Is the morality story still with us?

“All men are moral.  Only their neighbors are not.”

John Steinbeck’s works overflow with wisdom.  The quote above comes from The Winter of Our Discontent, which to my mind is a beautifully earthy, down-home rendition of a moral person (character) who is gravely tempted to stretch his morality beyond the point of breaking.  I think Steinbeck is saying that people tend to see themselves as “better” than others, noting the flaws of others while being mostly blind to their own.  Note that he uses the “all men are moral” as a set up for the punchline.

Writers, of course, can take advantage of this “truth,” to the extent that we “know” it.   Our characters often become more engaging to the extent that they are blind to their own foibles.  Of course, we writers are also human, and so are not immune in “real life” to our own, much less our characters’, short-comings.
(NOTE:  Quotation marks are used herein “merely” to mark the words and phrases that are either satiric or a matter of opinion.)

Which of your favorite, or otherwise, contemporary writers—say, 1990 to the present—offer such moral gems that lead or push us to consider and weigh their truth?  Or is that simply not the mode of contemporary fiction, as Norman Mailer says?

Lies & Truth in Fiction

Albert Camus said that, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  This definition of fiction has been passed along over many years through numerous writing teachers as, “telling lies in the service of greater truth.”  I’m one of those writers who has adopted this definition and use it as a guide for much of my fictional work.*   Some of my writing, though, is purely for entertainment, and, if you can find some greater truth in it, congratulations.

I wrote a novel of historical fiction called Hangtown about the California Gold Rush, which included two actual persons who were in Hangtown (now called Placerville) in that time of 1850.  One is Heinrich Schliemann, who in the 1870s discovered the lost cities of Troy in Turkey.  The other is Charles Crocker, who years later founded the Central Pacific Railroad and became one of California’s (in)famous Robber Barons.  They were in Placerville in the early 1850s as twenty-somethings and would have known each other.  The former was an assayer and gold merchant, while the latter ran what we might call a general store.  In furtherance of the novel, I might have Schliemann say to Crocker, “You, sir, charge the miners too much for your pickaxes,” while Crocker retorts to Schliemann, “Scoundrel!  You give them too little for their gold dust.”

That exchange is a lie the author (me) made up.  I am using the verbal exchange because it furthers the story plot, which requires Crocker and Schliemann to be in conflict.  It’s plausible and moves the story along; therefore, readers of historical fiction—note that the word “historical” modifies the essential nature of the work, which is fiction—generally accept such dialog without wondering whether it actually occurred.

Recently, however, there has been a dust-up over a stage performer and sometimes journalist who used the definition of fiction—”telling lies in service of greater truth”—to justify lying about the behavior of a major corporation, perhaps to emphasize the bad practices of large corporations in general.  Specifically, Mike Daisey on NPR’s This American Life charged Apple Corporation with abuses of its Chinese workers who manufacture some of Apple’s components and products.  As Mr. Daisey later admitted, many of the details of his “exposé” were not true.  Yet he continued to justify them in part because they were good theater.  (Currently there are over 30 Google entries about this.)

Seems to me that the essence of this lie/truth issue is in the purpose of what’s being presented.  The “lying” was done on This American Life, a journalistic program which seeks to present the truth to its audience; Mr. Daisey on that program presented stuff he concocted to make for better theater.  To my mind, that is like selling knock-off jewelry as real because the buyer will be happier thinking it’s real.  No, of course it’s worse than that, because the reputation of Apple was damaged.  But what if Apple was perpetrating harmful labor practices, and as a result of Mr. Daisey’s “lies” and subsequent bad publicity, it did better by its Chinese workers and even workers in other countries?

Would that justify the lies if they actually brought about not only a greater but a better truth?  Whadja think?

[*NOTE:  Most of my fiction, including Hangtown, is not yet available, but will be soon.]

The 3 Rules for Writing Fiction; Ignore at Your Peril

My first blog post on writing considers “The 3 Rules for Writing Fiction That Every Story-teller Must Know and Follow.”  We start with these three rules because they are of paramount importance to your success as a writer.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
Think about that for ten seconds or more.  Are you angry at the curveball I threw you or merely disappointed at having your hopes, so quickly raised, dashed upon the rocks of reality?  Maybe some of you had a little inward chuckle.  I experienced these emotions when first hearing this —let’s call it a joke—from a writing workshop leader years ago.  Yet it has turned out to be the best piece of wisdom on creating fiction I’ve encountered.
I first heard about the Three Unknown Rules at one of my five summers at the
Port Townsend (WA) Writers Conferences.  The workshop leaders over those five 10-day sessions were Alan Cheuse, Ursula Hegi, Brett Lott, Ron Carlson, and Pam Houston, all of them terrific writers and good to great teachers.  I forget which one offered the bit of twisted wisdom about the 3 Rules, but it is not original to him or her.  I’ve heard it attributed to great minds from E. A. Poe to W. S. Maugham to H. L. Mencken.
But why is it important to understand that nobody has discovered any hard-and-fast rules for writing (despite the lists of rules at various lengths you can find on Google)?  Because it gives you freedom.  Go with the knowledge of the absence of knowledge, or at least the absence of dogma.  Write with it.  Enjoy it.  Don’t let any supposed rule slow you down, because somewhere, some time, writers have “violated” with success any rule that has ever stood in a writer’s path…or been sought and used as a crutch.
Which is not to say that anything goes.  You should know what “rule” you are breaking.  Be aware that you are breaking it and to some extent why.  For example, the “rule” about not shifting point of view between characters.  (POV:  who is doing the thinking, seeing, feeling).  The POV “rules” include:  Don’t change POV within a chapter.  Never change POV in a short story.  Absolutely no POV shift unless you use a line break to separate them.  Why?  Because the reader might get confused.
Well, here is a POV shift from one paragraph to the next.  The first character is a nude model named Merav, the second is the artist in Blue Nude, the excellent novel by Elizabeth Rosner:
Danzig runs one hand through his hair, a gesture Merav already recognizes as habitual; he rubs at his jaw and his forehead.  [We’re in her head, seeing what she’s seeing.]
For the first long minutes, he had been able to look only at her hand, the one that dangled on the edge of the bathtub, catching light and reflecting it back…  [We’re in his head, seeing what he is seeing.]
Consecutive paragraphs; one POV shifted to the other.  Breaks the “rule.”  But I’m not confused by it.  Are you?
Why did Rosner do this?  Possibly because that moment in the story was so intimate that she needed to relate both minds nearly simultaneously, with no artificial separation in order to “follow the rule.”  Every such so-called rule of writing has been successfully broken.  It’s not the breaking of the “rule” that’s important; it’s doing it well.