The Perennial “Should Literature Moralize?” Debate


When I’m not writing or under the hood of a car, I teach, so I’ve seen this question take a number of forms over the years. The way Amanda Nelson phrased it yesterday, in the title of her blog post “Literary Pet Peeves: When Characters Preach” relies on a reductio ad absurdum: a rhetorical misapplication of a concept, to make it seem self-evidently ridiculous. The text of her article has at least the virtue of more words:For me, the most irritating, infuriating, rage-inducing Literary Thing is the preachy book that uses the conversations of the characters as a mouthpiece for the author’s Message-With-A-Capital-M.” See her entire post here:

I posted a brief reply in that venue, which I’ll revise and expand on here.

Ms. Nelson’s frustration is not unique. I’ve heard it from some of my very best college students, about some of the very best books ever written, because it is often a tick on the gauge of one’s own sophistication as a reader, to be able to detect an author’s “cheap” tricks, and to call them heavy-handed; that is, not subtle enough for the sagacious reader. Putting one’s own “message” into one’s fiction, whether through the mouth of a character or narrator (sometimes both,) is supposedly an offense to the very audience one writes for, by undervaluing their intelligence.

Of course, one goes to church and expects to hear “preaching”; but not in a novel. The problem with Nelson’s formulation is, she’s mis-characterized the foibles of a few works and writers as a universal problem, and reduced it to a creative-writing-course-level violation of a DOs and DON’Ts list.

Hawthorne (writing in the 1830s-1860s), arguably the best author America has produced, explained that writers, before our Civil War, were even then burdened with a residual convention: Fiction had to be equipped with stated morals, because novels and tales themselves were morally suspect (poetry was real literature,) and had to rely on a few artificial contrivances to gain legitimacy with the public. Mark Twain and Henry James both railed against “preaching” only a century after Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (really a conduct manual for girls, in the form of a narrative) but they were in the luxurious position of doing so, after the consumption of fiction had become widespread.

Ms. Nelson has a disclaimer excepting older fiction, so let me address newer material–what we “read” today. Things have hardly changed.

When the Fox network rose to challenge the “big three” TV networks in the early 1990s, their shows were under a similar probation as early novels. Simpsons and Married with Children episodes tended to conclude moralistically, then—and the morals were not ironic. Until they gained a foothold in popularity, that is, and the fledgling Fox became unassailable in the market–and look what it has gotten us, twenty years on: Family Guy (a cartoon unsuitable for any child), Survivor and its ilk (which glorify betrayal), and prime time shows in which gender slurs like “bitch” routinely and frequently drip from characters’ mouths—pick one. D’Oh, much better! So much more subtle, and respectful of the audience!

Literature teaches us humanistic values, one way or the other. Nelson merely quibbles with an aesthetic, a style. Counter-preaches, in fact. Ellison and Baldwin leveled the same charges at Richard Wright. Here’s the problem: when you’re too “subtle,” people won’t hear you. It’s hardly “cheap” to declare what you believe in, using a difficult medium like fiction to do it. Cheap would only be doing it without providing any evidence, any examples and counter-examples, and context.

So I think Ms. Nelson’s real problem is (or should be) when writers don’t earn it. A novelist has to earn practically everything from readers—and here, money is only the start. Many readers share a variant of a 100 (or 50, or 20) -page rule: if it hasn’t “grabbed”them by then, it gets binned. We writers earn the willing suspension of disbelief, for example, by not violating our own rules. We earn the patience of expository material—introduction of characters at the beginning, filling in of vital information—which is necessarily slow-moving at times, by paying it all off in the later acts. And if we have lain out our thematic threads carefully throughout the narrative, through use of symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, characterization, and other devices, we do earn the right to some formulation of our philosophy into concrete terms. Whether that be dramatic, as with Tom Joad declaring “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy. . .I’ll be there,” or fairly subtle, as with Huck Finn’s previously amoral posturing being abandoned to condemn Jim’s selling price as “forty dirty dollars” (strongly reminiscent of Judas’ thirty pieces of silver,) the difference is really only stylistic. Really not much different from preferring deadpan humor to bawd and slapstick—a matter of taste. Perhaps Ms. Nelson prefers the thematic end of the spectrum to the moral end. Fair enough. But, as Fox proved, it’s all-too-short a step from moralizing to amorality, and thence to immorality. We do need moral literature—it’s really what it’s ultimately for. Literacy and morality go hand-in-hand. They beat back the tide of mental flotsam and jetsam that threaten to overwhelm us, in our workaday lives. And in an increasingly less-literate culture, where are our values coming from, if we can’t provide moral alternatives to churches, for intellectual people?



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