So what about once upon a time?

Message in a bottle

I’m on the third iteration of a story draft that I’ve been working on–on and off–for a few years now. The premise is intriguing, but I keep asking myself so what? I long for the characters to tell me why they do what they do, what they long for most of all. And so what? Why do I even tell this story?

I dug out a long-ago post from an old blog: Should fiction contain a moral?

John Gardner in his essay, On Moral Fiction, argued that fiction is moral when it is true art. According to another writer’s summary of this essay, Gardner attacks what he sees as contemporary literature’s lack of moral content. In Gardner’s view, moral fiction “attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.”

What I do not want any fiction to do is preach, such that the characters, plot and language become secondary to the writer’s not-always-hidden agenda of imposing his or her particular convictions. What good fiction does is not to teach us lessons about life or about What Should Be, but to help us “weigh and consider.” (Sir Francis Bacon once advised: “Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”)

In this sense, then, fiction will always be “moral” because it cannot help but make a statement, regardless of whether and especially if the writer was not conscious of doing so. Fiction always makes a stand: the characters, the narrator, the author, the reader—they will all have their own worldview. If the fiction is done well, then it will not sound like a sermon; neither will it present a contrived plot designed to showcase the moral lesson. The ideas in good fiction are added to our processing (which is more often than not unconscious) of what it is to be human, to belong to the human race.

I agree with Mary Gordon—a novelist and teacher—that we should look to fiction “for moral complexity, not moral certainty.”

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