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Why is moral ambiguity important in YA fiction?

As I discussed in my last post (‘A novel is not a fable’), novels don’t have to have an explicit moral message or an ending that contains an implicit one. Instead, they can ask moral questions or pose moral dilemmas, both for characters and for readers.

But how about in YA fiction? Do writers and publishers have an ethical responsibility to make sure that stories marketed to under 18s can’t be read as containing negative moral messages? For instance, is it OK for a YA book to tell a story in which wickedness is apparently rewarded, or does this risk leading teens ‘morally astray’? Irrespective of whether an ending is happy or sad, is it a requirement that the ‘good’ triumph or at least don’t lose out? Often arguments in favour of narrowing what’s permissible in YA fiction focus on the need to ‘protect’ young people. But does ‘protecting’ YA readers mean that we have to dictate to them on moral issues?

I believe books offer important opportunities to experiment with moral issues: safe within the confines of a fictional world we can watch moral dilemmas play out without having to face any real-life consequences. Books allow teenagers to try out different versions of themselves, gaining a vicarious emotional experience of how it feels to make different types of choices. Books that leave the interpretation of the moral questions at stake up to the reader allow teenagers the chance to decide what is right and wrong for themselves.

All people – children and adults – spend a lot of time trying to make sense of issues of right and wrong. We receive moral messages all the time, and many of them are in direct conflict. Even tiny children make judgements about right and wrong. These may be based on a minimal understanding of the world, let alone the facts, but we all have to work with what’s available to us.

In pedagogic terms I’m a big believer in Piaget’s idea that when you tell children something you prevent them from discovering their own truth. Similarly, if you tell people didactically what’s wrong and right, you prevent them from figuring it out for themselves. Of course we need input from our friends, family, colleagues and wider society to figure things out – to decide which views we agree with and which we don’t – but there’s a big difference between saying ‘I think this’ and ‘You must think this’. And isn’t that what’s happening when people insist that YA and children’s fiction must show a vision of the world that is ‘right’, at least as far as the ending goes?

This seems very dangerous to me because it assumes that there are moral absolutes even about complex issues and surely any thinking person recognises that sometimes the best we can do is pursue the ‘least bad’ option. That’s precisely where fiction comes in. Where better to play with your morals than in your imagination, through other lives, where there’s no danger to you or to the world around you? Where better to examine the consequences of making the ‘wrong’ choices? Isn’t it better to face what we don’t want in fiction so we’re not tempted to put it into practice? Because that, to me, seems the true danger of well-meaning attempts to ‘protect’ young adults from getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to moral issues.

Young adults experiment. They experiment with their hair, and their clothes, and their music, and their behaviour with different people, and their sense of self, and their career options, and the things they might want to do/be later in life… And part of that is experimenting with right and wrong. What young person has never said ‘Well, is it really that bad? I’m pretty good: maybe I should see what the other side of the coin is like?’ and then gone done something silly and irresponsible – and maybe fun but maybe dangerous.

I’m not saying YA should, in effect, be a series of warnings to teens: a sort of ‘don’t do this or look what might happen!’ approach. That’s just as dangerous as only giving YA readers ‘good’ examples to follow. Young adults – indeed, people – need both. They need to see people making the ‘wrong’ choices and people living up to their better selves: people taking the obvious path, right or wrong, and people forging a path of their own. People need variety in fiction to make life more interesting. And part of that variety should revolve around moral issues.

I’m not suggesting that books should try to send immoral messages: all I’m saying is that books shouldn’t always been seen as having to have a moral message at all. It’s OK for the ‘wrong’ thing to happen, even at the end of a book. In fact, sometimes this is an incredibly powerful way to demonstrate to readers that something is wrong without telling them so.

I love books that make me do a lot of the work: books that make me talk to them, defending my favourite characters, yelling at those who’re making bad decisions, ranting at the kettle in reading-breaks about all the things in the book that ring true as regards real life… If instead of telling the reader what to feel, you create the circumstances where the reader will simply react emotionally, then the emotion will come from inside the reader and will be the truer and stronger for it. Similarly, if you encourage a reader to feel injustice, rather than telling them something isn’t right, then they’ll also summon their own outrage: they’ll believe from the heart that the thing in question is unjust because they’ve reached that conclusion themselves. When a writer puts moral questions and dilemmas before readers and then refuses to dictate the answers, readers can discover their own truth as regards the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. The process of doing this makes for a far deeper engagement with those issues and a much greater chance that the reader will keep thinking not just about the book but about what the book says about the world around us.

I often think it’s easier to learn from bad writing than from good. With bad writing, it’s a pretty simple matter to pick out what’s wrong, what mistakes you don’t want to make in your own work, how you think things could be done better. With great writing it’s hard to separate all the things that make it great: it’s hard to see how you can use a fantastic book to improve your own writing without just mimicking it. The same is true, in a way, for moral issues. When the ‘right’ thing happens at the end of a book, it’s very satisfying, but easily forgotten. When the ‘wrong’ thing happens, it can be a real blow for a reader. How many times have I agonised over what should have happened in a book? But that’s the point. Those stories stick with us because they push us to decide for ourselves not just how a book should have ended but why. And those are the lessons – ones we teach ourselves – that follow us into our real life choices about good and bad, right and wrong.

This is why teenagers, in particular, need books that don’t necessarily have a moral message: ones that are morally ambiguous, others that ask questions rather than answering them, and still others where the ‘wrong’ thing happens, leaving readers to right those wrongs in their own imaginations and, in so doing, clarify their own moral principles. If we dictate what is right and wrong to YA readers, we take away their opportunities for exploring and experimenting with these issues for themselves. Fiction is a safe place to do that. Of course, if you leave people to make up their own minds, they might see a morally ambiguous ending as containing a dubious moral message… but that doesn’t mean these readers will decide that message is right, let alone act on it. Do we really think young adults can’t – and, indeed, don’t – make their own decisions anyway?

I think we should worry less about ‘protecting’ young readers from potentially making moral ‘mistakes’ as regards how they interpret different stories and more about how these concerns might be preventing writers and publishers from publishing books that afford readers important opportunities to explore their understanding of right and wrong.