Thursday, September 19, 2019

Toward a Morality of Writing (Creativity and Ethics)

Toward a Morality of Writing (Creativity and Ethics)

This essay arose in part from Sue’s saying, “Definitely not the Waltons,” about my novella, Following Wolfie. I agree, absolutely, that the characters in Following Wolfie do not have a Father Knows Best (or Waltons) kind of family. But I believe that despite this, it is reasonable and appropriate for each of them to strive toward decency and emotional wellness.

I once told a friend that I believed that a protagonist should not do truly evil things (I was upset about The Death of Grass), and he became indignant and said that a writer should write what they want to write. And I agree. I had not expressed my opinion as clearly as I might have—my thoughts on the subject were half-formed and poorly articulated.

I do not believe in censorship. I do not wish to foist my opinion on anyone, but rather, to consider the question of morality in literature and art. I admit my biases: I believe, personally, that a novel is generally better if the protagonist avoids real evil and struggles toward virtue. As a plotline, I prefer the rise toward integrity over the fall from grace, although, of course, either is acceptable and great literature contains both. (One might say I never grew up and that I like a nice happy ending. Only that’s not entirely true.) I recently read a book, a crime novel set in South Africa, which ended with the murderer escaping and the wrong guy being tried for murder and probably convicted. It was an excellent book. I liked it. A lot! (Unfortunately, I cannot think of the name! )

In Daemon Voices, Essays on Storytelling, Philip Pullman says,[1] “stories can offer a moral education.” He says,[2] “we can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction.”

He uses, as an illustration, this quote[3] from Jane Austen‘s Emma. It’s a long quote but worthy of consideration I believe:

‘Were she your equal in situation – but Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comfort she was born to; and, if she lived to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honor, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her – and before her niece, too - and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. This is not pleasant to you, Emma, and it is very far from pleasant to me, but I must, I will, tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will sometime or other do me more justice than you can now.’

While they talked, they were advancing toward the carriage; it was ready; and before she could speak again, he handed her in. He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able to speak; and, on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome – then reproaching herself for taking no leave, making no acknowledgment, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in motion. She continued to look back but in vain; and soon, with what appeared unusual speed, they were halfway down the hill, and everything left far behind. She was vexed beyond what could be expressed – almost beyond what she could conceal.[4] Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in anyone she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness![5]

Philip Pullman says[6] that he “quotes that passage in full because we need to see that whole progress of her shame and mortification and grief, grief that she has done wrong, mixed, to be sure, with grief that it had been noticed by someone whose good opinion she especially values; but genuine sorrow, too, that she hurt someone thoughtlessly.” He suggests that Emma is being educated and so are we.[7]

One of the books Philip Pullman quotes is Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. Azar Nafisi says that Jane Austen is a natural adversary to the Khomeini Regime. She also says that the leftists

 . . . “needed to read fiction like the Great Gatsby because [they] needed to know about the immorality of American Culture.”[8]

She says the leftists wanted to read “revolutionary material,” but needed to read books like the Great Gatsby to understand the enemy.

Philip Pullman goes on to say that the fundamentalist way of reading,

“. . . in which everything is taken literally, doesn’t allow for ambiguity, or mystery, or subtlety, or what as Azar Nagisi called interiority of any kind. Everything is black-and-white, true or false, good or bad, right or wrong. There is no scope for interpretation, except the kind which is taught in the official schools and approved by the authorities. There is one way of reading and understanding a text, and only one: the correct way.”[9]

I believe in ambiguity, mystery, subtlety and interiority. I do not believe in “one correct way.” I think that if the writer is worthy, he or she can address morality by examples of bad behavior, as well as by examples of exemplary behavior, e.g.: The Great Gatsby—terrific literature, but a burnt ember of a man. (I recently reread The Great Gatsby and was astounded by it all over again.)

Here is a question for consideration: how bad an act can a protagonist commit and still be considered a hero rather than a villain? A novel to ponder in this regard might be  The Death of Grass, by John Christopher, an apocalyptic story about the death of all grass species including wheat, oats, rye, etc., and the effects of that on civilization. Louise Penny considers the question of morality in one of her novels, Glass Houses, where she and the protagonist, Armand Gamache, deeply deliberate whether the means can justify the ends and the role of conscience and the risks of defying conscience in police work. And, what about Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens? Also an excellent book.

While this is a writing group and not a book club, discussing books in ways that help us with our writing could be a good use of our time, if time remains after everyone has read and received feedback.

If, as Philip Pullman suggests, the reader sympathizes with and identifies with the first character who appears in the novel,[10] how will that reader feel if the first character is evil? And what exactly is evil? Where is the fine line between “not the Waltons” (human foibles) and actual evil?)

I must say, and I may well be admitting to a short coming on my part (one of many), that I cannot fully settle into and nest within a novel until I locate a character with whom I can identify. Some novels have few likable characters and I find it difficult to care about those characters or like the novel much. Perhaps each of us must consider what audience we wish to address. Some audiences may prefer (or willingly accept) unlikable characters and horrible endings but many readers like characters with whom they can identify. That brings us to another question, what is the difference between literature and popular fiction and is there an overlap?

How do morality and conscience affect poetry? Can you think of any examples? What about Howl? How do morality and conscience affect nonfiction? Relationships? Life?

Do you think that writing can be improved by considering the moral aspect of the work? Or not? How can we, as “moral” writers, consider these concerns without beating the reader over the head with them? How can we show, not tell?

2nd draft Wednesday, September 18, 2019, 10:10 AM, submitted to the Ewald Writer’s Group by Mary Stebbins Taitt

[1] Pullmam, Philip, Daemon Voices, David Fickling Books, 2017, p 407, line 10.
[2] Ibid, p 404, line 5.
[3] Ibid, p 402, line 15.
[4] (who is she concealing it from—and why?)
[5] Austen, Jane, Emma, as quoted by Philip Pullman, ibid, p 402.
[6] Pullmam, Philip, Daemon Voices, David Fickling Books, 2017, p 403, line 25.
[7] Ibid, p 404, line 2.
[8] Nafisi, Azar, Reading Lolita in Tehran, as quoted by Philip Pullman, ibid, p 408.
[9] Pullmam, Philip, Daemon Voices, David Fickling Books, 2017, p 409, line
[10] Ibid, p 145 and several other places in the book. He quotes from the beginning of Alice in Wonderland.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Orb Weaver At Silk Creek

I almost walked right in to that web as I wanted to get a closer look at some lilies and why they weren't blooming.  That spider was about thigh high while the tops of the goldenrods were nearly chest high so she wasn't really visible.  I had to hold the goldenrods to one side while dipping the camera down and close to the spider.  It took 3 trys but there you have it.  I had an opportunity to watch a different kind of spider spin its web after dark (with the outside overhead light on).  I watched it through a magnifying glass and could see it secrete the sticky beads as it tied the strands together with its hind legs.  By the time it was finished, the total diameter of the web was a good 12 inches.  A moth came by and tore out a large hole and the spider came out when it was safe to mend the damage.  I will always remember watching a spider in action during a windy storm.  A wind driven falling leaf came into a web on the porch and like a sail, was literally capturing the wind and tugging hard at the primary anchor lines of the web.  The spider came out amid the commotion and released the leaf by removing web strands one by one from the wildly moving leaf until the leaf flew away.  It was a remarkable thing to watch.

Scott Carter

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Happy New Year

When I arrived at Clam Beach Dec. 30, I saw a short shaft of color stretch out into a beautiful full rainbow, arching between the ocean and the land. It seemed symbolic of my hope for a good new year for all.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Tennessee Trip 2011

I went to visit my friends in Tennessee again. It was so great to get away from the Texas heat and drought. The fall color was amazing. Every morning I awoke to the amber hues of the Maples outside my window. They own about 100 acres in the Appalachian Mountains. The second photo is a view of the mountains from their house. I spent the days relaxing and hiking around their property, and found plenty of wonderful things to photograph. I've posted more pics here at Metamorphosing.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Pileated Pair at Silk Creek

Pileated Pair, from photos by Scott Carter out the window of his spare room at Silk Creek.  Watercolor, by me, Mary Taitt, in Ballookey's Mole.  Click image to view larger.  The male pileated is perched on the outside of the house, threatening his own reflection, which he takes as another male.  Click image to view larger. 5 x 8.  Haven't had time to do much blogging because of our two floods.  :-(

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Apologies to Cole Porter

Birds do it, bugs do it,
Even California slugs do it.

Skipping rope with kelp

Yes, there are people in this, but it's human nature to find new uses for natural objects.

Natural Pi

Nature is witty!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Dry Spring

tired again
though winter’s rest is over
sun dried chill blows
through a honeysuckle covered
briar patch

Respite cut short
by an early drought

balmy aroma settles sluggishly
among prickles and poison ivy
like artificially flavored syrup
on bleached, deep fried bread

stripped of nutritional purpose
sweet intoxication deteriorates

I don't know what happened to our April showers here in Texas. It's been over a month since we've seen rain, which is unusual for Houston.
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