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Sharing, Caring…

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Yesterday, Joel posted a link to a web site about C.S. Lewis and the idea of a common, underlying shared morality across time and traditions.

And that’s where I want to get to, because it’s the next point in this argument.

But before I start that, I want to make a couple of things perfectly clear, so that I don’t have to go over the ground yet again.

First–when I say the novel is “secular and naturalistic” (actually, George Steiner said it), I am NOT saying that that is what it should be.

I’m saying that that is what it has, in fact, been.  The novel started as secular and naturalistic, and in its major (meaning most read and most popular) form, it remained so for well over a hundred years.

For better or for worse, the novel began as a story about the private lives of the middle classes. 

Second–when I ask what happened to the popularity of the mainstream novel, I am NOT talking about the contemporary “literary novel.”  I said not a single world about novels of people having angst over selling out while they worked for Wall Street.

In fact, in an–obviously vain–attempt to cut off discussion of the “literary” novel, I listed a few writers of the kind I was thinking of.  Dickens.  Jane Austen.  Hardy.  Eliot (George).   Sir Walter Scott.

The modern counterparts of these writers are not “literary” novelists, but such popular mainstream novelists as Arthur Haley, James Michener, Leon Uris, Irving Wallace, Faith Baldwin, Somerset Maugham.

Third, I am NOT talking about the “decline” of the novel.  I’m talking about the decline in POPULARITY of the traditional mainstream novel, and of the puzzle mystery as the closest form in the genres to that traditional mainstream novel.

Up until about the time I was in college, the best selling fiction in this country and Britain and Canada and Australia was the traditional mainstream novel.  The best selling of the genres was the mystery, with a hefty dose of puzzle mysteries in the mix. 

What else was out there just didn’t sell as well–Tolkein wrote the only truly popular fantasy novel of the period.  Those novels that were not naturalistic–horror, fantasy, science fiction–came out mostly in paperback originals, not because of snobbishness, but because if you put them out in hardcover with a hardcover price, you lost your shirt.

It does no good when I say “why don’t people seem to want oranges anymore?” and somebody responds “they like pears! pears are still fruit!”

I’m not talking about pears.  I’m talking about oranges.

So lets get on, and to help in that endeavor I’ll repost the link, here:


This is an interesting site, for a number of reasons, and if you haven’t looked at it, you should.

And the argument–that there is at base a set of moral rules that apply in all times and places–is not new, and in many respects I think it has a lot going for it.

When we say that “people think all sorts of things are moral and immoral” or that “morality varies a lot,” we are, most of the time, wrong. 

What varies over time and place are not generally the rules, but who they apply to–that is, the definitions of what counts as “human” (first and foremost) and secondarily what constitutes things like “murder.”

And those definitions cause a lot of trouble, and a lot of warfare.  They always have and they always will.

But right now, I want to look at the right now.  Because the fact is that on a number of counts listed by this website, we do indeed have a lack of consensus.

Let’s get away from the usual suspects for a moment, and look at this:  the moral rules, assumed to be common throughout civilizations, about the relationships within families.

It may well have been the case in every society throughout history that we have felt it moral to respect our parents and be loyal to both them and our siblings, but I’m not so sure we could get a consensus about that now, in this country, in this year.

For one thing,we have been bombarded, for thirty years, with a new vision of the family–not as a place of refuge, and not as the locus of our strongest and most sacred loyalties, but as a repressive monster, a hotbed of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, our worst nightmare, the place where bad things happen.

This vision of the family has been enshrined in law, not simply disseminated through art and literature and women’s magazines. 

We once said–as the worst of the things that could be said–about the Nazis and the Soviets that they taught the children to betray their parents to the authorities.  During the sexual abuse hysteria of the 1980s, American public schools routinely urged children to do just that, in the guise of “getting help” for “abuse” that was defined so vaguely it covered nearly all family relations of any kind. 

The programs were finally scaled back after a series of false accusations by teenagers against parents who just wouldn’t let them go out to unsupervised parties or go on seeing that boyfriend who’d already been in juvie four times.

But although the programs were scaled back the attitude wasn’t.

If anything goes really wrong–if there is a real case of child sexual abuse, for instance, or if somebody is murdered–the assumption is that the perpetrator will be a member of the family.   If a wife is murdered, the first suspect will be the husband.  If a child is abused, the fist suspect will be the parents. 

And the suspicion goes in the opposite direction. States, like Florida, with large populations of the elderly, tend first to treat those elderly more as children than adults, and then to assume that the elderly person’s children are more likely to abuse them than to love them, more likely to be after their money than concerned with the well being of their parents.

I do understand that there is a certain amount of logic in this.  Perpetrators do tend to be those most closely related to the victims.

But it’s one thing to understand that, and another to make the leap to treating such things as the norm rather than the exception. 

The simple fact is that most parents do not abuse their children, or their children’s elderly grandparents.  Most husbands do not murder their wives.

We have, nevertheless, erected vast bureaucracies that assume that they do, and the attitudes of those bureaucracies are echoed in popular entertainment.

If you don’t believe me, sit down and watch one of those Law and Order: SVU marathons that show up on cable every once in a while.

This is an enormous, deeply significant change, and one that is far more important to the identity of a society than rules about, say, what we should think of homosexual behavior or whether women should be allowed to vote as well as men.

And we don’t need something this significant to break a moral consensus in any society.  Just those much more minor questions can do it, because although they may be matters not of substance but of definition, the definitions matter.

I’m with both Robert and Cheryl–I think that no society can go long with a lack of consensus, and I think this society will finally arrive at one. 

But in the meantime, we are at a place where that consensus does not exist, and where we can’t come to a consensus even about what the foundation of a consensus would be. 

I think that’s one of the reasons for the current popularity of the fantastic over the naturalistic–if we no longer believe in the gods, or in God, then something or somebody else must be the reason for accepting one set of moral rules over another.  If we do not believe that there can be any reason in reason–and a lot of us don’t–then elves, wizards, and space aliens might be options.

The other thing we do, of course, is to self-select into moral tribes and create spaces where we can be together with people who share our moral assumptions.

Which makes a good start on why the genres have become increasingly more important than the mainstream.

But that said–the web site linked to above is put up by the Augustine Club at Columbia University.

I’m impressed that Columbia even has an Augustine Club.

Written by janeh

December 24th, 2010 at 7:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Sharing, Caring…'

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  1. I am in complete agreement with the main point, and will contribute a link to Krauthammer’s “Defining Deviancy Up” which seems complementary to the resent posts.

    The following rant is dedicated to the side issue.

    “Good and ill have not changes since yesteryear; nor are they one thing amond Elves and Dwarves and another thing among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”–JRR Tolkien, THE TWO TOWERS

    My shelves swarm with the major writers of fantasy and science fiction–Catholic, Protestant and Episcopal; agnostic and atheist. I don’t have one in which morality for men is determined by non-human intelligences. Not one. If you’re going to generalize about two genres, you should either read a decent sample or check with those who have. (And, once again, see teh confrontation at the end of SHARDS OF HONOR, which I will not anticipate.)

    As for literary and publishing history–well, the private lives of the middle class covers Austen nicely, but it tosses Defoe out in the cold with Scott–who was NOT mentioned: I reread the past five posts–and Austen was mentioned in her day as exceptional. (Jayne Ann Krentz or Barbara Michaels seem to be closer to her more popular contemporaries.)

    As for publishing, I’m not a book collector. I just buy a lot of books. But if I were to purchase the first editions of books concerning the creation of artificial intelligence, biological enhancements, alien invasion, space exploration and adventure on other planets, I’d have nothing but hard covers and mostly from major houses. (Shelley, Wells, Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. mostly. Burroughs got good solid newspaper reviews for PRINCES OF MARS and TARZAN OF THE APES.) Kipling is publishing the first “naturalist” SF, if you’ll permit the term, in the same magazines which are publishing his stories of England and India.

    The same is true of fantasy, from early gothics through Stoker to George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany.

    The notion that fantasy and SF don’t sell–or shouldn’t sell, and certainly not in hard covers–comes between the wars and may be related to the rise of the pulps. Lovecraft, Howard, Heinlein and others who began writing after WWI almost without exception won’t be published in hard covers until after WWII. For most writers it was the two big postwar anthologies–both by mainstream publishers–then often the specialist houses, who made very good money until the dime finally dropped on Publishers’ Row, and paperback sales cut into the market. (Note the sequence. Shasta did a lot of the early Heinlein before they were coming out in paper, and did well. By the mid-1950’s anticipation of paperback editions was undercutting hardcover sales.) But Heinlein was publishing in the “slicks” as soon as the War was over, and when those stories were collected in book form, they came out in hard covers first. Don’t be confused by all the paperbacks on campus. We were all broke, and generally the libraries wouldn’t stock our books.

    A generation of English teachers, critics and reviewers fought a better rear-guard action, but if anyone ever lost a shirt publishing SF in hard covers, I’d like to know who and when.

    Convenient as the idea may be rhetorically, I don’t think you can put the readers of Sir Walter Scott Conan Doyle or Rafael Sabatini in one pile and the readers of Tolkien in another. Courtship and adventure continue to be the themes of a great many stories. If contemporary New York, Washington and London are less popular settings then they once were, perhaps a sympathy card from the Western Writers of America would be in order.


    24 Dec 10 at 10:15 am

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