Should novels have a “Moral”?

I recently posted this a facebook page to do with fiction writing, in response to a thread, “Do you think a fictional story should teach (or attempt to teach) a moral lesson?”

Should novels ” teach a moral lesson?” Well it depends on what you want. If I want to learn something theological, I’ll buy a theology book. If I want to know why an author claims that evolutionary biology supports atheism, I’ll buy something by Richard Dawkins. If I want to earn about a certain political view, I’ll buy a book from someone in that political movement. If I read Aayan Hirsi Ali about her experiences growing up Muslim, I know what I’m in for: but she writes as a polemicist, not a novelist.

But if I buy a thriller – and pay money -and THEN discover that I’m getting someone’s political or theological view  I’m likely to get a little irritated and think that my $10 (or whatever) has obtained under false pretenses.

An example is Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear. I know it got to #1, and  I do like Michael Crichton – I have several books of his on my shelf. But in State of Fear, one of his characters gave long lectures about how climate change modeling doesn’t prove anything. Well of course it doesn’t. Modelling never does. A model consistes largely of beliefs put into eqautions and then distured in some way: If we assume, or believe, that the world includes like A, B and C which between them produce X, and we change C by this much, the result is  X changes this much. Of course the model doesnt proove that climate change is real: that’s not a model’s job. They illustrate.

Chrighton’s points would be appropriate (or not) in a scientific work if it had come from a reputable scientist. Crichton stuck in numerous footnotes and graphs to plug his views: I thought footnotes in a thriller??)  For me they became, a boring and tedious diversion from the plot . Chrichton is entitled to his view, and he’s entitled to give lectures and write a straightforward polemical book about this. And he IS entitled to write the novel he did if that’s what he wants. We all have our rights. But doing this  comes at a cost. The cost is detracting from the quality of the novel by making his characters clumsy mouthpieces for his own views.

If you want the novel to have a ‘moral’ it requires great subtlety. “The Other Boleyn Girl” might  be read as a story with a moral about getting too involved in high stakes conniving and double dealing when you can’t control the one thing your life will ultimately depend upon (the ability to produce a live baby boy.) But it doesn’t have a character who constantly preaches that Ann will end up dead. We can see the risks she’s running for ourselves. The readers have brains. (And some readers know their history.) If you want to have a moral in your story, a bit of subtlety and ambiguity go a long way: try My Sister’s Keeper by Jody Picoult.

But Michael Crighton obviously disagrees. and his not here to defend himself. He died just after the book was published. It’s a pity. I would have liked to read more of him – but without the footnotes and graphs.


One thought on “Should novels have a “Moral”?”

  1. I read State of Fear and whilst I enjoyed it to a degree I did feel I was being preached to when all I wanted was a good story. Like you say if you want to learn something then pick up a book on the subject, if you want to be entertained then read an actual fictional story. Morals do have their place so long as they’re not thrust down the readers throat as ultimately it can leave the reader with a poor opinion of the book and the author.

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