‘We often need literature to make our feelings intelligible to us.’
Joanna Trollope, The Rector’s Wife
The strong response to a readers’ blog asking for examples of ethical fiction, (1) a list of topics under the title of ethical fiction and recent commentary suggests that ethics in fiction is a matter of interest.
However, it is quite uncommon for mainstream reviewers to use ethics as a criterion in judging fiction. The focus of debate about Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is unusual. Some see the novel as depicting women in a range of ways that undermine stereotypes and therefore acceptable. Others find it unforgivably sexist. Yet others agree but say, ‘So what!’
What is ethical and whether ethical fiction is essential, desirable or even irrelevant is clearly a question rather than a given. Journalists have a code of ethics; documentaries are expected to be truthful and speculation acknowledged. In contrast, imaginary works are not controlled by such rules or expectations. Should they be? If they were, would fiction be spoilt? Would novels primarily concerned with ethics risk becoming merely didactic? If novels are unethical do they encourage their readers to be unethical too? Does unethical fiction create an unethical society? Does ethical literature contribute to an ethical society?
The value of ethical fiction is partly in its role in bringing a critical reading to unethical fiction. Ethical fiction also has an important role in providing readers with a multifaceted way of looking at the world. While accepting not all fiction must be ethical, it seems there is an argument for it being a desirable factor in the range of available fiction. Although it would be ideal to be able to demonstrate the impact of ethical fiction to my knowledge research is limited.
However, Jonathon Gottschall’s Why fiction is good for you. The beautiful lies of novels, movies, and TV stories have surprisingly powerful effects — and may even help make society tick (Boston Globe, April 29, 2012) does ask questions about the value of fiction: is it ‘good for us?’ Is it ‘mentally and ethically corrosive?’ ‘Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?’ Gottshall argues that recent research shows that fiction has an influence. The more involved the reader becomes in the story, the more influential it becomes. It is suggested that non-fiction increases a reader’s imperviousness to argument and evidence but the ‘intellectual guard’ is dismissed by the reader of fiction. Gottschall argues:
perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds… So those who are concerned about the messages in fiction — whether they are conservative or progressive — have a point. Fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies.
Speculation about the dangerous influence of fiction has a long history, as has the classification of the novels to which I refer as ‘ethical’. In this paper novels such as those referred to as social commentary or issues based are subsumed under the description ‘ethical’. This description fosters the idea that novels that address issues or are usually described as social commentary are integral to all our lives, rather than works that are somehow apart from their readers.
John Tinnon Taylor’s Early Opposition to the English Novel The Popular Reaction from 1760 to 1830 (first published in 1943) deliberates on the history. Some early concern was with the newness of the form. Parallel criticism of novels was a rather sneering attitude to novels, novelists and their readers. Typical was Hannah More’s apprehension about the practice where groups of women listened to one woman reading “mischievous” books to them while they worked. Readers also often hid their eagerness to read novels. However, circulating libraries led to an even wider dissemination of novels and it became clear that scorn had been unsuccessful in dampening readers’ enthusiasm. Condemnation of the influence of reading fiction increased. Similar to contemporary debate about the type of literature young people should read, well argued in Charlie Jefferies’ ‘Young Adult Literature – Censoring Teenage Sexual Autonomy’, published in this blog on 1st February, 2015, historical discussion about the influence of popular works presented two alternatives. Was reading fiction likely to develop an interest in reading or was it more likely to undermine readers’ morals? Arguments about whether women would be harmed or would benefit from reading novels women were associated with those about whether women should be educated. Women readers were also accused of taking fiction more seriously than household duties, crying over the imaginary ills of novelists’ characters and ignoring their children’s needs. In the main the romantic notions in fiction were seen as the problem. However, more in keeping with the ethical novels that will be discussed in part 2, some were also seen as promoting what was seen as unusual behavior, that is, using fiction as a reference for moving outside the social mores affecting women.
(1) In this paper novels such as those referred to as social commentary or issues based are subsumed under the description ‘ethical’. This description fosters the idea that novels that address issues or are usually described as social commentary are integral to all our lives, rather than works that are somehow apart from their readers.
Robin Joyce is an independent scholar. She has written extensively about women’s history in the Australian Labor Party and the early labour movement in Western Australia. Her most recent work is rereading literary texts, in particular examining their anti-feminist or their feminist meanings. Barbara Pym’s work has been an important part of that endeavour in “The Troublesome Woman: A Study of Barbara Pym’s Novels and Short Stories”.
Photographs: Robin Joyce