This, above all:

This, above all: To be God's best for The Coach and for Anna

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


My friend, Art, who won this year’s third prize in future fiction (Palanca) said he had initially plowed his way through his first drafts to plant a "message,” convinced then that a good story must contain a moral.

Should fiction contain a moral?

John Gardner in his essay, On Moral Fiction, argued that fiction is moral when it is true art. According to another writer's summary of this essay, Gardner attacks what he sees as contemporary literature's lack of moral content. In Gardner's view, moral fiction "attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment."

What I do not want any fiction to do is preach, such that the characters, plot and language become secondary to the writer's not-always-hidden agenda of imposing his or her particular convictions. What good fiction does is not to teach us lessons about life or about What Should Be, but to help us "weigh and consider." (Sir Francis Bacon once advised: "Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.")

In this sense, then, fiction will always be "moral" because it cannot help but make a statement, regardless of whether and especially if the writer was not conscious of doing so. Fiction always makes a stand: the characters, the narrator, the author, the reader—they will all have their own worldview. If the fiction is done well, then it will not sound like a sermon; neither will it present a contrived plot designed to showcase the moral lesson. The ideas in good fiction are added to our processing (which is more often than not unconscious) of what it is to be human, to belong to the human race.

I agree with Mary Gordon—a novelist and teacher—that we should look to fiction "for moral complexity, not moral certainty."


Maryanne Moll said...

But Janet, isn't writing more of a mad science than an art? I forgot who said that, but it feels true.

janet said...

Yeah, M, what you say does feel true. Maybe some days it is mad science; some days it might be more of a craft than art. Or the other way around.

Alvin said...

All I know is that writing fiction can be a maddening process. Right, Madder? Ü

Anyhow, about moral fiction, this reminds us of Chari's seven-question assignment, doesn't it?

janet said...

You betcha, Alvin--kakasira ng bait 'yang pagsusulat na 'yan! =)

KV said...

Is this OUR Art Ilano? :)

paul said...

just a different way to put it, from my favorite guy, david foster wallace:

DFW: I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a [expletive deleted, because no cussing's allowed in mum's house, hehe] human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction's job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be. This isn't that it's fiction's duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I'm not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn't exploring what it means to be human today isn't art. We've all got this "literary" fiction that simply monotones that we're all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like "Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!" But we already "know" U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn't engage anybody. What's engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn't have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?

read the rest here, one of my favorite interviews.

paul said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
paul said...

sorry to spam yer blog, and sorry to bring this up (i know, i know, to trot out exceptions is to miss the point), but i just reread the bit i posted above and was reminded of something.

i hate, maybe to the point of irrationality, stories that point their morality or politics at my head like a loaded gun; but why o why is something like tolstoy's 'death of ivan ilyich,' so blatantly moral and moralizing, just totally devastating?

sairo said...

oooh... everyone here sounds so smart! *twirls hair-curl like a ditz* :)

just a while ago, was chatting with my sister about how i got my eyeliner and mascara perfectly applied today. and now i stumble into this genius conversation here. haha, loser me.

i have no one to quote or namedrop, sadly. all the quotes i can think of right now are sesame street-related:
1) cookie monster: me want cookie!
2) the count: 8! 8 blog comments!
3) bert: a-a-a-a-a-a! (his laugh)
4) big bird: *sigh* grownups

(this comment is brought to you by the letter Z and the number 4. and this is what happens when you study korean language for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.)

but seriously, i do agree that writing can't be just about "i feel/think this, i feel/think that (reach for thesaurus)". and no one wants to be poked in the eye by a moral lesson.

oh wait, i *do* have a quote! margaret atwood says in "happy endings that fiction shouldn't be about the series of Whats that make up the plot. what's crucial is the How and the Why. how's that for a non-sequitur?

janet: sorry for being makulit here. i blame the 3 cups of coffee i had this morning. and being 2600km away from home.

last hirit: trust paul to mention both dfw and a book most people/writers i know haven't read. haha, nerd!

janet said...

KV: Yup, that would be he. =) But he doesn't want me to tell people, and technically I didn't, because I didn't mention his last name! Could've been any Art, see. Nyaar. He'll kill me, for sure.

Paul: Hey, I got me two weeks ago "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" at Booksale for a measly P40. I picked it up because I thought it would make me look smart, ha. And because it came out in Jeopardy. :p

I gotta get me some of DFW's work, no? [By the way, what are you doing trawling blogs at 8:47 AM in the *office*?!?]

Sands: You crack me up! You sound like what a Coco on steroids would. =)

You know, dearie, the How and the Why are exactly what are missing in my last draft. Bad story, bad story.

KV said...

Hahaha!!! Well, yeah, technically you didn't tell anyone because it could've been any Art :p But I'll drop him a line and congratulate our dear friend :)

paul said...

madder: i'm totally determined to beat the 8.47 a.m.-blog-trawling record, so here i am, posting earlier. ha.

re dfw: the most accessible dfw would be the essays, especially those collected in 'a supposedly fun thing i'll never do again.' and i'll e-mail you a short-short from his last story collection. it made me go 'whoomp!' and it's totally depressing.

janet said...

Ha ha! Lemme know the next time you break another trawling record.

Thanks for the DFW link. Will read it when I'm in better possession of my faculties. Just woke up. 3:07PM. Yowzah. A record.