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.