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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.

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A novel is not a fable: moral messages vs moral questions

I’m one of those authors who reads *all* their reviews, feedback and comments. For me, being a professional writer means doing everything I can to keep developing, and the key to that is to get as much feedback as possible. How else can you judge if, on balance, your subtext is too obvious or too obscure? How can you determine if something speaks to as many readers as can be hoped or not? Feedback patterns are particularly important.

A few readers have expressed their anger and upset about the ‘moral message’ they believe I’m trying to convey in The Bone Dragon. The thing is The Bone Dragon doesn’t have a moral message. I’m not trying to tell anyone anything: I’m trying to ask questions and leave it up to readers to answer them – if they can: the questions I’m interested in asking don’t necessarily have good answers, but that’s precisely why they need to be thought about.

So why are a handful of readers upset about a message that, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t there? The fact that they assume the ending of the book is a moral message seems to be the heart of the problem. Fables and parables end with moral messages, but that has never been a requirement with novels. So why do some people believe that every novel’s end must be read as a moral? This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding about how gloriously varied novels can be. Many do have a moral message to impart, implicitly or explicitly, but many others don’t. What happens in a book, especially at the end, does not necessarily represent the author’s idea of right and wrong.

I think these assumptions about endings have bled out of the expectation that, at the end of a story, the ‘good’ should triumph and be rewarded, and the ‘bad’ should fail and be punished – because that’s what a story is: according to this view, all sorts of bad things can happen to ‘good’ people during stories, but at the end we all need to be very clear about what’s right and wrong, and who deserves what. This expectation seems to govern many popular forms of storytelling, and therein lies the problem: we’re so constantly bombarded by this message (about messages) that it’s easy to forget that stories can have a wide range of functions. One of those is to ask questions about moral issues instead of answering them.

A more interesting take on fiction is summed up by the much-quoted Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’ Wilde’s definition keeps things purposeful nebulous. The fact that he uses the terms ‘happily’ and ‘unhappily’ points to an ambiguous understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ too. Who is ‘good’? What does ‘happily’ mean? To be ‘happy’ does a person have to be in the ‘right’? Isn’t it all, ultimately, an issue of perspective?

The Bone Dragon plays with the subtleties that Wilde leaves room for here. From the protagonist’s point of view, the ending is a happy one, but from readers’ everything is rather more complicated (I hope). When readers close the book, I want them to have had a vicarious emotional experience that allows them to understand what answer each character would give to the implicit questions the story asks. Above all, I want readers to engage emotionally with Evie’s happy ending but then ask themselves ‘Now I’m not seeing through Evie’s eyes, what do I feel about the things that happen at the end of the book? Is it a happy ending from my point of view?’ I don’t have a message, moral or otherwise, to impart to readers because I don’t know the answers to the questions the book offers. I just know that we need to ask them and that fiction has a very particular and important role to play in that process.

Of course none of this is to say that readers aren’t entitled to dislike books that don’t have a moral message at the end or those where the ending is not intended to be read as such: different people find different sorts of endings satisfying and that’s as it should be. But I do want to respond to the idea that it isn’t permissible in fiction to abstain from ending on an implicit or explicit moral message. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m interested no matter whether that opinion pleases me or not. I choose to leave a lot of things open for interpretation in the book because one of my principles as a writer is to leave space for the reader’s creativity and imagination. The downside is that sometimes people don’t see what you want them to. But, at the same time, that’s what’s wonderful about books and reading: a book in one reader’s hands can turn into something completely different in another’s. The more a writer tries to ensure that everyone’s reading the same book, the less scope there is for the reader to be an active collaborator. And some readers prefer that, feeling that it’s the writer’s job to do that work for them. But some readers (and I’m one of them) don’t like to be told all the time: they want to be allowed to discover things for themselves.

So don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about the book. My view isn’t any more ‘correct’ because ‘I’m the author – I outrank you’ alla The Producers, but I am the authority on what I was trying to accomplish with the book and it’s nice to be able to put that out there in the world. This is why late last year I approached a wonderful book blogger who I knew had mixed views on The Bone Dragon to see if she would be willing to have an online discussion. First and foremost, I wanted to know more about her thoughts on the book, but I also wanted to do something positive in response to a series of recent angry exchanges between authors and readers/bloggers: I wanted demonstrate that people can disagree passionately but positively, enjoying their differences and what these say about how fiction works. You can read the wonderful post Kelley from Another Novel Read put together from our discussions here. Discussions about books don’t have to be a competition to see who is right and who is wrong: it’s much more fun if we recognise that people won’t always agree and explore all the fascinating reasons why that is so.

Diversity is what makes literature exciting. And part of this is how different writers approach the issue of morality, especially in terms of whether they have a moral message to share or whether they choose to ask moral questions and leave it to the reader to answer them.

 

Next post (hopefully tomorrow!) I’ll be talking about why moral ambiguity is important in YA fiction.