Monday, April 6, 2009

McCall Smith on Morality in Fiction

Alexander McCall Smith, author of the African cozy series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, writes in The Wall Street Journal about the transformative power of narrative. Excerpts:

Although we eventually learn to distinguish between the world of make-believe and the real world, I suspect that many of us continue to experience fictional characters and events as being, in some way, real. This is because the imaginative act of following a story involves a suspension of disbelief, as we enter into the world it creates. When Anthony Minghella showed me a moving scene that he had just filmed for the pilot of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," I found myself weeping copiously, right there on the set. I felt rather embarrassed -- it was only a story, after all -- but he put a hand on my shoulder and said that was exactly what he had done over that particular scene.

For the author, this sense that the reader has of the reality of the story has serious implications for how characters are treated in novels. It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint. A writer who told a story of, say, rape or genocide but did so from a neutral or, worse still, complicit position would be given very short shrift indeed. Readers and critics would be on to him in no time at all; indeed a book like that would be unlikely to be published at all. Why? If it is only a story, where is the harm?

Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because they become part of our cultural history.
The wide-ranging piece cites U.K. crime-fiction maven P.D. James, thriller-scribe Patricia Highsmith, Edgar Allen Poe and Der Struwwelpeter, a macabre collection of children's stories. Though McCall Smith nuances most of his argument, he gives an awful lot of cultural credit to J.K. Rowling's revelation that a character in Harry Potter was homosexual, a revelation that -- in one person's humble opinion -- seemed more extra-textual publicity stunt than integrated theme. Read the whole thing.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Mimi_K)

10 comments:

Nymeth said...

I'm not sure where I stand on that...to be honest, I'd have been much happier if she had made it clear that Dumbledore was gay in the book themselves. But if the revelation had a positive impact, which I'm willing to believe it had, then I guess it's better than nothing.

Anyway...nice article.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks. I liked it, too.

Rowling's revelation felt oddly disingenuous to me. Gaiman defended it by saying that that a secondary character in Stardust was homosexual, but there's a major hint to who that is in the text itself. If it doesn't happen in the book, I can't see how you can say it happened. Not that Rowling cares much about my approval ...

Loren Eaton said...

Another weird thing (not to harp on about it) was the way in which it shifted the close relationship between Harry and Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince. I'm not sure she was meaning to hint at pederasty at the time.

ollwen said...

It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.

Maybe this is a standard of Cozy fiction that doesn't exist universally, but it seems to exist less in American popular fiction lately. Books like Fight Club seem to be pretty popular, though perhaps not in the Heart Land of the nation or English readership.

I agree about her comments about Dumbledore. I think it was pure publicity. I also took it to be an off-hand comment, the way some writers talk about their characters as though they are friends whom the authors themselves only know so well. It hand a quality of something she might say about an acquantance called, Charley, reflecting, " . . . yes. . . I think he might have been gay. . ." Yet Dumbledore's character in the series was so Fatherly, Grandfatherly really. He was saintly, and almost Godly in his ability to foresee and plan the best way to intervene, or not. There was nothing sexual about his role in the story, one way or the other. I won't let it reflect on his relationship with Harry. Maybe it could reflect on his relationship to Gellert Grindelwald, but I can't imagine any other. Anyway, sorry. That's not what this post was really about. :-P

Loren Eaton said...

I think one of the ways fiction can have a "morally acceptable standpoint" is to show things from the wrong side of the fence. Show the bad things that happen when you accept evil. It's noir rather than cozies (although noir can, in some hands, become amoral and fatalistic).

Our three reactions over Dumbledore's sexuality just proves to me what a misstep it was on Rowling's part. It contributes nothing to the story and will take away from it for some people. Dumbledore really was fatherly and wise to me. Then afterwards I began to wonder about his relationship with Harry ... and had to stop. That way lieth madness.

ollwen said...

I went back and read Smith's whole article. The kinds of things people wrote about with moral insistence were pretty silly, yet the point holds true about the moral influence of story. It connects to your previous post about people making time for story, and they do, if through other means than reading fiction.

Ravi Zacharias talks about three levels of philosophy: The theoretical, the existential, and the prescriptive. The theoretical is where philosophers discuss, the prescriptive is where fathers tell their children how it's going to be, but the existential is where philosophy comes to us through the venue of the arts. This is how the playwrights of French existentialism gained so much influence. I think post-modernism infiltrated the American mind largely through TV and film. So often people are unaware of the world view or moral assertions that they are swallowing along with the story.

Smith's tales do illustrate how people will stand up for what is important to them. It also illustrates how small those things often are, despite our lofty notions about ourselves.

Loren Eaton said...

So often people are unaware of the world view or moral assertions that they are swallowing along with the story.

Yes, yes, yes. And this is something that can be used for good or for evil. Depends on the story and the storyteller. As readers, our job is to first understand what the author wants to communicate and then to evaluate it. And far too many don't even get all the way through the first step.

B. Nagel said...

It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.

Maybe this is a standard of Cozy fiction that doesn't exist universally, but it seems to exist less in American popular fiction lately


I remember reading Fight Club for my English Comp II class in the Heartland of America. The story of Tyler Durden / narrator is ultimately the story of one man's journey from Selfless to Self-aware to Self-destructive.

From what I've seen, authors still stick to this maxim, but the 'moral[] acceptab'ility is individualized to the author. For instance, Ted Dekker writes about things that Chuck Swindoll wouldn't touch.

Loren Eaton said...

From what I've seen, authors still stick to this maxim, but the "moral acceptability" is individualized to the author.

Agreed, both in theme and subject matter. Some authors have always championed causes that the majority find repellent. But now we have the unique phenomenon of people who use edgier content to articulate conservative beliefs. (I've never read any Dekker, but he seems to write in the same vein as Peretti.) Funny things happen when people confuse the two.

B. Nagel said...

Dekker works along the same vein as Peretti, just deeper. I highly recommend his Circle trilogy (Black/Red/White).