Fiction that Departs from Society's Norms and Values

Should fiction preach to us? Should it establish certain values as desirable? Or should it simply dramatize conflicts that involve values and allow the reader to use his critical faculties to choose a side?

I've always opted for the last choice in my own writing, and I think I'm rather good at that, except for one thing: my values and those of society clash, and sometimes readers get confused, because it does not occur to them that anyone could disagree with their basic values. They then find it extremely irksome when the people who do "bad things" come off as sympathetic. Instead of saying to themselves: "I disagree with the values of this author," a lot of readers, including critics and editors, arrive at a different conclusion: "This is badly written."

When we turn to authorities on "how to write", it is hard to escape their ingrained assumption that we all know what "good" and "bad" traits are, and all we have to do in order to understand a novel is to identify good traits as character strengths and bad traits as character weaknesses.

Watch the instructional video below, in which author K.M. Weiland discusses virtues and vices in George Eliot's Mill on the Floss. What do we learn about K.M. Weiland's values concerning fiscal policy from her literary advice?

What are Unlikeable Traits? Do we all agree on that?

Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors: Gifts in Fraud of Creditors

Forgiving a debt against a relative while teetering on the brink of bankruptcy oneself is counted as a virtue in K.M. Weiland's eyes, as well as in George Eliot's book. Now, what was that called again when I was back in law school? A gift in fraud of creditors. Is this a good thing to do in my book? No. In my novels, short stories and plays, this would be counted as a flaw or a vice.

But how do we engage in literary analysis of any fictional work, without taking sides on values? Is that even possible?

I remember vaguely that I did try to read The Mill on the Floss once, very long ago, when I was a teenager. I don't remember anything about it, except that it was very soppy. It felt like wading though treacle. Did I make a connection between not enjoying George Eliot's writing and not sharing her values? I'm not sure that I did. But I do remember reading Atlas Shrugged around the same time, and that book has left a lasting impression.

Negative and Positive: In a Value Neutral Universe, it's the contrast that matters

In a monochrome negative, what was white is black and what was black is white, but it's essentially the same image and we can recognize it by the contrast.
In a monochrome negative, what was white is black and what was black is white, but it's essentially the same image and we can recognize it by the contrast. | Source

Self-Abnegation: Is it a good thing?

In George Eliot's universe, self-abnegation is a good thing, a mark of virtue. In Ayn Rand's world, it is a character flaw. Maggie Tulliver is virtuous, because she gives up on happiness for the sake of others. Hank Rearden is tragically flawed, because he allows others to prey on him. Can we, as readers and critics, possibly react to these characters and the dilemmas they face in a value-neutral way?

Some say that it is the nuances, the grey areas, that distinguish a great work from one that is too idealogically programmatic.Weiland praises Eliot, because she allows characters to have both virtues and flaws, thereby creating a rich grey area. People say that with Ayn Rand, everything is black and white. But is that really true?  And besides, how can we possibly even experience grey, if we've shut our eyes to black and white? Don't black and white define grey?

Politics and Literature

Quick, name a classic novel from the nineteenth century that espouses fiscally or socially conservative values! I can't think of one. Can you?

How about the eighteenth century? The seventeenth? Okay, think back as far as you remember into the history of literature, and when has a book exhorting people to pay back their debts made it to the bestseller list?

Not even the Bible, if you count the OT and NT, together, does that. After all, where do you think Eliot, liberal free thinker that she was, got the idea that forgiving our debtors while hoping for forgiveness from our creditors, is a decent way to behave? It came straight from the "Good Book" and it leads inexorably toward socialism.

Rand herself was not entirely immune to this kind of thinking. She had Howard Roark default on his rent payment rather than compromise his architectural designs in The Fountainhead. When we are immersed in a particular culture, it is easy to adopt its values even as we struggle against them. I'm sure Rand didn't mean to take a stand against the "evils of landlordism" when she wrote that passage. She just wasn't focusing.

Even as we try to paint a character with good and bad traits, we are often trapped in the cultural context of what is considered good and bad by our contemporaries. So then is it completely impossible for a literary work to espouse values that fly in the face of the social norm? Not necessarily, as long as the social norm is a really outdated one.

For instance, Samuel Shellabarger's Captain from Castile is very good at dramatizing the inner conflict of Pedro de Vargas as he comes to realize that the Inquisition is bad. But the only reason that Shellabarger managed to get away with that is that by the time he wrote the book, everybody had already realized that the Inquisition was bad, and there was no more Inquisition.

How much moral courage does it take to make a stand against the Inquisition in the twentieth century? How much imagination does it require of the reader to follow the protagonist's inner struggle? Isn't the outcome already obvious from the start?

Javert: Which are his virtues and which are his flaws?

A Value Neutral Painting of a Flawed Character

However, there is still hope. It is possible to create flawed characters that people from different ideological backgrounds can love. Look at Javert.  He's a beautiful example of a flawed character that everybody can find something to like about. Some of us love him for his relentless pursuit of justice. Some love to hate him for his narrow mindedness.

In future works, I am hoping to use this kind of grey area to make readers of different political persuasions enjoy my characters. For instance, consider this tragically flawed individual: an American patriot who contributes large sums of money to Marx and Engels in order to fund their ideological movement, because he believes that they are opposed to the tariff, just like him!

Liberals can love him because he contributed to Marx and Engels. Conservatives can appreciate the tragedy of his not being able to wade through Das Kapital long enough to figure out they are opposed to property rights. So there'll be something in there for everyone!

Now I'd like to see a short instructional video by K.M. Weiland exploring that kind of literary device!


© 2011 Aya Katz


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Comments 19 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Any writing that I do is a discovery process that I hope will be identified with.;)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Mentalist Acer, I feel the same. We discover new things as we write, and we hope to share them with others. But we also hope that people will be able to see what we're saying starting from different perspectives on life.


Jeremey profile image

Jeremey 5 years ago from Arizona

Thanks for the hub, much enjoyed it. Love "Atlas Shrugged", not so up to date on some of the others though, now I suppose I can be. Credit is based on TRUST, forgiveness of debt may devalue that trust some but I believe can improve the relationship in the future. It is amazing what can come of the 'grey areas', without them I think the reading is a little less enjoyable no matter the topic, the reader should always have that grey area to intrigue their imagination and thoughts of their own. thanks again.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Jeremey, thanks for your comment. Atlas Shrugged is the best of the works I mentioned, in my opinion. Captain from Castile is an excellent historical adventure novel, the best of its kind -- but you're unlikely to revise any previously held philosophical belief after reading it.

It's fine to forgive a debt, if you yourself owe no one anything. To forgive a debt when it could pay what you owe to your creditor is a sin against your creditor. People are often confused about what sort of charitable gifts are okay. The answer? Those that are at your own expense and not taken from someone else by fraud or force.


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago

Interesting hub. I agree that serious fiction should pose the question and let the reader find his or her own answer. I find serious literature and movies much more accessible than the Bible for raising moral issues. Examples: Glengarry Glen Ross, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Commeth, Doubt, The Savages and many others. I don't include anything by Ayn Rand. Hers are cardboard characters spouting her so-called objectivist philosophy.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Ralph Deeds, thanks for your comment. Are you sure you are being objective in judging Rand's literary merit, considering that you obviously disagree with her values? Can you think of any way to present her values that would not turn you off? Are her characters, like the conflicted Hank Rearden, really any more made of cardboard than is any other flawed character in literature? Or is it the way the conflict is resolved that determines the value of the work for you?

Can you see how all the "serious literature" we are asked to like is loaded with liberal values? Can you put yourself into the shoes of someone who doesn't share your values and re-evaluate your favorite books from that perspective?


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago

Well, I took several literature and philosophy courses at a good university and I never heard Ayn Rand's name or objectivism mentioned. And I'm re-reading "The Fountainhead" fifty years after reading it the first time, and the characters appear to be caricatures of people she admired and others she hated. I admit I've been influenced by diaparaging articles I've read about her from time to time. I did read "Atlas Shrugged" when it came out. Also, I've read a lot of highly regarded books which I'm able to compare with Rand. Her characters are quite flat compared to the ones in so many good books from, e.g,, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Melville, Hemmingway, Updike, et al.

I was not "turned off" by Howard Roark's values. He is an admirable but not a very realistic character. Rand's objectivism is basically stolen from the discredited social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and his followers which departs from our Judaeo-Christian heritage. So, you are correct that I am repelled by Rand's philosophy even more than by her novels which are mediocre at best.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Ralph, thanks for replying. It is really hard for all of us, I think, to separate the message of a story from the way the story is told. Since the liberal, Judeo-Christian tradition holds, among other things, that we are all "sinners" or at least, for those who are less than religious, "neurotic", many readers see the sign of a tortured, imperfect and sometimes badly behaving protagonist, as realistic and a worthy literary accomplishment, whereas a hero who is less plagued by internal conflicts and problems with self-control is seen as more of a comic book character. But when your message is that we are not all sinners and that there can be heroes, how are you supposed to project that?

Can you see the problem now?


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

People think many liberals like Marx and Engels, but I never liked either one. I preferred Native American ideas about socialism because I am part Kansa Indian, and I am more inspired by liberals from our American progressive era in the 1890's-1910's. I am more of New World liberal so to speak.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

I am going to read Atlas Shrugged one of these days. I am reading a bit of everything. I even read the Twilight series, which was just creepy on so many levels. Cannot believe people romanticize being bit by a vampire. A lot of creepy elements in that novel.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

SweetiePie, thanks for your comments.

I like a lot of the things I have heard about the way native Americans managed their tribal structure prior to the arrival of Europeans. However, it's not the socialism that attracts me. It's the idea that it was a meritocracy, and every individual had a chance to win a position of honor.

I've never read the Twilight books, though I have seen the movies. From what I've seen of it, it would not appeal to me.

I do hope you get a chance to read Atlas Shrugged. You may not agree with everything, but it's a very thought provoking book.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

You know I am going to read it, and I do not agree with everything I read. I read books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, and whereas I could not figure out why the young Iranian woman moved back to Iran to become a professor, I still enjoyed reading a story from her point of view. Eventually she realized living there was not the future she wanted for her children, and moved back to the US. It is definitely an interesting read though regarding how women in restrictive societies still gather around to discuss books.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

SweetiePie, I quite understand. It is the mark of a critical thinker that not everything read is agreed with. I haven't read "Reading Lolita in Tehran" yet. It sounds like a book that might be interesting, from your description.


i scribble profile image

i scribble 5 years ago

I discovered this hub as I was preparing to write my review of your book. The topic of clashing values here somewhat mirrors my concerns about the book being controversial (for lack of a better word) for children and many parents. I appreciate your point of view about writing values neutral fiction for adults. And I'm so relieved that you liked my review and see my point that it's different when writing for children. We cant expect them to be critical thinkers. And we know that parents want to instill their own values and beliefs in their children.

I will try to do the Amazon review when I have time, probably on the weekend. Good luck with your book sales.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

i-scribble, yes, of course, I agree that parents have to make decisions concerning their children's reading on controversial questions of values. I realize also that a lot of my writing, while it recognizes that different people have different values, also can seem quite disturbing to someone who has never met anyone who didn't share his values.

My goal in writing for adults on issues of value choice is to make the different value systems come to consciousness, rather than being accepted subconsciously. That way, when people do choose their values, whatever those values happen to be, they are doing it with open eyes, and with a clearer understanding of what values are being excluded, as well as which are selected.

Thanks again for buying and reading and reviewing my book, PING & THE SNIRKELLY PEOPLE. This has meant a lot to me!


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 5 years ago

Bottom line the issue is the interest of the individual versus the interest of the community. This is a perennial battle on a number of issues: for example, can the community require vaccinations against a disease in the interest of preventing an epidemic versus the individual who for his own reasons doesn't want to be vaccinated or to have his child vaccinated; restrictions on use of land for various reasons versus the right of the owner to use his property as he sees fit; the requirement by the government to pay taxes versus the individual's right to pay taxes for programs he doesn't support. Long ago most, but not all, of these issues were resolved in ways which require individuals to contribute in various ways to the common good. Although Ann Rand and Aya Katz put the individual first most people are more communitarian.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Ralph, thanks for enumerating some of the issues we disagree on. However, that's not really the topic of this hub. The topic of this hub is: given that different people have different values, how do we distinguish bad writing from writing that we disagree with? I think this is especially difficult to do when the writing in question is fiction.

If you look deeper into it, you will find that even Ayn Rand and I do not agree on all our values, as doubtless there are some liberals who don't share all your values. Individuals have divergent frames of reference, and they don't fall that neatly into political camps. Still, it's hard to remain objective about fiction written from the point of view of someone whose values diverge greatly from your own.

Read a few of my books, if you would like to get a feel for what I really believe in. Some of it might surprise you.


i scribble profile image

i scribble 5 years ago

Did you see the new comment on my review of Ping? A friend of mine read the book and had some comments I think you would appreciate. If you could give me access to your book When Sword Met Bo, I will review it for you on Hubpages.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

I-Scribble, no I haven't seen the comment, I'll go look! Thanks for pointing it out.

Drop me an email about When Sword Met Bow. I'd love for you to review it.

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