Writing and morality

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If you too are in the business of writing and publishing, you’ll run across at every turn moral injunctions and prohibitions from the editors and publishers as well as the public, whom they represent.

These may not be first-rate editors and publishers; in fact, it’s highly unlikely. But how many run-of-the-mill ideologs are out there whose job it apparently is to confuse good writing with good morals?

Take one little literary magazine’s statement of what they’re looking for:

We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced … including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.

Then take Oscar Wilde’s statement on the relation between art and morality (including what we’d call these days politically correct morality):

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. [Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.]

Image result for oscar wilde
Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900.

We can write about mankind and human morality, or lack of it, in other words. But the choice of subject matter says nothing about the success of the writing, whether we’re talking about homosexual rights or the Holocaust. Does the writer have something new or interesting to say? And a new or interesting way to say it?

Wilde, who for sure did have an interesting way to say what he had to say, goes on: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Of course, Wilde was an aesthete as well as LGBTQ+ (wherever he might have fit within that spectrum). But his main point is simple: either you’re a good writer or you’re not. You don’t have to be writing about good or preaching good or babbling good. Chances are such babbling, which includes sticking to a prescribed set of socially approved values, and even vocabulary, makes you a bad writer, someone who’s saying the obvious, in an obvious way, who knows what he/she thinks before writing, and for whom nothing new is revealed or discovered in the act of writing.






2 thoughts on “Writing and morality

  1. Ultimately, we writers are in the entertainment business. Someone picks up a book or looks at a screen and processes what’s there as long as it holds their(sic) interest. Some are obsessive ‘finishers,’ and once started will finish, come tsunami or not. But most will put it down if the phone or refrigerator have more pull.
    Mama Cass sang about words of love, soft and tender, that won’t win a girl’s heart anymore. For that, you have to take her somewhere she hasn’t been before. I think that’s what good writing does.
    As for morality, why pound on one thing or another? Isn’t it better to approach that edge once again where we encounter a choice? Where we balance precariously between falling on the side of the good or the bad. Or would we prefer to just shoot the bad guy and get it over with?

    1. I get your drift, Kent. As much as we might resist the epithet “entertainer,” you’re right: if we don’t hold someone’s attention, whether it’s because we’re boring, or boring too deep, we lose him or her. Every reader has the right to determine what she wants to read. Writers can’t commandeer an audience, but must woo them. Even the Marquis de Sade wooed as well as screwed, could be. Perhaps today our audience is split and slivered up in so many ways, like the audiences for music. There are a bewildering variety out there. Take your choice. If the writer persists, and has talent, he will ultimately attract an audience of some kind — the right kind of audience for him.

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