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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Roger Kimball is, of course, correct when he writes that we now lack “the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance.” If at one time—say, before 1950—“a cultivated person” could anticipate the appearance of an important new novel, we now have many more distractions and diversions that make less of a demand on our attention.

Very true. But the reason for the loss of shared cultural assumptions is historical and irrevocable. Capitalism and the advance of democratic institutions, beginning in the late 18th century, have simply washed away an authoritative tradition, including the seemingly natural roles of men and women. In our complex and interconnected global economy, requiring increasing numbers of technicians and professionals, all hands are needed on board. There is an upside to this: Individuals are permitted to craft their own destinies, with women taking on tasks for which society formerly had no use. The downside is the market’s continuing appeal to waste the energy required to do so: all those distractions and diversions.

Thus, I doubt that literature, or “culture generally,” as Kimball writes (invoking Matthew Arnold), can provide “the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages.” Even in Arnold’s lifetime (1822–88), most people were not reading the novels of George Eliot in order to grasp the complexities of the moral life or even for literary edification. Thus, the ending of Kimball’s essay, when he writes that “increasingly, our most intense encounters with novels will be with novels of the past,” seemed a tad nostalgic. 

The past, however, does offer guidance in our current cultural situation. It is precisely the value of the past that is at the core of the battle between liberals––or what I prefer to call “postmoderns”––and conservatives. This is a battle between “patriarchy” and “patrimony,” and if conservatives wish to alter the current ideological milieu in their favor, they must fight to reclaim the past, unapologetically.

We should not, however, look to a specific past (since its practices are inevitably retrograde to modern eyes), or to a golden age, but to the long stretch of history during which certain values have been transmitted, even through the most terrible cataclysms. The survival of such values—love of family, sacrifice for others, courage, self-discipline, self-reliance, inner cultivation, patriotism—suggests that they are essential to the human condition, to the continuance of civilization, and, indeed, to the affluence that supports our historically unprecedented way of life. (Lacking self-discipline, Amanda Knox came unwittingly to fit the narrative created by journalists and prosecutors.) 

Aristotle summed up these values long ago, and no one has improved on them. Or, to quote the aforementioned Marilynne Robinson from her recent collection of essays, reviewed here in June: “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

The problem for most of us, however, is that goodness is often in conflict not only with other values but also with our basic desires. Thus, a major preoccupation of the Western literary tradition, since Sophocles and the Old Testament, has been what Georg Lukács called the breach between inner and outer worlds. Adam and Eve certainly had fewer distractions, but the condition of the individual under advanced capitalism, despite a panoply of choices, is in essence the same. When push comes to shove, one is often still faced with choosing between incompatible alternatives, between what we love or desire and what we are required to do. To be fully human, as conservatives recognize it, is to accept this challenge of the moral life. 

My reading of contemporary literary fiction reveals that many young and prominent writers recognize and are attempting to portray this challenge. Let me mention three.

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