Morality in Fiction Is a Strange Beast

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Here’s something odd I’ve been thinking about this week: Why do parents object to what they object to in novels?

Take for example Shannon Hale’s books. It blows my mind that anybody could complain about anything in her fiction, and yet she gets mothers who tell her they loved all her books up until they read fill-in-the-blank with such-and-such a kissing scene. Now they refuse to have that book in their home or let their daughters touch it for fear of contagion.

A kissing scene! Heaven forbid!

Goose Girlenna-burningbook of a thousand days

But the part that really boggles me is that they say they’ve loved Shannon’s books up to that point. Did they skip the parts in Goose Girl or Book of a Thousand Days that describe outright nudity? Or the parts in Enna Burning where Enna murders hundreds or thousands of people by burning them to death? They didn’t blink an eye at those huge moral issues, but they won’t have their daughters read kissing scenes?

I thought about this with The Hunger Games, too. After all, there is zero sex or swearing, and at first I caught myself feeling relieved. But then I woke up. Hello! Exactly how much violence is in The Hunger Games? More than in any other book I’ve ever read.

However.

John Green recently wrote a post reacting to the challenges of his books in a Florida library, and he said something interesting:looking for alaska

Let me make this clear: An individual scene from a novel cannot be read out of context. It won’t make sense. It will seem other from what it is. You cannot know whether a novel is obscene from a screenshot of a single page on television news.

ALASKA is a novel about radical hope and the power of forgiveness, not about oral sex. The scene between Lara and Pudge–that humorous, massively unerotic scene–exists to argue AGAINST casual sexual encounters.

Strange, isn’t it? That having something “immoral” in a book can actually be an argument against that particular act?

But I think that’s true in Enna Burning, for example. Shannon’s certainly not endorcing burning people to death, and I think even the outraged-by-kissing-scenes parents could recognize that instantly. Enna is dealing with a complex moral dilemma in the book. So is Katniss in The Hunger Games. When your choice is kill or be killed, how do you preserve your own humanity?

Novels are a place to wrestle with those impossible scenarios in ways that strengthen our own morality, ironically enough.

I cheer for writers who can deal so honestly with the complexities of moral choice, and I think this goes back to censorship issues again. Do you want to shield your children from every little bad thing, or do you want to give them the better protection of being able to recognize things for what they are? If teens don’t encounter moral choice in novels, sometimes even seeing the consequences of *gasp* bad choices, how can we expect them to make good choices themselves?

forest born

Strangely enough, one of the kissing scenes objected to is the one in Forest Born that Rin remembers and hates herself for. The character isn’t justifying her own actions at all. She’s saying how much she regrets acting like that. Wouldn’t we rather have our daughters experiencing a regretable action in fiction than experiencing it in real life?

(A kiss, of course, being pretty far down on my list of worries as a parent, but the idea being that the vicarious experience helps prompt wiser choices in general, which I touched on somewhat in an earlier post.)

I realize it’s complicated. Not every “immoral” scene in a book or movie or TV show deals with legitimate consequences for bad behavior, but I think the media that does should be applauded, not criticized.

I welcome feedback from any perspective, however. Tell me if my thinking is off somewhere!

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14 responses »

  1. Everyone has their own opinions, and a right to select what is appropriate for them and their kids. So if something is offensive, then it’s totally an individual’s right to not like it. Someone is always going to be offended by SOMETHING.

    I am still very much in control of what my kids read and watch (picture books & PBS!), so I’m not sure how my opinions might change as my kids get older. However right now I am very impressed with books that show consequences of actions — both good and bad — and show the conflict of making hard decisions — again, both good and bad. My biggest complaints regarding morality in books seems to come when I feel like bad actions or poor choices are not shown to have consequences and when tough life-altering decisions are not shown to have any thought or conflict going into them. Does that make sense?

    Even if I don’t agree with what the characters do, if they think through their actions (whether correct or not) and have to deal with the consequences of their actions, then those books are ones I save to read and discuss with my girls when they get older.

    But at the same time, I look at a book like THE HUNGER GAMES that did deal with extreme violence, but not in an overly graphic way. And I wish that more books would address tough issues without having to be so graphic. I think it would make the stories more accessible to a wider or younger or more conservative audience that otherwise would not be reached by that book. I remember hearing Laurie Halse Anderson say that she did make a small change to SPEAK so that younger girls could read it (and would be allowed to read it by their parents). But again, everyone has their own opinion of what is graphic and what is not. Maybe my level of “too much” is someone else’s version of “cleaned up”. It probably is. 🙂

    I think we can learn a lot through books without having those experiences in real life. And many of those experiences I would never want my kids to have! So yeah, let’s read and talk about books that deal with tough issues, but also let’s do it at an age that our kids are emotionally and mentally able to understand and handle it. But that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish, right?

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    • Thanks for all these insights! It’s very true that everybody’s definition of what’s appropriate (and at what ages) is different.
      What frustrates me is when people think that their definition is IT, and then they send nasty letters to authors accusing those authors of being immoral people. Because that bothers me so much, I probably come across as leaning too far the other way, so thanks for your more moderate comments! 🙂

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  2. You’re way off base. What kind of mother promotes kissing to her kids who are ages 4 and 2 respectively? However, kissing between the two parents is not so bad.

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    • Well, dmantyla (nice last name, by the way), you make a good point. I should double-check all our Disney movies and censor the ones with kissing scenes. We certainly don’t want our boys growing up to think that’s NORMAL, do we?

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  3. I also marvel at people who assume their opinion is more valid than others (in many contexts). Which is why banning books gets my hackles up. But sending a letter to the author or publisher seems fine to me. Just like the potential reader with the book in question, the author doesn’t HAVE to read the letter. Realistically though authors probably want to hear how people react to their stories so there’s no real way to shelter them. They will have to take the foul accusatory letters in with the adoring praise-filled ones.

    And yeah~ parents should take responsibility for monitoring their children’s education and entertainment. I have no kids myself yet but over-reacting parents really irritate me.

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    • The letter thing is a tough call, just because I’ve seen how absolutely nasty people can be in these letters. I don’t have a problem with people who respectfully voice different opinions, but when they bash an author on a moral level, it just seems cruel to me. And it often zaps the writer of their motivation to write. Constructive criticism should have the opposite effect, and I’m in favor of that. 🙂

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      • Exactly Nikki. It’s like, do they think they are God or something? If you want to make comments like that to your spouse or something that is fine, but you don’t need to be all degrading and on someone’s butt about it. (It’s interesting that I should say this as I have been really angry at this stupid woman who yelled at someone whose baby had been crying for 5 seconds at the move theatre… maybe I need to be nicer too.)

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  4. Kids ripping up books?!? horror of all horrors – I can’t imagine how I would react if I ever had kids that did this. At the same time, i’m with you – I think a little book wear is worth it to help kids develop reading habits.

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  5. I really enjoyed your post and point. My kids are too young to read, but I own all of Hale’s juvenile literature in the hope that they will one day read it and enjoy it as I have.

    I think there is almost always a diplomatic way to express your discontent with something that doesn’t have to involve nastiness, especially when the concern is with something like morality or cultural difference.

    I also liked the point about illustrating consequences realistically. I had a friend whose sister died in a plane crash last year, and now it drives me crazy to watch movies where people fall out of the sky (I think it was Fantastic Four II that made me feel this way) and then jump out of the plane or crater so they can fight crime or whatever.

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    • Thanks for the comment! I completely agree that moral and cultural differences don’t have to lead to nastiness. Over Christmas I got to practice political debate with some relatives of the opposite party, and it was great! We all shared opinions respectfully and left with new perspectives to think over. 🙂

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  6. Wow, I totally stumbled onto your blog by mistake…I was looking for a picture of Book of a Thousand Days but decided to read your entry, too. Fantastic points! And written so well! I could not say it better myself.

    I get frustrated when people won’t ready something as benign as Harry Potter because it, apparently, promotes witchcraft. Or ban books that make a point about society or argue a different side of the moral coin. I am in complete agreement with you when you propose the question “If teens don’t encounter moral choice in novels, sometimes even seeing the consequences of *gasp* bad choices, how can we expect them to make good choices themselves?”

    Also, side note, I think it’s funny that parents have objected to Shannon Hale. She is Mormon and religiously speaking, Mormons tend to have a very conservative approach to sexuality and morals. If she’s to radical and sexual for these parents, I can’t imagine what prudish, Puritan writing they DO approve of.

    Again Bravo! Love your entry.

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