moral questions

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.

 

 

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