04 September 2014

Is there a Message in this Novel?

[NOTE: Last time, I shared a report about my brief visit to Seoul, South Korea while I lived in Japan, working as an English teacher. The experience happened more than 20 years ago and when giving it the once-over of revision before posting it, I realized how dated it was. It also may have had a tinge of "cultural imperialism"--although I tried to express positive things about the culture I was experiencing along with what my negative impressions were. I hope I did not offend anyone, especially anyone from Korea or of Korean heritage. My subsequent visits to Korea were quite different and very positive.]

That brings me to the issue of the day: Politics, Social mores, Cultural memes. I might as well throw in mention of all the chaos happening around the world today. Well, for most of this year. Online, friends and colleagues (not necessarily the same) are quick to state or "restate/reblog/share" political and social views. Others are quite quick to respond either superficially (I tend toward a quick sarcastic bit) or, occasionally, with well-considered, even researched, responses that invite further thought regardless of the position of a reader.

I've never been what I would call a politically-minded person. Mostly that comes from my uncertainty of knowing everything I would need to know to make a valid decision on some issue. Also, being someone who purports to teach Argument, I try to present all sides equally, if only to provoke students to seeing sides they had not considered. As a novel writer I also live in a schizophrenic world of multiple characters, each with their own views, positions, and agendas. It can be quite maddening--which is partly why I blog (insert "LOL"). But in light of writing a fictional work supposedly full of realistic personas, we have to accept that, though invented, they must also come with political positions and social agendas.

And so, what do we make of fiction where the characters bring their own politics? Many writers use their characters to present or promote certain ideas. Nothing wrong with that; ideas should be presented. Of course, creative writing teachers preach that there should be no preaching in a story or novel. I say, preaching cannot be excluded if it comes in the form of a character's pontificating. A fine line, yes, but if a character is that type of person, the author must let the character speak freely. And that, friends, brings us to moralizing.

Sorry to say, but I've been thinking about my latest novel, A DRY PATCH of SKIN, and the "moralizing" that comes through in the protagonist's voice. His ideas and the way he speaks of them is steeped in the Western tradition, certainly. In fact, the Judeo-Christian influence on Western Civilization is embedded in the narrative. At first Stefan Szekely refers to "the gods" as though it was an everyday meme. Gradually he switches to "God"--the one and only. Still later, he is directly arguing with God, who he believes has cursed him and his family line. He soon is making deals with God--whether God is in the sky above him or merely in his head, he believes.

By the end this novel may seem like a Christian allegory, but it was never intended to be that. Rather, it is Stefan, the hero, Byronic as he may be, who comes to believe the illusions he has convinced himself are true. He never insists others believe as he does, never chastises others for not believing as he does, and in the end, what is real and what is in his mind are only known to him--and to his confused author.

So is that what I believe? Hard to say. I was drilled with the Bible and those Judeo-Christian beliefs, and schooled in their influence on Western Civilization. I think we have to accept our Western Civilization, for better or worse, as a product of that religious entrenchment--even as I have explored around its edges and found both positive and negative things as alternatives to that religious dogma. It is in my background, my upbringing, my family history, but I like to think I am above all of that "indoctrination." And yet, when inventing characters, I fall back on what I have learned or been exposed to and apply it to a character or two, just to make them more real, more believable.

So what do I believe? As a writer, I have thought long and hard about many, many issues over the years. It's difficult to find the one perfect mantra that will enable everything else in my life to swirl around me in perfect order. Also as a writer, I seem to have fallen back, in these older years of mine, onto author and critic John Gardner's idea in On Moral Fiction: the position that "moral" in fiction is a turn toward life and life-affirming narratives (“True art is moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for an analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies like an experiment in a chemistry lab, and confirms.”). 

Postmodernism, however, has flipped that around so we get so many stories of death and destruction, fragmentation and dissolution, fear and loathing, and more tragedy than "life-affirming" conclusions. Seemingly for the sake of disrupting the psyche. Or it's all for the sake of the drama. 

Perhaps, I'm the one who's off balance. I grew up with one foot on each side of the great divide, so I see the Utopian stories of my youth and today's Dystopian stories. I believe that a tragic ending can still show us a better way, a "moral" view of the human condition. I also believe that, regardless of one's personal religious, spiritual, political, or social positions, views, beliefs, agendas, everyone wants to live, be happy, be free to pursue happiness, and, at the same time, not fear any harm to self, family, or others of one's community. Or perhaps my neighbor said it best: "I just wanna play WOW* all day and not be f***ed with!"

Perhaps that is simple enough without getting all moralizing and stuff.

For a fun exercise in fictional moralizing, I recommend THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, set in part on another world and, as such, includes alternate religious beliefs, deities, and doctrines--all of which directly impact why and how the people there do what they do. In the third volume, such religiosity serious compromises the population's attempts to evacuate the planet in advance of a lethal comet strike.

Enjoy your week, and many happy weekends to you!

(*World of Warcraft, a computer game in which players take on military roles and seek to kill the enemy.)

(C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Its funny you say how Vampire story is life affirming. Its about death?

    1. Thanks for your question! As Stefan fights against his transformation, we get the life-affirming narrative.