The Magazine

Moral Fiction

Three novelists and the challenge of engagement with the modern world.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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I have this thing about schlock books, those that cater to our enduring fascination with public portrayals of manners and morals, especially failures in that regard. 

Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Even while writing my dissertation on Goethe, I avidly read biographies of movie stars. But the stars are not like you and me, and a book that recently came across my desk reminded me of this difference: The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox (Broadway, 368 pp., $14.99). Truth be told, I put in a request for the book at my local library. Walking home with the plastic-covered volume, however, I concealed the cover, not wanting to advertise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that I was reading about the woman who edged out Carla Bruni and Sarah Palin as Italy’s Woman of the Year in 2009.

For those who have been in a time warp, Amanda Knox is the Seattle girl who was studying Italian in Perugia when she was accused of participating in the murder of Meredith Kercher, her English apartment mate, in November 2007. Kim Kardashian and the current fascination with reality TV are minor sideshows compared with the elements that coalesced in the Knox murder trial: The unconventional behavior of the winsome, if witless, white-bread American collided with entrenched Italian fears about Masonic conspiracies and prejudices concerning female beauty and sexuality. 

Journalists flocked to Perugia to cover the trial of what the prosecution claimed was a satanic sexual ritual gone bad, and, in December 2009, Knox was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison. The conviction was overturned, and she was freed in 2011. In the meantime, the Italians have overturned the acquittal and are reconsidering the case.

As Nina Burleigh writes in The Fatal Gift of Beauty, there is a reason “vendetta” is an Italian word. Burleigh is a real writer, and her portrait of how the Amanda Knox narrative was created stands several notches above other books about the case, including Knox’s own recent memoir, in which readers will find nothing about the Etruscan origins of Perugia or the persistence of paganism in Roman Catholic Umbria. 

We are drawn to these narratives and, as such, they are framed for public consumption because these cautionary tales allow us to measure our own stricter standards and practices against those who so egregiously fail to live up to common values (e.g., Jodi Arias) or who appear to have been falsely accused (Amanda Knox). 

The centrality of women is essential to these narratives, reflecting a weighty issue—namely, the attempts of society to come to terms with the changing role of the fairer sex since the 19th century. These tales follow in a long line of 19th-century novels charting the travails of women as diverse as Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Though the great Victorians wrote with sympathy about their subjects, society, too, had its mores that had to be respected.

Today’s serious literary fiction continues to be concerned with the ruinous price exacted by society for transgressions; but unlike Tolstoy or Eliot, today’s novelists evade passing judgment on their characters. We postmoderns, living in a more affluent age, believe the price too high. Thus, the moral dimension of individual will and bad choice disappears, and in its place Society (sometimes called “the family,” “the father,” “the husband,” “the parents,” “the boss”––they are all simply variants of power) is the culprit. 

This is a big letdown, because people want both to be entertained and to see their own lives and values reflected in what they read. The reigning literary class, however—the folks who write and market books—runs away from the obvious. The public also flees in droves from high-status books and discovers its morality tales in schlock books and TV. 

Which brings me to a piece that appeared in these pages last year, on “the American novel today,” in which Roger Kimball lamented the failure of contemporary novels to deal with the complexities of the moral life (“The Great American Novel,” February 27, 2012). Surprisingly, there was little about contemporary fiction; the only novel mentioned was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Instead, in making a point about the “proper” relation of literature to life and the current failure of literature in this regard, Kimball focused on the views of Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and even Hegel and Plato. 

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