Note: A huge thanks to author Sophia K. Brinton for helping me edit this into a state which, I hope, is publishable. 

The contemporary storyteller faces all kinds of challenges when considering how she’ll represent despicableness. On the one hand, there’s simply no good story without evil. For the sake of believability, the fictional world must carry the same menace as reality.

Yet despicableness isn’t only a stage prop in service of verisimilitude. It’s also the most powerful driver of plot and character. Every great protagonist in literature would face nothing more than a long day at the beach without the specter of despicableness, whether they find that specter in themselves, others, systemic structures, or all of the above.

It seems that depictions of moral wrongness, and protagonists’ reactions to them, form the bedrock of any good story.

Yet the contemporary writer faces a maze of cultural mirrors and booby traps when considering how she’ll portray anything that might be considered despicable. Consider a few examples from recent conflagrations in the world of publishing. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of these books. I’ve merely noted the media coverage surrounding them below.)

The review-bombing of Everything’s Fine

Cecilia Rabess’s debut novel, Everything’s Fine, tells the story of a Black woman who falls in love with a white man who has bigoted views. The New York Times reports that Goodreads users who saw a plot summary for the book gave it one-star reviews, labeling it as “anti-Black and racist.” The Times article even says, “Some of the comments were left by users who said they had never read the book, but objected to its premise.”

What’s going on here?

It seems that Ms. Rabess’s critics have 1) judged her handling of despicableness, and 2) found her handling of despicableness to be, itself, despicable. Some have done so without actually reading the book.

Unfortunately, the harassment of Ms. Rabess isn’t unique. Here are two more examples.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-cancellation

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently self-cancelled her book The Snow Forest because Ukrainian readers objected to the fact that it’s set in Russia. Apparently, one of the book’s reviews on Goodreads (now removed, according to The Free Press) claimed that the book “romanticized” Russia.

This is an incredibly sensitive issue given the ongoing war. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain that Ukrainians are going through. Yet I find myself questioning the outcome of this public discourse. Should the writer of a historical novel fall on her sword because her book is set in a country whose modern leader is waging a despicable war?

In the terms of our discourse, it seems the book’s critics believe Russia—as a nation, as a people—must, in any representation, receive a treatment that signals its categorical despicableness. (Whether this demand is fair to the oppressed subjects of an autocratic regime is another question entirely.)

If that’s true, then the principle at play here is the same that we uncovered in regards to Ms. Rabess’ work. It seems writers can land in hot water when they offer a representation of a subject while neglecting to signal that some readers may find it (the representation, the subject, or both) despicable.

Before we draw conclusions from this, let’s look at one more example.

The burying of American Dirt

Consider the literary death of American Dirt. The novel was criticized for turning the experience of Mexican-American immigrants into “trauma porn” for white readers. In the terms of our discussion, we could say that critics believed the novel mishandled evil because it gave privileged readers a vicarious thrill as they imagined the suffering of those less privileged.

Once again, it seems the principle at play is that the writer offered a representation while neglecting to signal that some readers may find it despicable.

What’s going on here?

Another writer might use different terms to frame this pattern. All I can do is reflect on it as I see it. To that end, here’s my reflection.

In each of these cases, an author took something that some people believe to be despicable (bigoted views, romanticization of Russia, trauma porn) and handled or represented it the wrong way.

I could be wrong, but in each case, it appears the representation, as received by the aggrieved parties, was not what the author intended. It seems the writer’s crime was representing or handling the despicable thing without signaling its despicableness to the reader. Wittingly or not, the writer left the question, “Is this despicable?” open to the reader’s free interpretation.

Contemplating this, I ask myself: Why is it so important that we signal the despicableness of the despicable when representing it?

Free thought vs. coerced thought

In the firestorms surrounding each of these books, we see two incompatible ideas thrown into the ring together. (Note that I don’t advocate one of these ideas over the other in an absolute sense. In different scenarios, a writer may lean toward one or the other with varying degrees of success.)

One is the idea that free people are free to think critically and draw their own conclusions from any claim or message. For all the contradictions in western liberalism, this idea was historically central to the genesis of the democratic world as we know it. One could easily argue that this idea undergirded the entire Enlightenment, the European liberalism of the 19th century that forged democracies from the ruins of monarchies, and the enshrinement of free speech rights in the United States constitution, which—regardless of any attendant moral failings or intellectual contradictions—affords American writers (and social media users the world over) a greater ability to publish their views than they ever would’ve had without the ascent of this principle.

The other idea is that if someone cries foul about a claim or message, it should be silenced. This smells oddly similar to the speech controls by which monarchies, autocrats, and dictators maintain their power. It is fundamentally undemocratic.

Now, the understandable argument is that some speech hurts others; and that as such, it should be controlled. To put it in the terms of the person receiving and digesting such speech, we might even claim that the debate centers on the question of whether some thoughts should not be allowed to happen—whether the content of our thoughts on a contentious moral topic should be coerced by the implicit or explicit messages in novels. Ultimately, art seeks exactly this outcome when it’s placed at the service of the moral or political message. It intends to prevent the occurrence of certain thoughts and to engender other thoughts.

I won’t plumb these depths here; I merely wish to suggest that the question of free thought vs. coerced thought is central to the PR disasters surrounding the three novels mentioned earlier.

From this contemplation, a question emerges.

Can an author write great fiction without coercing moral thought?

In one sense, it’s impossible to write a strong story without moving toward the coercion of moral thought. A great story is a story about despicableness; and wherever we find despicableness and characters responding to it, we find ourselves in a moral theater. The actions in the story register against a moral landscape, and their consequences function as teaching for the reader. This teaching may happen implicitly, explicitly, or in a way that sits between these two poles. The reader may accept the teaching, reject it, or not even notice it consciously.

To put it another way, a story that doesn’t coerce moral thought is basically Frodo relaxing at the beach in Valinor. There’s nothing at stake, the lemonade is chilled, and Frodo packed plenty of sunscreen. Frodo faces no struggle, and neither does the reader. Boring!

Struggle can only happen in a moral landscape, where something matters and something threatens it. Whenever we ask the reader to accept our protagonist’s moral goal and outlook, we coerce moral thought—whether implicitly or explicitly. If the story is framed such that we should identify with at least some aspect of the protagonist’s morality, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the story if we reject the protagonist’s morality outright. And this rejection constitutes rejection of the author’s coercion of moral thought.

Viewed from this perspective, the most memorable stories are highly moralistic. Think of the priest pardoning Jean Valjean and giving him all the silver. We could express the moral of this episode in many ways, but one that springs to mind is, “Leave room for the power of undeserved kindness. You might even try practicing it yourself.” This scene would have no power if it didn’t coerce moral thought along these lines.

In case we need another example, consider the outcome of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s ongoing contact with Mr. Darcy eventually undermines her arrogance and his as the two fall in love. Again, we could express the moral here in many ways, but I like this one: “Reject the worst in yourself before you reject it in others.” Here, too, Jane Austen coerces our moral thought on the subject of personal pride.

Lest anyone complain that these stories are too old-fashioned to uphold my argument today, consider more recent examples like Rogue One. The moral of this story is unquestionably, “Some things are worth dying for.” There’s no stronger moral coercion on the part of an author than killing all your main characters in service of some greater good.

Or take Stranger Things. The message is basically, “Whatever the monster du jour, you can get by with a little help from your friends.”

Yes, I’m pretty comfortable saying that every good story coerces moral thought, whether implicitly or explicitly.

How should an author coerce moral thought in today’s climate?

As authors, we should first gain awareness of how our stories moralize. If we’re to be good literary citizens, we have to develop a sensitivity not only for the types of moralizations that may offend others, but also an ability to decide by which principle we most want to write—the expression of free thought for the consumption of free minds, or an expression that coerces thought. (While this is not a hard binary, we should deeply consider how these two principles interplay in our work.)

As we develop this sensitivity, we gain control over the ways in which we invite the reader to interface with the moral dimension in our own fiction. Only when we have this control can we exercise it intentionally. Once we have this control, the question becomes how to balance the expression of free thought for the consumption of free minds with expressions that coerce thought.

Here, every author must make their own decision. Some may take a polar position, writing fiction that boldly editorializes from a far left or far right perspective. To these authors, I would gently ask a question: What’s the end goal? Do you wish to abolish viewpoints or experiences that differ from your own? That’s certainly an artistic choice, but I do wonder what it contributes to the health of our society.

Other authors may see the extreme division of our society as a distraction. Perhaps they believe ideology itself has no concrete existence—that it functions only in the world of the mind and heart, where it draws the attention away from loving one’s neighbor and toward unattainable castles in the air. Such authors might even dare to think that the health of a society begins in interpersonal interactions—the only concrete moral theater in which individuals can choose love, indifference, or hate. Seeing so much hatred vomited forth on social media, these authors may choose to sidestep our culture’s demand for expressions of coerced thought on contemporary sociopolitical issues.

If we authors choose to sidestep current ideologies, what raw material remains for the moral dimension of our work?

Only the timeless things—the deepest truths that cut across divisions of race, gender, sexuality, political ideology, and socioeconomic class. Love, vulnerability, and the agonizing search for meaning carry a universal appeal. While ideological movements and arguments may surface (or obscure) these pain-points, the pain-points themselves lie deeper than their surface-level manifestations in any given political moment. These wounds have been with us as long as we’ve been human. They are intrinsic to who we are.

One author may choose to touch these nerves in terms of current ideological movements and arguments. All well and good, as long as the author truly touches those nerves.

Another author may choose to touch these nerves in narrative terms that don’t map to our current political landscape. All well and good here, too, as long as the author truly touches those nerves.

Either way, I believe authors who build stories on the universals (love, vulnerability, the agonizing search for meaning) will create work that lasts. This is the type of story I want to read—and write. I hope you’ll join me in that journey.

About Leo Vaughn

Leo Vaughn writes unusual fantasy for unusual people. His work is represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.

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