The moral of the story

I just finished Juli Zeh’s book In Free Fall (Dark Matter in the UK, and although I’m not doing a cover comparison because this post isn’t actually a review, the British cover wins and will be counted as such in my end-of-year tallies), a book that seems to assume a moral stance I can’t get on board with: If you are being blackmailed to do a murder, the fact that you then do murder doesn’t count. In my opinion, yeah, it definitely still counts. I had other problems with the book (started very strong; ended less strong), but I had a particular problem with this assumption, and it started me thinking about moral stances in books and problems thereof.

Take Lolita, a book I truly love. The morals of the protagonist are repugnant, to the degree that some readers find them rebarbative and give up on the book altogether. But the morals of the author are fairly clearly aligned with ours, which is what makes even the most upsetting scenes in the book readable for me. (I’m ignoring here the insane critical stance of Robertson Davies and his ilk, which take Humbert’s claim that Lolita is a temptress at face value. Hush your face, Robertson Davies; the grown-ups are talking.)

By contrast (since I’m taking cheap shots), my problem with the Twilight book isn’t actually that the characters are silly and gender-regressive. It’s that the author has demonstrated on more than one occasion that she has no idea that she’s writing silly, gender-regressive characters. There’s no corrective for them; the people who say “Hey this is unhealthy” are not taken seriously. It’s the lack of self-awareness on the part of the author that bothers me so much.

As is my custom, I have been fretting about being bothered by something like this (not in Twilight, because Twilight is garbage, but in In Free Fall and books like it). Isn’t part of the point of reading to get inside someone else’s head who thinks different thoughts in different ways than you do? Am I so close-minded that I won’t read books by people who believe things different to what I believe?

You know that legal objection that sometimes lawyers say on lawyer shows? Objection, not in evidence, that one? I think that’s my problem. I am a generous suspender of disbelief, if the author knows what disbeliefs she’s asking me to suspend. Lev Grossman’s Magicians series takes place in a world that is very much like our world, except they have some different books from us, and some people can do magic. Fine. But the earth still revolves around the sun, and it’s still a dick move to cheat on your girlfriend. I am happy to read a book in which the sun revolves around the earth, but The Magicians is not that book and cannot toss in a casual mention of the sun’s circular path around the earth without doing some work to explain what’s going on with that.

It is just the same with morals. I’m happy to read a book that takes place in our world that argues that killing someone because you were coerced to do it is morally justified. I’m happy to read a book set in some other world where everybody believes that killing someone because you were coerced to do it is morally justified. But until the argument’s in evidence one way or another, it just feels like the author doesn’t have control of the ship. Nothing says “I have control of this ship!” like some other character calling bullshit on the protagonist’s legitimate bullshit.

(Hey, guys, remember that time Hermione told Harry he had a “saving-people-thing”? That was a good day, wasn’t it? Or, I mean, that was an awful day and I cried and cried, but it was good when Hermione articulated “saving-people-thing”.)

Where are y’all on moral disconnects between your own brain and the brains of fictional characters?

  • Entirely agree with you. This is the alpha and omega of my love-hate relationship with Jodi Picoult (well, maybe not the alpha and omega, but still a huge part of my problem with her.) I think she’s a talented writer who often explores moral dilemmas in a thoughtful way, but sometimes [often] she will either resolve it in an entirely false/cheesy way or else pretend that circumstances justify it. She wrote one book about a mother of a child with brittle bone syndrome who decides to sue the gynecologist (her BEST FRIEND!) for not revealing the fetus’s condition when she discovered it late in the pregnancy – so the mom could abort. Which, incidentally, the mom would not have done under any circumstances. You can’t pretend that’s a moral dilemma. That’s not a moral dilemma! That’s just a really, really terrible person doing a terrible thing, and the purported justification – to get lots of money for her daughter’s future care – simply has zero moral equivalency. (Sorry! Jodi Picoult rant!) ( I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think she was very, very talented.)

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahahahahaha, that was quite a rant. I agree though — I didn’t read that one, but I read the one where the mother kills the guy who sexually abused her kid. And maybe he was actually innocent after all? My memory is fuzzy.

  • Athira

    Completely with you here! I get mad with books like these. Unless the author has redeemed the book somehow by the end, and by that I mean, make it clear that all those deeds are actually wrong and people do get punished, I cannot stop thinking mad thoughts about the book and telling everybody that the book is bad. (That wouldn’t help much with Twilight, but maybe some of the other books.)

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep. Agreed. I actually didn’t think In Free Fall was bad, but I did think the author was oversimplifying the moral situation the protagonist was in.

  • Yes yes yes re “my problem … isn’t actually that the characters are silly and gender-regressive. It’s that the author has demonstrated on more than one occasion that she has no idea that she’s writing silly, gender-regressive characters.” Sometimes I think that “Oh, come on,” the author MUST know how this seems. But then, when there is no mention, no seeming understanding by anyone in the plot, no “corrective,” as you say, one can only conclude that the author is as benighted as his or her characters. I hate that!

  • Fascinating post, Jenny! It is interesting to think of how complex and fascinating our reading taste is and what we accept and what we don’t in books. It was wonderful to read your thoughts on that. I generally give a long rope to the author, and I have to really think hard about what kind of situations and morals in a story are not acceptable to me. One kind of thing which is not really acceptable to me is if the author, irrespective of the quality of his / her books, turns out to be very prejudiced in the real world. It is very hard to read a book when the author is so biased in the real world. I stopped reading V.S.Naipaul after hearing his opinions on women writers and women in general.

  • I do prefer it when I think an author understands the potential problems with a character’s behavior, even if the author and I aren’t in total agreement about the morality of the character’s actions. I like at least knowing the author thought about it.

    What bothers me more is when the author presents the opposing view in a clumsy, stereotypical, straw-man sort of way. It makes it too easy. One of the reasons Lolita works is that there’s something beguiling about Humbert Humbert and his twisted logic, even if he is a monster. Ditto Tom Ripley and Norton Perina. I want to feel like the moral argument being presented is fair.

    • I completely agree with what Teresa wrote! And I think it’s amazingly difficult to do that, to have a narrator or main character who is beguiling but simultaneously repellent. Perhaps that’s what’s going wrong in some of these other novels (not that I’ve read any of those that you quote in your post Jenny, except Lolita.)

      And Robertson Davies, I love your novels but I’m surprised at you for taking that position over Lolita.

  • I think I feel the same as you, as long as it’s clear the author is not on the morally repugnant side of the character I’m fine. If the author is saying something stupid, hi Stephanie Meyer, I have a problem.

  • I love this post. I think in some ways this is exactly what I meant when I said, “Book, I am not your reader.” The book might be very well-written, but there is something underlying that gives me difficulty with the premise, and if it’s never sufficiently explained in the book’s context then I feel something between bewildered and miffed. Spot on about Twilight and the author! That’s the exact same problem I have with it (I only read about 15 pages of the first book, thought, so it’s not the *only* problem).

  • Oh, boy. I wonder where a character like Dexter fits into the spectrum of this debate. He’s violent, murderous, and clearly unhinged, and yet the reader/viewer “forgives” his actions because he’s committing his crimes on other criminals…

    Thoughts?

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Interesting piece, Jenny. I guess – once one buys into the notion of a three-act structure and a character torn between her good and her bad side, you’re also acknowledging that any book is essentially a morality play. You said you felt you had a certain obligation to recognise values which differed from your own; but I think it could be just as legitimately argued that the author has a reciprocal obligation to acknowledge the prevailing value system and – if her character deviates in a fundamental way from this value system – to explain the context or where she stands in relation to the character’s actions. Sure, this can be tricky – but isn’t that why writing is supposed to be so hard?

    Taking ‘Dexter’ as an example: I’ve never seen the series but my understanding is that Dexter is a serial killer whose homicidal impulses were channelled by his father into killing bad guys: as always it’s a matter of context. Dexter is ‘good’ in the sense that he is being as ‘good’ as it is possible for a character like him to be.

  • What really gets under my skin is when the protagonist/everyone is horrible and the book seems not to have noticed. I’m not opposed to reading a book full of unsympathetic douchebags but I object if I feel like I’m supposed to be rooting for them.

  • heh, what you are describing is the moral framework of the book. Writers like Michel Houellebecq play with this by hopping in and out of it, sometimes making it feel like the actions of the protagonists are frowned upon, sometimes seeming to endorse them entirely. So you are not alone! It’s known to be one of the most important elements of the book for establishing its morality, or otherwise.

  • Okay, I’m not going to get all deep here because I’m too tired to be that coherent, but the bit about Twilight caught my eye. I have such a love/hate relationship with that series. The writing is awful, the characters ridiculous and pathetic, the relationships completely unhealthy, etc. and yet when I am super stressed and tired these are my go-to audiobooks of entertainment and ridicule. As in, I listen to them and roll my eyes and laugh at every stupid time that Edward’s eyes smolder and every time Bella is incredulous, and then inwardly tell Bella to get a grip. My husband pretty much knows that if I’m cleaning with my headphones on and laughing then I’m making fun of Bella and Edward. What is this sickness that compels me to do this? I have to admit that I think I’ve had my fill after listening to the series several times through in the past year, but who knows when it will suck me in again. I’m sadly a cornucopia of useless knowledge about the Twilight world. It’s like watching a movie that’s so bad it’s good, except for in this case it’s just really bad.

  • Bookgazing

    ‘If you are being blackmailed to do a murder, the fact that you then do murder doesn’t count.’ – interested in what ‘count’ means here. Does the protag feel no guilt because they’re being blackmailed or does some sort of justice system wave away the crime because of the blackmail or is it that the narrative seems to forgive the character with no thought? There are long running shows built on ‘the circumstances make a difference’ crime logic and it tends to depend how much I like the characters as to how much I’ll let that slide/what the circumstances are. But if the protag is like ‘well, not my fault’ and feels no guilt I would probably have issues with that even if the book used a ‘murdered person was terrible’ type of justification. It would depend on whether I liked them a whole lot though (I’m a terrible person) and again what the circumstances were.

    But if it’s an narrative thing, which I’m guessing it is because of the rest of your post then ehhhhhhh – I’m not keen. Giving a character a narrative pass just feel too easy sometimes. Again circumstances are important, but I like a little true narrative moral reflection in stories, even if the narrative ultimately comes down on the side of its characters who have done bad things. There should be some struggle to accommodate/acknowledge the seriousness of taking a life I think because that is kind of a big deal. Everything shouldn’t be a 90s action move you know?