become something more complicated and moving when expressed well. I am thinking of Walking On Glass by Iain Banks here.

I don't know anything about Rand apart from I've heard of her (and rather sexistly assumed she was a man!!) But I must object to:

I don't think she's an idealist. I think she's a fantasist, who felt some grim desire to make her fantasies into ideals to justify them.

This is really well put and in ranting mode I can imagine that I would be as dismissive of people as you are being here. But surely no one has the right to say what are fantasies and what are ideals. I mean, to every one of us all conflicting ideals seem to be fantasies but to their owners our ideals seem to be fantasies.

Either all ideology is fantasy or none of it is. I think we can respect peoples views despite not subscribing to them. To some death calling itself life is the ideal of life. I don't like it either but thats how it is.

To assume that her feelings can't be hurt after she is dead is to assume that there is no life after death. To people who follow many ideological systems that would be fantasy.

To you it is clearly ideal, or that even stronger form of ideal: fact. Unequivocal. There is no life after death.

I suspect you're right, though I sit on the fence on such issues because we cannot prove either side.

I do think though that it is fine to rant about people in a negative way, whether or not they are alive or dead. Arguably though it is less moral to do so when they are dead because they no longer have the right to reply (until, possibly, the after life).

That said I did like the way you said that the terrible writer from your example could perhaps have become a good writer. Thats agnosticism applied to writers and talent, and I like to see that, though I am often not a good enough person to give people the same curtosy and respect.
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