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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fiction and Judgment

Lately I’ve read some very compelling novels, no one of them like the others. The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Guo Xiaolu , was a glimpse into a world of experience completely different from my own, the narrator a young Chinese woman come to London to study English for a year. Quickly, impulsively, and through an initial misunderstanding (she thought his suggestion of a visit to his flat was an invitation to move in), she falls into a highly sexual relationship with a much older Englishman. They share passion and curiosity but cannot really understand one another, either culturally or as individuals. One of the most unusual and fascinating aspects of the novel is the focus on language, both English and Chinese--different parts of speech, tenses, large concepts and idiomatic expressions, as well as the difference between an alphabetic writing system and one based on characters that evolved from pictographic representations. At my suggestion, David has been reading the novel and, as I was, particularly enjoyed the young narrator’s assessment of how verbs live within the two languages:
Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But English language is boss of English user.
To see ourselves as others see us!

A friend loaned me an Icelandic novel, Under the Glacier, saying he couldn’t make head nor tails of it, and, frankly, neither could I. Tempting as it was to throw it aside halfway through, I finished it—and then wondered why I’d bothered. What on earth had possessed Haldor, Laxness, whose Independent People, written in 1946, won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Susan Sontag wrote a generous and thoughtful introduction to the Vintage paperback edition of Under the Glacier, tracing its myriad antecedents and influences in the following genres (I kid you not): science fiction; tale, fable, allegory; philosophical novel; dream novel; visionary novel; literature of fantasy; wisdom literature; spoof, sexual turn-on. She also called the work “wildly original, morose, uproarious,” but doesn’t the list rather suggest a jumbled hodge-podge?

Then came The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. And yes, yes, I admit it: I am one of those snobbish readers skeptical of best-sellers. That’s probably why I took the path through the forest of used books, to begin with—for the sweet, secret pleasure of discovery. But fortunately another member of one of the reading groups I’m part of (the smallest one, the one hardest to schedule, the one of which we always wonder, Will it ever meet again?) chose The Tiger’s Wife for our fall discussion, because I’m so glad I didn’t miss this story! It begins with two young women, doctors, crossing an armed border to take medical supplies to what was recently part of their own country. The story probably takes place in “the former Yugoslavia,” although the country is never named, and that nonspecificity adds to the book’s power. The narrator has had a phone call from her grandmother, saying that her grandfather has died, and thinking of him brings forth all kinds of memories from her earlier life, as well as memories of the stories he told her from his own life, as far back as childhood. Some of the stories merge into primeval rural legends. Fact and fantasy entwine, along with dream and reality. Reality itself often makes little sense. Usually, I would be put off by fiction with these elements and impatient, during the tall tales sections, to return to realism, but not with this novel. It carried me along seamlessly, compellingly.

What, then, is the difference between Under the Glacier and The Tiger’s Wife? Why is one (in my opinion) a mess and the other a success? I don’t know if Obreht plotted her entire novel in advance or let the story lead her where it wanted to go, but my sense was of a writer who knew what she was doing, an author who could be trusted. With Under the Glacier I never had that sense at all. I felt like the butt of a long, pointless bad joke.

And this, finally, brings me to my main topic of the day: judgment. In what ways is it appropriate to judge fiction? Writers of fiction? And should an author judge his or her characters? To put it all together, should a novel and its characters and its author be judged on moral grounds?

The other day I had a conversation with a friend who was very upset about a novel she had just read. My friend did not like the choices that the main character made in her life. She, my friend, thought the writer was advocating the character’s way of life, since, after all, “she was the one in control of the character.” My friend took a Kantian view of the protagonist and felt that society could not function if everyone made the choices that character had made. I couldn’t help asking, “So you’re saying the author should have written a different book?” Mostly, though, I tried to listen without arguing. After all, my friend felt strongly, and there is no arguing with feelings. (This is a lesson I’m trying hard to learn.)

There was so much going on in her judgment. Is an author “in control” of fictional characters? Are they like marionettes, with the writer pulling the strings? My own limited experience with writing fiction suggests otherwise, but really, this question detours away from the main road I want to travel and explore today....

The plain truth is that my friend and I are both very judgmental individuals. For instance, when I drive into Northport and the driver in front of me fails to signal turns, you can bet I’m passing judgment!a minor example to show how leaping to judgment is second nature to me, as it is with my friend.

One very popular view in American culture today holds that it’s wrong to be judgmental, and young people who hold this view (I got strong doses of the view in the community college philosophy classes I taught) take it as inseparable from freedom. But the opposite view was held historically: Because we are free, we must judge ourselves and others. Any time I choose, whenever I take action, I have judged—whether after considered reflection or spontaneously (i.e., from my character as it has been formed through life). To judge another to have acted wrongly is to say, in effect, “I would not think it right to do that” or “I would be wrong were I to do that” or (more generously) “I hope I would not behave in such a way in that situation.” To judge that a person made a morally correct decision is (or should be) to think, "That's what I would do" or "I hope I would be able to act in such a way myself." In Kantian ethics, the standard I apply to others I also apply to myself. 

Kantian or utilitarian, or whatever religion or no religion, altruistic or totally ego-driven, because we are creatures who must make choices, we are also creatures who must judge. It is a necessary aspect of our nature.

Still, do we overdo it? Do we leap to judgment unnecessarily, after the fact, when nothing hangs any longer in the balance and when condemnation adds nothing of value? These are rhetorical questions, not real questions, because I believe the answer is Yes, and I hope my explorations into Buddhism will help me accept and understand more often than I condemn.

But my question of the day has to do with fiction, so let’s come back to our sheep, as the old French proverb has it.

Should an author judge her characters and present only characters making "moral" choices, and should we as readers judge an author by his or her characters’ choices and actions? Do we apply the Kantian moral imperative to fictional characters and, by extension, to their author? I told my friend that the main character in one of my short stories is a bigamist, but that hardly means I am advocating bigamy! It’s fiction, not a political platform. In each of my ten Burger Shack stories, there is a character either at an important moral crossroads or one who has gone through a crossroads without seeing it. Another way I think of characters in fiction is that there are people who might sit next to you on a long bus trip, and you’d find their company a nightmare, but if you read about that person as a character in a novel, given the author’s insights into how that character came to be the way he is now, your understanding might lead you to feel at least some sympathy, if not liking. That is part of the power of fiction.

In The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, for example, the narrator is well aware that most people she meets don’t like her. She is one of the least popular students in her English class, known for what others see as her insufferable rudeness. When we read her story in the novel, we see her differently, from the inside. We see her in her complexity, her depth. In that way, fiction can teach us—if we let it—how to be more understanding of people in our everyday lives.

Many writers and critics insist that writers should not judge their own characters--that doing so turns fiction to melodrama and/or propaganda. Realism, science fiction, murder mysteries, fantasy—all are richer if the characters are more like us, multifaceted, flawed, struggling. Sometimes I do judge a writer because of characters presented, though, because a novel with nothing but thoroughly reprehensible characters engaged in criminal, violent, or otherwise heinous activities is not a novel I want to read. I have to feel some sympathy and understanding. I have to care about at least one character, or I won’t go far with the story. So yes, to that extent I do judge an author’s choices.

The subject came up because my friend was so troubled by violence in a novel she had just read, one that I loved but knew would be a problem for her. I asked her what she thought about what I call “supermarket” novels—those popular, best-selling paperback action stories people consume like potato chips. Does she not find their popularity appalling? And if not, why is it all right for those books to wallow in violence? "Oh, that’s different," my friend said. “That’s not the real world.” But any novel we find compelling is “real” during the time we’re reading it, and although one of my friend’s objections was that the novel she was troubled by did not depict “the real world” (it isn’t the world of Northport), clearly she accepted the character as “real” when she objected to the her choices. So is it okay for male writers to write about male characters being violent but different if a woman writes about a woman? Why? How can we apply a double standard to literature? Are fictional women allowed only interior adventures, nothing that involves action in their fictional worlds? That bothers me a lot. If women cannot be fully human in fiction, how on earth can they be fully human in life?

But I go back and forth on this myself, and viewing fiction moralistically is a difficult call. I remember reading the Greek tragedy “Antigone” in high school and having no trouble whatsoever judging Antigone as completely in the right and Creon as completely in the wrong. When I learned that the play was about the dilemmas of conflicting rights, I was aghast. Creon’s responsibility for the state and Antigone’s refusal to consider the political repercussions of her actions had flown right under my adolescent radar. I’d judged the characters simplistically, not seeing that both were right and both were wrong, and therein lay the tragedy. Seeing the complexity in that story was an important part of my growing up.

Tonight is the first discussion session of our group reading Moby-Dick together. What will we all make of Ahab? And what will we think of Melville for having created Ahab?


Dawn said...

But what fun would it be if all the characters in all the books only made moral decisions? Would there be less tension, less purpose in the writing? I think the whole point of writing a novel is to bring action ad feelings that cause conflict...and hence the decisions we might not agree with.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, it's pretty much agreed that there's no story, either short story or novel, without conflict. But now let me ask, why not have the conflict between a hero and a villain? That's standard story-telling fare. If such is not enough for a novel, why isn't it?

Dorene said...

Well, that would be simple and perhaps boring for a contemporary audience, who understands--and I want to believe craves--the complexity or character because that is more realistic. Tragedy occurs when good people are forced into untenabe situations--what will they do (and what would we do in that situation)? So moral dilemmas are and always will be interesting; it's the characters and their responses that I think have changed over time. Mr. Nibbs next door can now do something as heinous as Dr. Evil when presented with the right and cleverly delivered conundrum. I find that I judge authors only when they utilize cheap tricks for effect or when I suspect laziness, catharsis (such as when a misogynist appears to be using literature to abuse women), or propaganda. Otherwise, have at it. If the violence or evil is not gratuitous and is woven into the plot in a way that feels necessary, what's the problem?

P. J. Grath said...

Catharsis? Did you mean something else, Dorene?

Barbara said...

Hi Pamela -- Great comments, but as a linguist, I have to object to that Chinese character's description of Chinese as not having a grammar. *All* languages have a grammar. They wouldn't exist if they didn't.

Gerry said...

I don't assume that every character or his/her behavior represents the author's values, but I often ask myself why on earth the author would feel compelled to present particular material in a particular way. It's a lot of work to make even a bad book--there must be some sort of point to it, an intention. And I will judge that.

(I'm waaaay too middlebrow to slog through the work of most Nobel Prize winning writers. I'm sure they don't mind.)

P. J. Grath said...

Of course you are right about grammar, Barbara, so the Chinese narrator was using that word incorrectly, wasn't she? It's clear what she means, however, when we realize that Chinese verbs are unchanging blocks: I be, you be, they be, i be yesterday, I be today, I be tomorrow, and so on. American Sign Language does not conjugate verbs either but uses other markers for person and tense. English has redundant features that we take for granted, as you well know. I just loved having her say, "We bosses of our language"! One's native language always seems to make the most sense, no matter what that native language is.

Ah, Gerry, I have had those questions--and downright irritations--more than once myself! Most of the time I don't bother discussing a book in this blog unless I think it's worth recommending, but once in a while, as with THE HELP, I'll question the way an author presents characters. What I was trying to get at with this post, however, has nothing to do with depth or believability of characters. One might acknowledge a novel brilliantly accomplished but object to it on moralistic grounds. That's the question: Should we judge fiction that way? Always? Sometimes? Never?

fleda Brown said...

As for judgment, it seems necessary to have good reviewers to have good books. Writers need to feel the presence of discerning people out there to do good work. There are so many dangers inplicit in judgment, though, because we don't know what the heck we mean by that. Sometimes I like something that is shallow because it was a good distraction. Sometimes I like it because I agree with its sentiment. It expresses my politics. Sometimes because it's just good writing and I admire that. The main thing, I think, is the conversation, and admitting all those biases as we talk about books. Thanks for the good post, Pamela.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for joining the conversation, Fleda. I thoroughly agree that it's good--and fascinating!--to have different voices and different opinions in the conversation.

Gerry said...

This subject has captured my attention and I'm still chewing it over. I don't think I've ever encountered a book that I thought was well-crafted yet morally objectionable. I have dipped into books that other people assured me were artful, only to find that they were . . . swill. I'll have to rummage around in my disorderly memory banks to see if I can come up with a specific example.

Do you have in mind a novel that you found brilliantly accomplished yet . . . suspect?

I remember the whole conversation about The Help. I thought it was most interesting.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I must confess I don't have an example of a brilliantly written, immoral novel. I recall that one local book club nearly had a schism over THE CORRECTIONS, and a friend of mine (not the same one with whom I had the conversation related above) found that book inexcusably--something! Her repulsion made me curious, and I read that book, but it bored rather than horrifying me.