Adam O’Fallon Price describes Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie like this: “The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.”
Price continues: “over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.”
He attributes this lack of moral depth in fiction to the internet, which has allowed everyone to curate all the news and cultural entertainment they consume and thereby to limit exposure to new ideas and experiences. This process has produced “a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.”
Price laments this situation because “situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art.” He connects the lack of a moral level with “reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions.” Most current novels, he contends, are boring because of this failure to examine the relationship between choices and the resulting consequences.
Price ends with a call for a return to “fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post.”
I remember reading, several years ago, an article in which mystery writer Val McDermid described being told something like “You must be a particularly twisted person to write such dark books.” And her reply was along the lines of “I’m very well adjusted because I get all those dark thoughts out of my head by writing those books.”
I’ve never been able to find this discussion so that I can document it, but novelist Bryan Gruley addresses the same issue in this article: “are we (authors) secretly as twisted as the twisted characters we conjure?” I particularly like this reply:
“Ideally, our darkest characters come from a place of empathy, a part of us that wants to understand why other people—people who are fully human, not sociopaths or narcissists—rationalize transgressing important societal boundaries,” says Laura Lippman, author of many acclaimed novels . . .
About his own fictional villains, Gurley writes, “The only thing I have in common with these fictional people is that we’re human. And that matters.”
And this truth is at the root of why I like mysteries and thrillers so much. I’d also argue that the best mysteries and thrillers offer the moral depth that Adam O’Fallon Price laments the lack of in the article above. Perhaps he’s just not reading the same books I am.
I recently wrote about locked-room mysteries.
Here Scott Adlerberg offers his own appreciation of a classic locked-room mystery, The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, recently reissued by American Mystery Classics.
Nandi Taylor, a Canadian writer of Caribbean descent, writes here about “what she’d always wanted more of growing up—protagonists of African descent in speculative settings.”
The relationship between art and life is symbiotic: one feeds the other. As representation of marginalized segments of our society has increased, so has respect and tolerance for those segments of society, which has led more accurate and nuanced portrayals of marginalized people, and today we find ourselves with a wealth of diverse mainstream media and heartening advances in human rights.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens, whose debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, will be published in March, offers “an unbeliever’s rereading of Christian conceptions of the afterlife” in Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown