On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous

September 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

When Émile Zola published the second edition of his short novel, Thérèse Raquin, he felt compelled to append a preface responding to critics of his day who had taken him to task for writing what they considered to be a highly immoral book. “Some virtuous folk,” Zola wrote, “in no less virtuous newspapers, puckered their faces in disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it on the fire. Even the literary papers – those same literary papers that every evening report the gossip from bedrooms and private dining rooms – held their noses and spoke of stinking filth.”

No doubt these readers had some justification for their passionate reactions. First published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a woman thrust into a tedious arranged marriage with her cousin Camille. Thérèse is introduced to her husband’s friend, Laurent, who is much more virile, lusty, and animalistic than her gormless husband. Thérèse and Laurent embark on an affair and, almost incidentally, conspire to kill Camille. The second half of the novel traces the murderers’ psychological deterioration as a result of their crime. (In this, Zola’s novel shares a trajectory with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, published a year previously.)

While Zola’s book has elements in common with other, better known novels of adultery – Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary – it actually cleaves closer to American noir fiction: echoes of Thérèse Raquin can be detected in the work of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith.

What set early readers on edge was not so much the novel’s subject matter, which is no more lurid than many 18th-century Gothic novels, but Zola’s resolute refusal to judge his characters. The author insisted on a naturalistic, almost scientific approach to his characters: he would observe them, but not condemn them. In his preface, he likens himself to an anatomist impartially examining his “naked, living anatomical specimens.” And while he avers that a “sincere study purifies everything, as fire does,” he takes umbrage at those critics who would charge him with obscenity or immorality, claiming that such terms are of little use in discussing literature:

In our times, there are only two or three men who can read, understand, and judge a book. I accept criticism from them, certain that they would not speak until they had discovered my intentions and assessed the results of my efforts. They would be very careful not to mention those great empty words: “morality” and “literary modesty.” They would recognize my right, at a time when we enjoy freedom in art, to choose my subjects wherever I please, asking me only for works that are conscientious, and knowing that only stupidity harms the dignity of literature.

Were Zola alive today, he might find himself making many of the same arguments. Indeed, the puritanical voices claiming that art need be ethical, moral, or didactic have never gone away. Novelist and critic John Gardner perhaps put it most bluntly in his 1978 book On Moral Fiction, in which he baldly states, “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.” (The hedging apposite clause – “at least some of the time” – is a strong indication that Gardner himself remained ultimately unconvinced of the blanket truth of his assertion.) Although less dogmatic and much more nuanced, Wayne C. Booth, in his study The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, also champions the idea that books should serve an ethical or moral purpose for their readers: “The fact that no narrative will be good or bad for all readers in all circumstances need not hinder us in our effort to discover what is good or bad for us in our condition here and now” (emphasis in original), with the implicit corollary that we should elevate the “good” and avoid or disavow the “bad.”

Strains of Gardner and Booth could be detected as recently as last week, when the 2012 Man Booker Prize jury announced its shortlist. While he admitted that it was “the pure power of prose that settled most debates” among the jurors, this year’s chair of judges, Peter Stothard, went on to comment that he and his fellow jurors were “exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values” of the nominated books.

In brief, “vividly defined values” seems like a strange criterion on which to base an assessment of literary worth. The language is vague and imprecise, but let us assume for the sake of argument that the word “values” is not confined merely to the literary sphere, but contains within it some moral imperative. The obvious questions then arise. Whose values are we referring to? From what realm do they spring? Are they moral values? Philosophical values? Political values? Theological values?

Then we must consider the question from the perspective of the writer. What is a writer’s responsibility, to herself and to her readers? Is she responsible for promoting a particular ethical or societal code, or is she responsible merely to the work of art? If we admit that one of the functions of literature is to be truthful to the world as the writer finds it, how is it possible to insist on some moral imperative in art given the evident immorality that surrounds most of us, most of the time? Is the function of art to better its recipients, or is it simply to present, in the kind of scientific manner Zola advocated, an accurate literary representation of a time and place?

It is obvious that evil occasionally triumphs in the world; why should it not also be allowed to triumph in works of literature? (It might be useful to remember that John Milton was roundly excoriated for making Lucifer the central figure of Paradise Lost.) Think of the great moral, virtuous, upstanding novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Now try to imagine an entire literature informed by it. The mind positively reels.

No doubt there are many, even today, who would argue that the function of art is to better humanity. And it seems to be true that those who expose themselves to artistic works are more tolerant and expansive than those who don’t. It is also true that one must take care about what one exposes oneself to in a literary context: much more benefit will be gleaned from reading Zola and Dostoevsky (who were, it should be pointed out, both highly moral writers) than, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

However, the idea that literature must be affirming in order to be worthwhile does not follow.


2 Responses to “On values-based fiction, or, why literature does not need to be virtuous”
  1. Finn Harvor says:

    Interesting post. I didn’t know that about the Zola novel, and you make a strong argument for the reaction to it being excessive and wrong-headed. However, I’m not sure it really connects to the second part (the statement issued by the Booker Prize jury); as you say, Stothard’s comment is rather open to interpretation. And obviously, Peter Stothard is as entitled to read fiction as he wishes within the parameters of reason and intelligence, just as we all are. (I suppose that some think those parameters aren’t even necessary … but that’s the plastic age we live in.)

    The other literary examples you offer might be suitable; I don’t know the work that well. However, since these writers are really genre writers with a certain lit-world cache, wouldn’t it make sense to also include works like SISTER CARRIE and PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT? Both are impeccably literary, and both caused scandal when published. Similarly, some discussion of AMERICAN PSYCHO might fit. It still sells boffo numbers; I saw a copy of it two weekends ago on a big table at the Kyobo bookstore.

    I don’t know how far you’re willing to go with this topic. Personally, I find it quite interesting … and necessary. When one thinks about the topic, there aren’t any pat answers. I hope you’ll continue with these ideas. I’d also be interested to read any linkages you might draw with the CanLit scene. After all — apart from high school reading lists and librarys’ choices, there isn’t much obvious lit scandal in Canada. But at the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the culture is, ah, how could one put it? Controlled? Hemmed in? Samey-samey? There are many viable ways to discuss the way novels in Canada tend to exist, and the ways in which they *could* exist.

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    Erratum: libraries’