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Moral Depth in Current Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

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Introduction

I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read. 

Price’s piece made me think about the interplay between plot and character in fiction because of its correlation between plot and moral depth.

What is moral depth in fiction?

Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:

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.

This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what? 

Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:

The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a 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. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?

And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.

But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

What does “recent fiction” mean?

Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.”  Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.

In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.” 

It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”

In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.

In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.

If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.

Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived. 

In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.

(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)

Conclusions

To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.

Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.

Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Last Week's Links Life Stories in Literature Literary History Older Adults in Literature Reading

Literary Links

‘Your throat hurts. Your brain hurts’: the secret life of the audiobook star

If you think narrating audiobooks is a dream job because all you have to do is sit there and read, you’d be wrong. Way wrong. Read all about the complex matters of matching specific books with appropriate readers, of preparing, and of carefully avoiding extraneous noise in the recording studio. At the end of the article is an added bonus of a short history of talking books.

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall
The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall

Writer Alison B. Hart rediscovers the joy of reading for pleasure—“ that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story”—by reading Anne of Green Gables aloud to her 8-year-old daughter.

Giving life experience its due

Older adults, particularly older women, often feel invisible, ignored and completely misunderstood by the younger world moving quickly around them. This article by Peter McDermott showcases several Irish authors whose recent novels feature older adult characters. There’s much insight here. For example, McDermott asked about younger authors portraying older characters:

Asked about possible pitfalls in depicting older characters, [Caoilinn] Hughes [the 34-year-old author of Orchid & the Wasp (2018)] said they would be exactly the same as a “writer can fall into when writing any character: undermining their humanity through lazy writing by privileging assumption over observation.”

Joan Didion’s Early Novels of American Womanhood

This article caught my eye because, although I’ve read quite a lot of Didion’s nonfiction, I haven’t read any of her fiction. 

What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do: marry, have children, and keep her marriage together, despite the inevitable philandering, despite her other hopes and dreams. Didion’s women have an image in mind of what life should look like—they’ve seen it in the fashion magazines—and they expect reality to follow suit. But it almost never does. In Didion’s fiction, the standard narratives of women’s lives are mangled, altered, and rewritten all the time.

Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed, finds academic

Scholarship has generally dated the first writing by English women to about the 12th century. But here Alison Flood discusses a new book, Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond 650-1100, by Diane Watt that places the emergence of women’s writing much earlier, in the 8th century. “Watt, a professor at the University of Surrey, lays out in the book how some anonymous texts from the period were probably created by women, and contends that men rewrote works originally produced by women.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Older Adults in Literature On Novels and Novelists Publishing

Literary Links

I came across so many interesting articles this week that it’s hard to limit my list. Here are some of my favorites.

On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant

The intensity of Murdoch’s gaze, boring into you from the dust jackets of her many novels, seemed a promise of the books’ contents. For decades this remarkable writer delivered prickly, sophisticated and somewhat unearthly fiction about good and evil and sex and morality. She trailed a large, large muse. She deftly moved her ideas about, positioning them like the slabs used to build Stonehenge.

In this year, the centennial of Iris Murdoch’s birth and 20 years after her death at age 79, Dwight Garner laments that “her posthumous reputation is in semi-shambles.” To help restore her reputation to what he considers to be its rightful place—on “the list of the most elite writers in English of the second half of the 20th century”—he examines at length his favorite of her novels, The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize. 

Adult Books for Fall 2019

This is the starting page for Publishers Weekly’s recommendations of fall releases in the following categories:

  • Art, Architecture & Photography  
  • Business & Economics  
  • Comics & Graphic Novels  
  • Cooking & Food  
  • Essays & Literary Criticism  
  • Literary Fiction  
  • History  
  • Lifestyle  
  • Memoirs & Biographies  
  • Mysteries & Thrillers  
  • Poetry  
  • Politics & Current Events  
  • Romance & Erotica  
  • SF, Fantasy & Horror  
  • Science

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: READ LOCAL AUTHORS

You shop local, you eat local—but are you reading local, too? If you’re not, you’re missing out. Local authors and the stories they tell can change your life—and your community. And all you have to do is read a book you love.

Six years ago we moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Tacoma, Washington. During those six years, one of my reading goals has been to read books by local authors. Although I didn’t need this article to explain to me why reading local authors is a worthwhile undertaking, I did appreciate the tips on how to find their books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing to Re-member

Just yesterday, I asked my students how many of them had watched at least one American movie or read one American book about the Vietnam War, and everyone raised their hand. When I asked how many had read one book or seen one movie by a Vietnamese person, nobody, or perhaps one or two, had. The legacies of colonialism and imperialism have created privileged sectors in the West that function as feedback loops. We often only read books or watch movies that reflect our values. In systems like Hollywood, the stories of poor people from other countries are not that interesting to the rest of the world and therefore don’t get told.

Half of women over 40 say older women in fiction are clichés, survey finds

A recent survey by Gransnet, the UK’s biggest social media site for older people, and publisher HQ (HarperCollins) found that 51% of women over 40 “feel older women in fiction books tend to fall into clichéd roles.” Here are some of the most interest findings from the survey:

  • 47% of women over 40 say there are not enough books about middle-aged or older women.
  • “when older characters do appear in fiction, half of women (50%) say they’ve seen them being portrayed as baffled by smartphones, computers or the internet – and think it’s insulting.”
  • 75% buy their books online.

As a result of the survey findings, Gransnet and HQ are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over age 40. The article contains more information on both the survey and the writing competition. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Last Week's Links Older Adults in Literature Reading

Last Week’s Links

Five Writing Tips from Tana French

I usually stay away from tips aimed specifically at writers, but I found some of French’s tips here useful for readers as well as writers, especially what she has to say about characters:

There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women.’ There’s only the individual character you’re writing… . If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes.

30 BOOKISH POSITIVE LIFE QUOTES SHORT ENOUGH TO WRITE ON YOUR MIRROR

If you need some inspirational life advice, here’s a collection by writers of all kinds and time periods, from Lewis Carroll to science fiction writer John Scalzi.

Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship

The last good literary hoax story I remember surrounded James Frey’s supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be mostly fictionalized. That was back in 2006, “and the publicity turned Frey’s name into a synonym for memoir fraud,” writes Louis Menand. In this article Menand examines the history of literary authorial fraud and how it fits into the current world of performance identity and the clamor for authorial authenticity.

I have forgotten how to read

For a long time Michael Harris convinced himself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate him from our new media climate – that he could keep on reading in the old way because his mind was formed in pre-internet days. He was wrong.

Harris, an author himself, explains that “when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served.”

And that’s not all. The way he reads now has influenced the way he writes:

Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get.

So he aims to get back in touch with the way he used to read:

Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind. Those solitary journeys are all the more rich for their sudden strangeness.

8 Old-Lady Novels That Prove Life Doesn’t End at 80

Novelist Heidi Sopinka writes, “older women in literature … arguably represent one of the most underwritten aspects of female experience. Even when they do manage to get into a book, they almost exclusively face sexism for being ‘unlikeable.’”

When “the image of a 92-year-old woman, vital, working, came into [her] head,” Sopinka wrote her début novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, around that character. While working on the novel, she “began seeking out an old-lady canon”:

It wasn’t female aging that fascinated me as much as I wanted to swing into the viewpoint of a woman who had lived a long complicated life, deeply occupied by her work. I began to think of my book as a coming-of-death novel… .

Weirdly, the closer I delved into the closed-in days of looming death, the more I learned about living. Still, there is such a fear of female power in our culture that older women are ignored or infantilized, as though they are somehow less complex than us even though they are us, plus time.

Here she offers a list of eight books that are “unafraid to take on the full measure of a woman’s life”:

  • The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Stet by Diana Athill
  • Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois
  • Writings by Agnes Martin

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Older Adults in Literature

Introducing a New Category: Older Adults in Literature

Over on my personal blog I write on topics of interest to people approaching or already into their retirement years. When writing on the United Nations’ International Day of Older Persons, which occurs each year on October 1, I included a list of five novels that feature older adult characters.

Being of retirement age myself, the depiction of older adults in literature is something I’m interested in. Putting together this list for my retirement blog made me think that the topic of older adults in literature is also fair game for a literature-related blog, since literature reflects life in all its facets. Here, then, is my first list in this new category.


5 Novels That Feature Older Adult Characters

Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos

Margaret Hughes, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. Margaret lives alone in a huge mansion in the most upscale section of Seattle, where her only companions are the rooms and rooms full of valuable figurines left to her by her father. When Margaret’s mother, dead some 60 years, begins visiting her, Margaret decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, in her 30s, answers Margaret’s ad. She recently sold all her belongings and left New York City for Seattle in pursuit of the lover who abandoned her. Warily, Margaret and Wanda begin to befriend each other. The mansion’s list of residents increases over the course of the novel as new people arrive to fulfill various needs—both their own and each others’.


Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

This short, poignant novel features an older widow and widower who come together for companionship and emotional support. Their lives are complicated by small-town busybodies, social proprieties, and the demands of family relationships.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Ove (pronounced UH-ve) is probably the biggest curmudgeon you’ll ever meet, either in literature or in life. His wife died several years ago, and his retirement has left him feeling lonely and purposeless. He’s set in his ways, with strict daily routines, and he demands that everyone must follow the neighborhood rules to the letter. Translated from the Swedish, this novel demonstrates how even a crotchety old geezer can change and learn to appreciate life, with a little help from some new friends. The novel also carries a gentle message: don’t judge a man until you understand his life.


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Young journalist Monique Grant is stagnating as a reporter for an internet sleaze site when she receives a sudden and mysterious summons from Evelyn Hugo, the aging actress who is finally ready to tell her story and insists Grant is the one who must write it. Hugo’s story covers her journey to Los Angeles in the 1950s, her rise to fame, and her decision to leave show business after a 30-year career. That journey includes ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant, before finally revealing why she has chosen Grant to write this story.


The Pigman by Paul Zindel

This YA novel from the 1960s focuses on two high school students who form a taunting, derisive friendship with a neighbor, the widowed retiree Antonio Pignati. Although the story revolves around the teenagers, the loneliness and desperate desire for companionship of Mr. Pignati, whom the kids call The Pigman, is painfully accurate.


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Older Adults in Literature Review

“T” Is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “T” Is for Trespass (2007)
New York: Putnam, 400 pages  
ISBN: 0399154485
Random House Audio, narrated by Judy Kaye

Recommended

Starting a new Sue Grafton novel always means getting reacclimatized to Kinsey’s world. For Kinsey (lucky woman), time is not passing nearly as quickly as it is for her readers. At the beginning of this novel it feels good to be reassured that Kinsey still lives in her studio apartment behind Henry’s house and that she and Henry are both well.

One day shortly before Christmas, 1987, Henry and Kinsey discover their neighbor, Gus Vronsky, lying on the floor in his house with a dislocated shoulder. He has taken a nasty fall and is transported to the local emergency room, from which he is sent to a skilled nursing facility. Gus, age 89, is a sour, cranky  man whose only living relative is a great-great niece, Melanie, an ad agency exec who lives 3000 miles away, in New York City. (Melanie is an alumna of Boston University, my alma mater.) The nursing home won’t send Gus home until there is someone to care for him. Grudgingly, Melanie makes the trip from New York (read: she’s shamed into it over the phone by Kinsey) to arrange for home care for her uncle.

Melanie’s newspaper ad for a home health aide brings only one reply, a licensed vocational nurse named Solana Rojas. Relieved that she can finally return to New York, Melanie hires Solana, then asks Kinsey to do a short background check on her. Kinsey checks Solana’s education and job history and finds everything in order.

But the woman who has moved in next door is not really Solana Rojas. (I’m not giving anything away here because the reader knows this from the beginning.) Henry and Kinsey become increasingly uneasy about Gus’s situation, but there’s little that they can do about it. And Solana is always one devious step ahead of them.

In the meantime, Gus changes from a cranky old man who never passes up an opportunity to complain very loudly about something to a whimpering baby. Kinsey and Henry aren’t completely aware of the change in Gus because Solana keeps him out of sight. But the reader knows in detail what’s going on over at Gus’s house. Grafton’s picture of how easily someone can take advantage of an older person like Gus is painful to read because it’s so starkly accurate.

In her latest novel Grafton takes on the hefty issues of identity theft, elder abuse, and the all-round vulnerability of older adults in our society. While this isn’t the best novel in the series (I still reserve that designation for “K” Is for Killer and “M” Is for Murder), it is a realistic and sobering picture of what can happen when people outlive all their caring kin.

Because Kinsey is a such a comfortable old friend, I was stunned to realize that there will be only six more books before Sue Grafton finishes the alphabet. In Kinsey time, that means that Grafton will probably finish the series before Kinsey has to adapt to high-tech items such as computers and cell phones. I wonder what Grafton, now 67, will do next.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown