Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

By Gregory, Alice | International New York Times, July 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?


Gregory, Alice, International New York Times


There is moralism with the intent to teach, and moralism with the intent to question.

There is moralism with the intent to teach, and moralism with the intent to question.

When I hear the word "moralist," I imagine a didact, a preacher- like figure intent on explaining the difference between good and bad. It seems self-evident to me that these people have no business writing novels, if for no other reason than their strict dogma jeopardizes their readers' pleasure. Thomas Mann captures this tedium exactly when he writes, in "Buddenbrooks," of the "wide-eyed expression that children put on when someone reading a fairy tale to them is tactless enough to insert some general remarks on morals and duty -- a mixture of embarrassment and impatience, piety and boredom."

Not only does moral preoccupation corrupt the artfulness of fiction, but fiction is an inefficient and insincere vehicle for moralizing. If an author's motive is to impart a lesson, he would be better off writing a manifesto or publishing a pamphlet and distributing it free on the subway. Novels are, by their very nature, slow. It takes a long time to read a book -- longer than looking at a painting or listening to a song. And of course writing one takes even longer. If you are a person whose aim in life is to spread the gospel of good, writing about the inner lives of people who do not exist is a bad use of time.

Thankfully, there is another kind of moralist, one disinclined toward manifestoes and pamphlets, who is in fact exceptionally suited to the writing of novels. She perceives herself as more ambivalent, either about the soundness of her own judgments or about the value of imposing them explicitly on her readers. For her, ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless. …

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