The conflation between an artist and their moral responsibility is a controversial topic. On one hand, you have a libertarian approach, where a novelist has free reign and no moral duties to society, literature or to themselves. Yet the alternative is also interesting: literature as a tool to promote certain moral values, whether progressive or conservative. In this article, I will consider both positions and propose an alternative, where writers have a moral responsibility without it interfering, or censoring, literature.
Yet before this, I must defend the notion of writers even having a moral responsibility. To long-time readers of Snowy Fictions, this position may seem odd: this project has always been about artistic freedom, opposing censorship and the exchange of ideas. All of those aspects are important, and I considered them while creating this framework. The reason why writers have a moral responsibility to begin with is due to their status as ‘engineers of the human soul’, as the dictator Josef Stalin argued. The extent of a writer’s power depends on many factors: economic, political and geographical. Much of this is outside the writer’s control. Yet a writer is also a communicator who presents his ideas through narrative and prose. If successful, the novel will have readers and therefore, influence. This increases the power of an author to shape the morality associated with his work.
The problem, I see – is when this responsibility results in unfair expectations of a writer to act, and think, more ‘morally’ and as a perfect individual. In our era of writers being dropped by publishers due to so-called ‘offensive’ behaviour, publishers and readers must never elevate writers to a God-like status where there are no flaws or cracks. Also, the moral expectations used to punish and reign over writers is foul. I do not believe in the merits of progressive morality and therefore, it is troublesome to submit to it.
Secondly, the moral responsibility of writers comes from being human beings who are part of mankind. If we accept the principle that everyone has moral obligations, why should writers differ? Therefore, the position of a writer is unique: it’s a moral must to act in a certain way as part of humanity but also in understanding of a novelist’s unique position as a communicator, meditator of ideas and as a storyteller. To abstain from this is to neglect the importance of morality itself. We, as human beings, have moral obligations and duties. Yet it’s debatable what these moral duties are and what they look like in practice.
The Specific Moral Duties of Novelists
Here, I’ll propose two moral responsibilities for novelists. The first one is excellence. Novelists must write to the best of their abilities and promote a notion of excellence. This means abiding by the highest standards in their craft, but also in the writers they endorse and promote. Art and excellence are fundamentally hierarchical: it ought to reward the best. A writer may stumble and have flaws in their prose but he or she should never settle for mediocrity.
In an ideal world, excellence is easy to come by. But controversy remains. Many dismiss mediocre literature through relativism: ‘taste is subjective’ as the common rationale for not applying excellence to literature. Whilst it’s true that taste is subjective, it is permissible, desirable even, for society and literary elites to promote certain aesthetical principals that suits, and benefits, a populace. These should not be too restraining and a clever list of aesthetics allows for occasional rule-breakers and rebels. This is a problem with prescribing excellence as a moral duty for all writers to submit to: it may silence literature, that although excellent and worthy of praise, does not fit into the popular politics of the day.
The second moral responsibility is honesty. An author does not need to write characters of a certain ethnicity, gender, political philosophy, income band or religion if there is no desire to. A writer must have the willingness to execute his or her vision on the novel form, lest any problems with political correctness and ‘causing offense.’ The desire for honesty in literature does not result in the elimination of unreliable narrators, unsympathetic characters or ‘troublesome’ themes. None of this scars the pursuit of truth in any way. Rather, these are specific narrative devices which are morally neutral in nature. On the other hand, honesty is ideal: authors must not submit to an aesthetic or enforce an ideology they do not believe in. The genre of novel differs from a commissioned painting, where beauty takes on a visual role and historically, patronage is less obvious in novels. That said, it is a failure of an artists’ moral duty to accept payment for work they know is antithetical to themselves. It breaches the connection between the artist, audience and masterpiece. However, it is not wrong, and is in fact, desirable, for writers to profit. Yet artists must not remain passive in their work.
Enforcing These Standards
There is an obvious problem. It is near impossible to enforce these moral principals onto artists. That’s partially the point: even if a novel is subpar in terms of excellence and honesty, it should not be censored or banned from purchase or reading. Unfortunately, many assume that moral duties are enforced through censorship and punishment. For novels, this differs. The appropriate response to mediocre literature is to not give into false praise, but to articulate your position with honesty and direct language. Because of this, it’s not just artists who have moral duties, but also the audience. This is especially true for critics.
No reviewer should submit to false flattery or lie. If anything, critics and readers are the ‘moral enforcers’ of a writer’s moral duty. As said earlier, this never justifies censorship or banning literature. However, it is fair for a critic or a reader to rank the novel among others. Prizes such as the Booker and the Nobel are necessary for global literature, where anyone can write and seek publication. We, as part of mankind, must reward excellence in literature. By doing this, we communicate our desires for ourselves and others to improve and master certain skills.
Typically, moral enforcement requires banning and public condemnation. The art world differs. We must allow for novelists who disagree, who are transgressive and rebellious. Some will reject morality and submit to relativism. If we are sophisticated enough, we will accept this as inevitable and even welcome them while still maintaining quality standards. For too long, morality has been associated with prudishness. According to a potential Woodstock attendee in the 1960’s, the concept of morality is too reactionary, too out-of-date, too hierarchical and deeply oppressive. Yet, in the 21st century, contemporary literature requires structure and order. Morality helps in this regard.
This article is controversial and many points raised will not sit well with most writers and critics. Yet the concept of ‘moral duties’ can empower novelists to excellence and produce literature that is more authentic and inline with their own philosophies and beliefs. This is why I am firm in my belief of the novelists’ moral duties.