For those who are just tuning in, a quick summary: About six weeks ago Jonathan McDonald wrote a call for clearer and stronger voices of moral responsibility in Catholic literary criticism (insofar as same exists), “What Has Rome to Do with Iowa City?” I responded here (let’s call that Part II), and he responded to my response (Part III). Let’s call this post Part IV, or “On Moral Fiction,” in which we continue to drill down into the specifics of what can be said to constitute same, and whose responsibility it is to see that it does so.
Of course I’m taking my title from John Gardner, who in his eponymous book argued that good art is good morality and vice versa. Art is moral on Gardner’s view if it “affirms life” — that is, acknowledges and honors the goodness of created things and of human existence — and takes seriously the reality that there are better and worse ways of living and acting as a human being. All of which, of course, we affirm as Catholics, although we go a bit further from there.
Gardner’s thought, though I don’t know if he knew it, has a lot of kinship with that of Maritain and Mauriac, although in a more secular vein. Gardner was not unfriendly to Christian moral and aesthetic thought but was once quoted as saying “Fiction is the only religion I have.” Fiction is not the only religion we have, obviously, “we” in this context being a community of Catholic writers. At the same time, it is a discipline whose inner laws we do well to respect if we plan to practice it, or set ourselves up to discuss it in a critical capacity.
I fiercely agree with Jonathan that Catholic writers are supposed to be on the side of both good aesthetics and good morals and that these ends aren’t essentially in competition with each other. But I can’t shake the sense that we disagree on other points, even if I’m not sure exactly where. So a certain moral responsibility devolves on Catholic writers and artists: agreed. In order not to burden consciences beyond what Christ through the Church asks and requires, then, we should seek great clarity about what this responsibility does, and does not, entail.
To do this we need to make use of a careful and thorough critical vocabulary. I submit that one distinction we will find especially helpful — and it’s going to be a fine line, and because human cognition is messy it can’t always be a bright line — between the explicit and the exploitative. I’m not talking specifically about the sexually explicit, which has its own inherent problems in avoiding exploitation just because of the way the human brain is wired.
I’ll also go out of the way to note that what is considered “explicit” at any given time is subject to cultural context and assumptions about standards in art that audiences are accustomed to encountering. These assumptions can lead artists into error — they are “in the air,” so to say, not unlike dioxins and progestins in the water — but for this reason, having been formed to take these assumptions for granted doesn’t necessarily mean we need to assume bad will on the part of the artist thus formed.
So the explicit, in itself, need not be sexual. It could be, as Jonathan lists, any detailed depiction of “potential moral error (e.g., glorifying crime, describing how to commit crimes, . . . cruelty and violence, mocking the sacred, blasphemy, racial ridicule, etc.).” There can be good and necessary reasons for including explicit content in art. Such almost always involve an attempt, hopefully without didacticism, to reveal the ugliness of the immoral and thus persuade people to turn their backs on what is wrong and seek the good. In fact, the explicit and shocking can often be far more effective than subtle or vague approaches when trying to express a moral in narrative.
To pick some low-hanging exemplary fruit, consider whether Crime and Punishment is a more or less effective novel without that very cold-blooded early chapter where Raskolnikov murders the landlady with an axe. Without the literal blow-by-blow, the entire development of R.’s nausea, denial, increasing anxiety and sorrow, and eventual repentance make next to no narrative sense.
Or consider those of Flannery O’Connor’s characters who speak the name of God or Jesus in an offhand, out-of-context way: O’Connor is recording the fact of their blasphemy in a way that reveals its absurdity and defends, against all cultural drift, the sense that there is a reality signified by these names worthy of far better treatment than it is receiving. You could multiply examples.
By contrast, when we talk about the exploitative in literature or art, this means the depiction of any meaningful human reality in a way that rips it out of its context of meaningfulness and human dignity and abuses it for some unworthy end. The exploitative crops up when the explicit in art is placed at the service of a lower value than art. It’s like the preachiness of evil.
For example: when violence is depicted in a spirit of exhibitionism or of unalloyed retributive anger, or when someone attempts to get cheap laughs from the unthinking destruction or defacement of something honorable or beautiful, or when a horrible event is detailed for the mere effect of forcing the reader’s attention (what we think of as “shock value”) without greater purposes in light of the total effect of the work.
But notice that the explicit relates to what is depicted; the exploitative relates to how and why something is depicted. The exploitative isn’t so much a question of content as a question of form.
The exploitative mode of depiction is often used to rub the noses of a certain class of readers into a fact the author, accurately or not, believes these readers ignore (in other words epater la bourgeoisie) or to gin up what would otherwise naturally be a lackluster readership, numbers-wise, through deliberate courting of controversy. To that end, the exploitative is often also manipulative. It’s taking unfair advantage not only of the character’s human experience, which deserves more respect than the exploitative mode gives it, but also of the reader’s baser instincts for attraction to the unsavory and for unhealthy curiosity.
The exploitative has little to do with authentic art. It’s definitionally in bad taste. Bad taste is quite often the point of the exploitative. Its presence can frequently serve as a sign that we are dealing not with high art but with some iteration of propaganda, fluff, twaddle, froth, or yes pornography. (Or in the case of Fifty Shades, which deserves exactly zero percent of our further attention, all of the above.)
The trouble is that you do occasionally get explicit and arguably exploitative passages in literary art that is otherwise worth engaging with and studying. Among these may be some of the passages Jonathan is referring to when he talks about bits “meant to incite the reader to lust” — although I would argue that whether they are meant to so incite and whether they do so incite are two separate things.
Sex passages in contemporary fiction often have a sort of off-puttingly medical air due to all the clinical body-part language and are resultantly anything but exciting. Maybe this is a side effect of reading a lot of books about NFP and childbirth, which reading if you are living certain other aspects of Church teaching you may very well end up having occasion to do a fair bit of — but whatever the reason, the fact remains. Effects can range from humor to boredom to discomfort, pathos, even nausea: rarely are such passages enticing — any more in fiction than in NFP books — certainly not “pornographic” unless approached in the wrong way. You often have to ask yourself why they belong in the narrative at all. Sometimes it’s clear that they don’t so belong and are only present because some writer has no idea how to signal that this is supposed to be a Serious Contemporary Novel other than by including one or many sex scenes — which is fairly lame. On occasion, though, they tell us something important about a character’s inner life that couldn’t be explained in any other way.
You could make an argument that even for that strictly character-illustrative purpose, such passages are overused and often include excess detail: that in some cases they seek to fix our attention by furnishing details of characters’ experience and psychology that as general readers we honestly have no business probing into, thus crossing the line into exploitation. The problem isn’t that they necessarily incite to any particular wrong action but that they are invasive of privacy, in a way. They don’t violate chastity — only a reader’s intention can cause them to do that — but they do concern what takes place at or near the “intimate center” of personhood, so there can at times be an element of revealing-too-much about them. On the one hand, it’s good to keep in place mutually-acknowledged and -observed social boundaries about these types of revelations. (I could wish that our society still observed more stringent boundaries in news outlets, for example. Just in the course of reading news articles at times, I’ve been blindsided by the inclusion of lurid details I wouldn’t wish on anyone’s perception.) On the other, it’s hard to say that the experience of inner life isn’t the proper material for fiction or memoir — that is precisely what it is, and so it’s hard to say that details about that experience don’t belong there.
“Unflinching honesty” is (as a phrase, not as a thing) cliché, but in reality an unsparing account of difficult experiences can sometimes be a great gift to others, helping them come to terms with their own suffering. So I think we need to be extra, extra careful not to impute intention to incite to lust, or intention to degrade in other ways w/r/t depictions of violence, greed, cruelty, etc., when considering passages that deal with heavy themes in fiction. We’re well-advised to consider these depictions in light of the total effect of the work, without any attempt to engage in authorial mind-reading about intentionality.
I’d like to borrow Gioia’s metaphor from The Catholic Writer Today of the Catholic literary tradition as a rundown neighborhood of a big city ripe for rebuilding and renewal. I am not sure whether it fills me with dread or hope to imagine people running around the streets of our borough shouting at each other over bits of novels each other wrote: “This is obscene!” “No it’s not!” “Yes it is!” At least this low-comedy outcome would provide proof of intelligent life and thus be preferable to boarded-up windows. We need to exercise charity: to assume a good motive and refrain from imputing bad, except where evil motive is openly expressed as such in an indisputable way.
Jonathan acknowledges this in his post. But he also says, with regard to critics’ response: “We lack the moral subtlety required to discern . . . and so we tend towards blanket allowance or blanket condemnation.” Do we, though? Who’s this “we” that blanketly allows or condemns: Catholics in general, Catholics in serious Catholic circles? Catholics in comment boxes on blogs? Maybe I’m responsible for this straw man myself, with my remark about it sometimes seeming like there are still too many Catholic readers who “jump at shadows.” This seems like an unfair characterization to me now, on re-reading, although I know that authors are sometimes made to feel this way and that this feeling may constitute a significant drain on the unity and vitality of Catholic literary culture.
Who then? I don’t think this wet-blanket “we” applies to our magazine or its staff; at least I hope we’re among the more coherent articulations of a specifically Catholic literary voice currently at work, although we could do more to build our critical presence. I also don’t think anyone is disagreeing that it’s legitimate for writers’ groups to hash these issues out together or that editors can and should flag them for discussion and resolution.
Jonathan identifies an unwillingness (again on the part of I’m not sure whom) to object when a piece of fiction seems to encourage or give a free pass to wrong action:
“It does not do to give in to fear-mongering and extreme limitations of scope. . . . It does not do, either, to bend over backwards to excuse nearly anything as potentially acceptable, if only for the right age group and educational level. Sometimes a book crosses a line that no Catholic of good will should defend. Sometimes it crosses a more subtle line but is even more insidious for its deceptive approach, although even in that situation I think a baseline presumption of goodwill should be in place before the cross-examination begins.”
What specific books cross these lines? Where and how, except case by case, do we identify the line or lines that shouldn’t be crossed in fictional depiction? What cross-examination, by whom? Can we even be clear about where these obvious and/or subtle lines are without being too explicit, that is without crossing those very lines, in the effort?
I can understand the desire, in an increasingly blurry and overreaching world, for drawing hard and fast lines. Here’s one: I would argue that the exploitative is always to be avoided, on grounds of both art and morality. Lines — boundaries! — are good and necessary, even if we draw them in a squiggly, strange way because reality is squiggly and strange. But in order to figure out how best to draw them, it’s good to talk through specific examples.
So if the call is for further dialogue, let’s go. If the call is for a more robust Catholic critical presence, I’m all for that, too. The subtlety and careful thought Jonathan upholds will be indispensable to such an effort. If the desideratum is for individual Catholic writers to take a pledge in general favor of decency, such a pledge already exists. Those who take it promise to refrain “from writing or promoting works which are libelous or slanderous, which seek to foster hatred or conflict among individuals or groups, or which contain obscenity, pornography, or morbid depictions of violence.” I affirm the intention here, although for fiction writers in particular it seems somewhat beside the point, or even beneath the point in a bare-minimum sort of way. It seems to outline standards we should be able to take for granted, that should be implicitly contained in our baptismal pledge and in the demands of art itself.
If what we’re really concerned about, first and foremost, is standing in opposition to the torrent of exploitation of sexuality in our culture, I recommend joining the Angelic Warfare Confraternity and praying in solidarity with and for those harmed by said exploitation. That may be a better use of effort in that direction than trying to exact preemptive pledges from emerging artists with regard to art that doesn’t even yet exist.
Before concluding, I should — as Jonathan has thoughtfully done on his own account — add that my own thought here is mine and not necessarily representative of the DT editorial board’s as a whole. I should also add that I am not any kind of official Church spokesperson or trained theologian. My credentials are precisely those of believing and working fiction writer, moral-fomation-attuned homeschooling marm, and moderately well read but essentially undereducated blogger. Like Flannery herself, “I have what today passes for an education [in her case an MFA, in mine a college degree in English], but I am not fooled.” Add salt to taste.
Also, I’ll share a piece of advice given me by the very good and gentle old Jesuit priest — who, sadly for the rest of us, has now gone home to Christ: serious, solid, orthodox, yet pastoral — who heard my confessions in college. He gave me a way of thinking about this that stays with me today, a sort of corollary of double effect: if your true intention is that of studying literary texts in the spirit of your own intellectual growth in the service of the glory of God, if you are not studying them specifically because they contain explicit content for the sake of mere curiosity or worse, you bear no guilt. Even if the original storytellers had questionable intentions, you do not participate in those intentions when you approach the tales in the course of researching, for example, depictions of gender in literary history, or the thought of a particular author who used to be on the Index or would probably land there if such still existed, or what have you. I submit that the principle holds true for contemporary novels, or mythology, or medicine, or psychology, or whatever it is you go to study: whatever the intention of others, if you approach the necessary material as a student of truth with purity and humility, your own intention will do much as a safeguard against sin. Writer and reader alike are responsible for purifying the source. Writer’s failure to do same is not the fault of reader, nor vice versa.
In Jonathan’s original post, the quote from Flannery O’Connor discusses “saving the world” versus “saving the work.” Luckily, these aren’t opposed to each other. As writers, saving the world is not our responsibility — that task is already achieved through the superabundant merits of Christ. Saving the work is our responsibility; subcreation is our contribution to the work of salvation carried on by the Church. In my first response, I used the metaphor of novels as life rafts. If we believe that by using our talents — God’s gift to us — we can offer a lifesaving gift to others, then saving the work is a primary responsibility and not one we can shirk on the grounds of worrying about the repercussions of telling the whole truth.