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
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?
The Birth of Liberal Guilt
Books by Ayn Rand
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
Books by Aya Katz
- We All Share the Same World
"We all share the same world, and we breathe the same air, and the water we drink must be cycled with care. We are closer together than ever suspected, for all things on earth are interconnected." I wrote...
- The Corporate Entity
This is a chapter from a novel that I completed writing in 1983 and self-published in 1985. Was it a good novel? I'm certainly not in the best position to judge. I was very young at the time, and I had just...
- The Problem of Genre
I was not quite seventeen years old when I wrote the first chapter of The Few Who Count. I was twenty-three by the time it was finished. It was my first novel. I sent out a query letter to just about every...
- George Eliot's Daniel Deronda- Gwendolyn's Complexity
Hence I am forced to doubt whether even without her potent charm and peculiar filial position Gwendolen might not still have played the queen in exile, if only she had kept her inborn energy of egoistic...