Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Adam C. Zern opines on dark stories, fatalistic stories, and unavoidable morality:

"I don't like pointless stories.  But let me clarify, every story has a point; it's unavoidable and part of the didactic nature of stories.  They always teach something and always have some kind of point.  What I mean is that I hate stories that teach there is no point—to existence, to meaning, to humanity.  I don't like fatalism in its many sordid forms, but that's not to say I don't like 'dark' stories.  In fact, some of my favorite books are aphotic and can hardly be described as sanguine. 

Anyone willing and interested to understand more about literary criticism ought to read John Gardner's On Moral Fiction.  Gardner delineates a viewpoint on criticism and what makes a worthwhile story as close to my own opinion as I have ever read.  Would Gardner and I agree on every book?  Of course not.  But the principles he sets forth I think are worth investigation and even implementation.  I do believe there is a certain morality (in a very broad sense) imbued within all fiction, and the fiction which best understands this is often the best fiction around.  That's not to say that every book ought to be a child's fairy tale with a clearly labeled moral at the end.  There is plenty of room for moral subtlety but I have little patience for moral passivity. 

What I find in a book like The Plague by Albert Camus is an intentional effort to teach that nothing, no human behavior, really matters in the end.  This, I believe, is demonstrably false and hurts any fiction attempting to enshrine it as truth.  Is that a subjective judgment?  Of course!  Such is criticism and my criticism against books, films, stories, etc, which attempts to strip morality of its self-evident existence.  (The actual rights and wrongs of morality and the specific meaning of existence are less self-evident and can and ought to be debated—especially through stories!).  The best kind of fiction recognizes it's a part of a grand morality-charged human experience. 

Opposite to something like The Plague are stories like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or even the film The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan.  Both are very dark stories.  The Dark Knight, for instance, is at times brutal in its violence and disturbing in its portrayal of evil, but it acts as an examination of both.  Frankenstein is at times macabre—although I never found it gratuitous—and unsettling.  Yet, it works incredibly well as an examination into humanity's need to discover and the ethics of existence.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is terribly depressing but not without moral exploration; in fact, it's themes, such as judging the value of human life, are permanent pillars in human morality and show up again and again in stories—see Alfred Hitchcock's Rope for another example.  Those are stories, even while being shrouded in darkness, worth experiencing.

In conclusion, and to reiterate, I don't like pointless stories.  I've read many and understand completely what they're attempting to communicate; therefore, I can say with confidence I don't care for them, which is not to say I'll never read them.  I'll just make sure to grumble about them once I've done so."

Other Topics of Interest:
Conversations with Adam & Scout - Picky or Observant?
Overrated: The Road
3 Reasons Why You Should Read


  1. Existentialism is a swamp of "mealy mouthed" folks talking about nothing. Is it any wonder that literature has suffered since the sixties? Bah humbug! When I read On Moral Fiction I was thrilled to see that not all academics championed the existential argument or non-argument or pointlessness, as the case may be.

  2. I appreciate you putting Crime and Punishment on almost the level where it belongs. Also, if you crave further reading on morality in fiction, or "Ethical Criticism," check out Wayne Booth's book, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. He's also written a lot about this subject elsewhere, including in the following anthology:

    George, Stephen K., ed. Ethics, Literature, &
    Theory: An Introductory Reader. Lanham, MD:
    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

    I read this as part of a theory class at BYU-I; its vague title aside, it exclusively deals with ethical literary theory and gave me ample ideas to play with as I contemplated future reading (and, subsequently, participated in said reading). I think it's editor is a BYU professor. It's good, regardless. It's got a nice balance of traditional theorists and the LDS perspective (including an essay by Orson Scott Card). So you should check it out. The Gardner ideas are wonderful, but there are assumptions he makes that Booth and the others recognize and then give more thorough attention to.

    As always, I enjoyed your commentary. Keep it up.