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.

A G20 reading list

June 25, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

If you’re like me, you’re likely reading the morning news these days with a mixture of horror, disgust, and sinking despair. The past two weeks have seen Toronto – a safe, clean, happily multicultural city – turned into a fortress-like police state. Fences have gone up downtown. Military helicopters have been buzzing the skies continuously. Toronto police, OPP, RCMP, and police from forces across the country – armed with riot gear, plastic bands to handcuff troublemakers, long-range acoustic devices (so called “sound cannons”), water cannons, and other weaponry – have converged on the south end of the city and seem determined to flex their newly acquired muscle. This includes a bylaw, quietly passed by the Ontario provincial government – without debate – on June 2, that allows police to detain and arrest anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence and refusing to provide ID or submit to a body search. (The bylaw will expire on June 28, but won’t be officially published until July 3: this is what “democracy” looks like in Ontario these days.) Across the downtown core, windows have been boarded up, offices and streets abandoned, schools closed, and the homeless have been forced out of their regular neighbourhoods. All in the service of a contingent of capitalist leaders descending on the city to enjoy a specially constructed fake lake while they hold financial discussions that are guaranteed to be more beneficial to BP than to you and me.

You may be so sickened by the way in which downtown Toronto has been transformed into a militarized zone that you are compelled to join one of the many mass protests that are scheduled for the next three days in the city. Or, you may feel compelled to hole yourself up in your room until the whole thing blows over. Either way, you may want to do some G20-related reading this weekend; TSR has put together the following list of texts that recent events have called (sometimes uncomfortably) to mind. If you do go down to protest, you could do worse than taking one of these books with you. If nothing else, it will provide some reading material when the cops haul you into their makeshift Gitmo on Eastern Avenue for, you know, just walking around your own city.

Fight the power. But, please be safe this weekend. With luck, we’ll all make it through this relatively unscathed. To this point, I’m not hopeful.

A G20 Reading List

Animal Farm by George Orwell – Orwell’s 1945 dystopian allegory about Stalin’s rise in Russia and the concomitant crackdown on individual rights and freedoms seems scarily appropriate in the face of the draconian security measures that have been invoked for the G20 weekend in Toronto. The well-meaning “Seven Commandments of Animalism” that are instituted for the good of all eventually get reduced to just one edict: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Indeed.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller – The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, Müller is a Romanian by birth who ran afoul of Ceausescu’s government when she refused to cooperate with the Romanian secret police. Her 1993 novel tells the story of a group of young people living under the thumb of the Ceausescu regime and the way in which the totalitarian government influences each of them, either forcing them to bend to its will or perish.

The Rebel by Albert Camus – Published in 1951, Camus’ book examines the nature and genesis of rebellion, synthesizing the thought of figures such as Lucretius, de Sade, Nietzsche, and Breton. Camus suggests that humanity turns to revolution when it becomes sufficiently disenchanted with the justice that has been meted out to it, when a quest for order and clarity abuts the essential absurdity of life. However, Camus also drafts a moral framework that makes clear the idea that the impulse toward revolution implies a value system that opposes murder and suppression of others. An essential text for any would-be protester.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – The terrifying story of Josef K., who “without having done anything wrong … was arrested one fine morning.” A horrifying allegory of an individual subsumed and ultimately destroyed by a faceless bureaucracy.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov – A surrealistic story about Cincinnatus C., a man imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” His crime, and the accompanying sentence, make no sense; although Nabokov’s book is ultimately more hopeful than Kafka’s, it carries with it the same force of creeping terror brought about by an individual’s enslavement to a shadowy political system that he neither understands nor is responsible for.

Germinal by Émile Zola – One of his best-known works, Zola’s 1885 novel about the horrific conditions suffered by miners in 1860s France became such a sensation in the author’s home country that when he died, his funeral cortege was followed through the streets by 50,000 people, including a group of miners chanting, “Germinal! Germinal!” One of the great workers’ novels.

Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph E. Stiglitz – “[R]ecent advances in economic theory – ironically occurring precisely during the period of the most relentless pursuit of the Washington Consensus policies – have shown that whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always, and especially in developing countries, then the invisible hand works most imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market.” Nobel winner Stiglitz lucidly explains where globalization goes wrong; he provides G20 antagonists with the bedrock for a cogent argument and could provide the delegates with a roadmap forward, were they to pay him any attention.

The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy by Linda McQuaig – The woman who Conrad Black famously said “should be horsewhipped” provides a compelling argument in favour of financial regulation that could benefit humanity as a collective rather than simply making a few fat cats even fatter. Jumping off from the Chrétien government’s deficit-slashing program of the mid-1990s, McQuaig argues that we have the tools at our disposal to create jobs and a viable social safety net if only we would recognize them.

(With thanks to Oliver Pocknell.)