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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)

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.

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.