29 October 2008

Morality, Irony, and Fiction

I shouldn't use such a vast and portentous title for a post that is essentially just saying, "Go read this," but I will anyway, because I think Wyatt Mason's latest post at Harper's hints toward some ideas that are worth considering:

The animating idea of such a book, whether for children or adults, is morally objectionable. To account with the death of 6,000,000 innocents, the author invents a fictional “innocent” whose ironic fate is meant to offer a poignant window onto actual mass murder. Why morally objectionable? It is not that I object to fictionalization of the factual. Rather, I object to the notion that the fake death of a fake German child–through a series of contrivances that guarantee his irony-drenched death–is put forward as a representative means for readers to empathize anew with real children and real adults who really died. How else, such a narrative strategy suggests, could one empathize with the gruesome abstraction 6,000,000 innocents but by the creation of an ironical “innocent”?

Here we see the limits of irony as a narrative strategy.
I've held various views about fiction and morality over the years, sometimes rejecting any relationship between the two terms, sometimes even rejecting the idea of morality itself as a too-convenient catch-all to just mean "stuff I don't like". Over the past few years, though, I've inched closer and closer to seeing that fiction writers need to have some sort of (for lack of a term I'm more comfortable with) moral awareness. I still hate the sound of those two words together, I still remain deeply skeptical of any use of the word "morality", and yet I haven't come up with something better to describe my discomfort and sometimes flat-out anger at the ways many writers create fiction about, for instance, atrocities. Child abuse and sexual abuse are other subjects I more often than not find exploitative in fiction -- the ways writers write about them frequently make me think they are taking shortcuts to emotion, and using such things as relatively easy ways to make their readers feel things. In most cases, fiction (in the broad sense, including movies) that doesn't complicate its own desire to make an audience feel things is fiction that I am, generally speaking, annoyed by. (I was once going to write about this tendency in Amanda Eyre Ward's Forgive Me and Christian Jungersen's The Exception, but I had such vehement disagreement with the moral equations of the novels' narratives that I was incapable of writing about either book: I gaped at their awfulness and could only emit sputters and gasps.)

And yet at the same time, the subject matter that causes writers and artists to create imaginative structures that feel, yes, morally objectionable to me is also the subject matter I most want writers to tackle -- the atrocities, the horrors, the ghastly things that we humans commit against each other, the stuff that often makes me cynical and even misanthropic, the evidence that exhausts my better nature, the material of our worst tendencies. Perhaps that passion, that desire is what makes my disappointment so strong and often leads me, when trying to critique such things, to be inarticulate.

In any case, I hope Wyatt Mason continues to write about this subject.


  1. Could you expand (if only by spluttering :) ) on your objection to The Exception? From the write-up, it looks like the office politics becomes a political allegory; is it that the book massively trivializes (so to speak) evil, or...? I came across a passionate recommendation of the novel the other day, so I'm curious about your response.

  2. It was over a year ago that I read the books, I think, but here's what I remember of The Exception -- there was something about how it related office politics to genocide that I found completely repulsive. I also remember disliking some of its use of the trope of Darkest Africa. But I know plenty of people absolutely love the book, and I don't know of anybody who's had the kind of response to it that I did. It wouldn't be unusual for my response to be an anomaly!

  3. Matthew,
    I'd also love to hear more of your thoughts on this subject. I'm a ravenous reader, too--hoping to find novels that complicate my view of the world and tackle complicated, dark issues. (I liked THE EXCEPTION, by the way. Loved HALF A YELLOW SUN, set in the Biafran War in Nigeria.) FORGIVE ME went through hundreds of drafts, and I'm damn proud of the book, but I know I tried to do many things, and am sure I failed at some. Is it putting fictional characters (in my case American characters) in the midst of historical atrocities that you find unsettling, do you think? Is it juxtaposing "small" issues (like office politics, or domestic life) with such horrors that rankles? I'm not sure myself, and would like to hear your thoughts. I had many more objections to my first novel (about death row) than to FORGIVE ME,and am not sure why. As a writer, I try to be true to the characters--see this as my most important job--but sometimes I wonder, too, about "using" factual situations. Thank you for being a smart reader, and trying to write about these issues.

  4. I've just read the entire Harper's piece and I think I agree with you. There is a way of using the conventional markers for evil, terror, horror, whatever, which calls up an almost automatic response. What I call the 'sounds right so must be right response. But in fact (I use that word gingerly) the reader is being manipulated. When I feel this 'conventional wisdom reaction, I often react by disliking and resenting the piece of writing which is trying to massage my emotions.