Only Moral Novels Achieve Longevity

Lovat Dickson, one of H. G. Wells’ biographers, claimed the literary world does not see Wells as a great writer, adding that the opinion-makers overlook the famous author because he did not write about morals. Dickson’s observation highlights the strong bias among literary critics that works dealing with moral issues are the most worthy of praise. As a result, only works of this kind are long-lived. Some have argued the absence of longevity for other works has more to do with lack of critical promotion and support than a dearth of literary merit. This may well be true, but in real life, human beings are always concerned with the morality of actions, events, and situations so it seems entirely reasonable, inevitable even, that the same concern should apply to fictional portrayals of life and the world.

Old man reading old books under a mature tree

Moral novels attract wider critical attention and are more likely to achieve longevity. (Image: public domain)

Is it true Wells lacked morality, or did he espouse a set of values that was unacceptable because it was not popular at the time? Dickson believes his subject was something of a scoundrel. “What one sees in his life is the almost complete absence of any moral values; it was a limitation in an artist. He did not write about these things because he attached no value to them, and that was because he did not possess them himself. Yet no great endurable artist but has them, and looks for them in the characters he creates.” Dickson’s repeated emphasis on an absence of morality suggests he regarded Wells as being, if not completely immoral, then at least amoral. Since artists develop their creative vision by exploring their personal worldview, he may well be correct.

In a more recent example, I recall hearing Edgar Allan Poe’s biographer Kenneth Silverman speaking about his subject on the CBC Radio program, “Writers and Company.” He remarked how his research had revealed Poe as “much worse” than he had at first believed. Like Wells, Poe’s lack of moral standards reveals itself in his work. Poe does not trouble himself overmuch with the morality of his chilling tales striving instead for maximum alarming affect. While the critics have been somewhat kinder to Poe, Silverman’s view of the horror writer is much the same as Dickson’s view of Wells. There is a distinct whiff of disapproval in the air. Morality matters.

One might have expected a diminishing of such moral concerns in these more liberal times. The (seemingly) greater emphasis on individuality and personal freedom would suggest a willingness to tolerate lower, more flexible, or more varied standards. Yet a glance at the short lists for literary awards reveals otherwise. We are less preoccupied with traditional moral issues such as adultery, honesty, industry, charity, and courage – although they are still there – but far more concerned with the moral questions surrounding recent struggles with social entitlements, sexual orientation, child abuse, women’s rights, and racism. Historical concerns like war, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism prompt many modern writers to turn out moral novels that depict past behaviour at the societal level while emphasizing its impact on the present.

Clearly, high-quality fiction is still expected to deal with the distinction between right and wrong, between good and bad behaviour, and do so as an integral part of the work. However, when judging the merits of any given novel, we must ask ourselves whose standards of morality should apply. Let us not forget that a great deal of morality is an excuse for some people (those much interested in “being good”) to feel superior to others (those less interested in “being good”). Status seeking and ego game playing have been central to human behaviour for millennia, and nothing, not even morality, is excluded from play.

Here we encounter a disturbing modern twist.

In the conservative past, moral concerns in literature tended to centre on the behaviour of the individual within the context of Christianity – religion, in other words. The examples I gave (adultery, honesty, industry, charity, courage) are all personal behaviours about which the Church had something – sometimes a great deal – to say. Yet it can be argued that most Christian values are little more than institutionalized universal human values. In other words, the Church was upholding moral standards that had long been in place in any case. Some might say we established the Church (perhaps unnecessarily) for just this purpose.

In our own so-called liberal times, religion has largely collapsed. In its absence, and with the rise of the gigantic welfare state, we see a greater emphasis on morality associated not with the individual but with the broader social and ideological context. Serious writers, naturally, are wrestling with the new reality. This is why they write. To highlight the point, I will conflate my lists of example topics: social entitlements, sexual orientation, child abuse, women’s rights, and racism; feminism, imperialism, colonialism, and socialism. In other words, writers are now more likely to tackle morality at the level of societies (or even entire civilizations and races) as a whole rather than that of the individual. Presumably, “right minded” individuals should transcend their personal concerns and think about morality in this wider framework.

Think what this means. Individuals must now take responsibility for such things as the behaviour of society as a whole, whites in general, the mega-state, Western civilization, the corporate world, foreign aid, and so on. Given the control wielded by modern governments over their citizens and the power and reach of Western nations (as well as corporations and NGOs) abroad, it is quite reasonable to extend moral concerns in this way. Global players must be held globally accountable.

However, we cannot escape the vital question of whose morality we should apply. Is there a set of universal human values we can employ at this level? Are today’s writers exploring such a set?

The answer to both questions posed above is a resounding, No!

When morality has scaled up to the societal level, we must consider politics. After all, there are sharp differences between a socialist and a conservative approach to social structure, entitlements, governance, foreign policy, capitalism, and so on. Therefore, we cannot ignore the sharp shift to the left taken by Western societies over the past five or six decades. From start to finish, the left dominates Western education systems, so not surprisingly, most of today’s artists write from that perspective. Remember that all artists, and especially writers, develop their artistic vision by exploring their own worldview.

The situation has brought about a distinct – and I would argue – destructive one-sidedness to recent moral works. Industrializing Europeans were (in the eyes of some, still are) imperialists and colonialists – and by all accounts that was a bad thing. Free and democratic America seeks world hegemony (in the sense of dominant leadership) – and that is entirely wicked and inappropriate. Prosperous capitalist societies are negatively portrayed as liking and profiting from wars. Males in general are prone to oppressing females in general. Whites are, more often than not, racists, while coloured people seem much freer of this kind of prejudice. Massive social spending is a sign of enlightened kindness – period. Swiftly vanishing donations to the third world are preferred over foreign investment and development, which draw accusations of exploitation and neo-colonialism.

Looking over the list of moral positions and evaluations, something stands out: all of this is actually modern and / or historically-surviving leftist ideology. Many of today’s writers are more the product of our education systems than their own deeply felt personal experiences. Hardly surprising given the vast national or global scope of what is under consideration, but a fact that renders theoretical and ideological much of what these writers have to say. Competing views on all the cited issues do exist, but these rarely appear in works of literature.

Beyond the biased ideology, there is also a decided tendency towards the overcritical. Morality, when not founded on the pain of personal struggle lacks the emotional empathy that might ameliorate the severity of the condemnation. Many of today’s moral novels paint a harsh black and white picture of what were actually complex and nuanced situations within a wider context, a context that the authors often ignore or dismiss for ideological reasons. If, for example, you simplistically denounce industrialization as a dubious benefit, then of course, the militarized acquisition of resources in uncivilized places is unjustified theft. In fact, the very notion of “uncivilized” is itself rejected as a white conceit! These are extreme positions “legitimized” by their questionable popularity on prestigious university campuses.

At this point, we must bring in literature’s traditional emphasis on linking the personal with the universal. This linkage applies to morality as much as to behaviour and character. When we examine the works exploring the broader moral issues under deliberation, we quickly see a problem. Moral standards and ethical principles based on leftist ideology are not universal values. As I have already suggested, there are competing views. Since adopting ideological positions is usually an arbitrary intellectual decision (often for the purpose of false persona enhancement), many of today’s moral novels lack any genuine connection with the universal. This does not render them worthless, but it does mean they are just one side of a debate, the other side of which is, in the world of serious fiction, conspicuously absent.

We must ask some obvious questions. Are we compromising literature by touting and awarding prizes to moral works that are in reality little more than leftist propaganda? Given the financial collapse of so many European socialist states, are leftist works of lasting value? Do they present a viable and useful worldview? With so much in doubt, can they achieve longevity? Perhaps time will weed out today’s bumper crop of leftist novels and instead elevate overlooked books that deal with genuinely universal values. Since so many editors, literary critics, and college English professors are well to the left, I think we may have to wait for more fair and objective times. What we need are independent literary thinkers of a higher calibre than the ideologues so common today, but then – rigorous thinkers are always hard to come by.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

10 thoughts on “Only Moral Novels Achieve Longevity”

  1. I find this highly relevant. I admit to being ignorant about many of the large number of political and sociological issues an intelligent person is expected have certain opinions on today. My own struggles have consumed much of my mental energy; I am not proud of this but it is the truth. In my writing, I share what I experience. I think some universal human values come through, but if I am supposed to be promoting or raising consciousness about a certain agenda I am undoubtedly failing. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Hmm, Thomas, we are bound to see this in a different light, but on a lighter note, lol, a lot of dreadful popular literature of the nineteenth century had pretensions to teaching a moral message. During a spell of bad weather when I was fifteen in the Clwyd Valley, I ransacked the bookshelves and came upon probably the most ridiculous novel I have ever read, ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles someone or other, written around 1898. The protagonist is a wicked rake trying to reform. The prudishness of the time meant that his excesses were shrouded under a cloak of general vague dreadfulness, but when he proposes to the heroine, she screams and faints. Apologising profusely, he backs out, resolving to be Worthy of Her. He begins by giving up strong drink and saying ‘d–n’…

  3. Tertia, sharing your own experiences and observations is considered the best kind of writing. When presented honestly and sincerely authentic experience always carries a universal component in that others will recognize aspects of your situation that have a bearing on their own lives or empathize with your emotional struggles because they have been there themselves in another troubling context.

    There is no requirement in writing to promote agendas or raise consciousness about this, that, or the other thing. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the literary tradition, certain fiction writers have tackled social themes. Samuel Butler’s satirical novel, *Erewhon*, for example, tried – among other things – to persuade Victorian society to judge criminals less harshly. George Orwell’s *Animal Farm* and *Nineteen Eighty-Four* warned us all about the dangers of totalitarianism. As is often the case, the moral themes in these remarkable books have made them enduring classics.

    The point I am trying to make in the post is that writing with an agenda has become more prevalent in recent times. Furthermore, said agendas are, whether conscious or unconscious, usually on the political left. Other viewpoints are not common enough in *serious fiction* to constitute the fair debate called for by ideas with the power to rewrite history, transform entire societies, or even reshape Western civilization.

    One might argue that genre fiction carries the counter-arguments to those so often put forward in literature. The political thrillers of Glenn Beck, a prominent American conservative, come to mind. However, it seems grossly unfair to relegate one side of such an important debate to the second-class status of category fiction while the other enjoys the respect and distinction associated with literature. The problem here, as any conservative writer will tell you, is that, while you have much greater freedom in the various genres, publishing serious fiction with a conservative slant is extraordinarily difficult.

    One must turn to non-fiction for a serious treatment of conservative ideas. Yet, until recently, even non-fiction was largely closed to non-liberal writers. Notable conservative writers such as Daniel J. Flynn and David Horowitz have written about the liberal publishing industry’s ruthless exclusion of conservative viewpoints. The recent easing of discrimination has been voluntary on the part of publishers who realized the unfairness – not to mention destructiveness – of what they were doing.

  4. A lovely and enjoyable anecdote, Lucinda! The book you mention is *The Outcast of the Family; or A Battle of Love and Pride: A Novel* by Charles Garvice and was published in 1894. I love those old subtitles. In the unlikely event of a nostalgia attack, you can read a poorly- scanned version of the novel online at the Internet Archive website:

    Out of curiosity, I tried downloading the EPUB and Kindle versions, but like many things on this site, they’re too garbled to be readable. I wish they would stop putting up such trashy files since their presence discourages better public domain sites like Gutenberg from giving us a proper version.

    Anyhow, reviled by the critics, Garvice was a bestseller. His sales reached 1.75 million copies annually in 1913 and remained there until his death in 1920 (Wikipedia). I aspire to be equally vituperated if sales of that magnitude will accompany the disapprobation! 🙂

  5. Sorry even you couldn’t get hold of a decent version, Thomas, you’d have enjoyed it.
    The awful thing is, thinking of it, I feel another cod version coming on. The melodrama was hilarious! For all I know, my mother may still have that old book. I’m already in the middle of a cod Regency Romance – a return to the ‘highwayman’ theme and the one beloved of historical romantic novelists, ‘Disinherited Heir Wrongly Accused of Murder through Past Rakish History and Machinations of a Cousin Seeks to Prove his Innocence’…

  6. Just back form Buckinghamshire and no pc. Thank you, Thomas! I know what you mean about unreadable versions, I had to buy the paperback version of one of the original robber novels Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798) at what was for me, great expense, as the kindle version had gone wrong and was completely truncated. Was it the same with the ‘Outcast of the Family’ novel in Kindle?

  7. Lucinda, like most digital editions of old books, *The Outcast of the Family* was generated by a computer running optical character recognition software. This speedy process can work quite well if the image document is in good shape (i.e. highly legible), but can go horribly wrong if it is not. Even best-case scenarios still need some human cleaning up afterwards, as is done on the marvellously useful Gutenberg sites. (Have you checked out Project Gutenberg Canada yet?)

    Sites like Internet Archive do nothing to correct the legions of errors stemming from a faulty conversion to digital format, thus leaving the document in an unreadable chaotic state. This may be understandable for a poorly funded site staffed by unpaid and unskilled volunteers, but why such pathetic messes are then made up into EPUB and Kindle versions is beyond me.

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