Orson Scott Card on the Problem of Evil in Fiction

The anthology we are using in my ethics and fiction class has an essay by Card called “The Problem of Evil in Fiction”. This essay was originally published in Card’s collection of essays, A Storyteller in Zion (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1993) and has been reprinted with Card’s permission. A quick Google found the article online, under the title, “A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem of Evil in Fiction“. The basis of the article is Card’s Sesquicentennial Lecture on Mormon Arts, Letters and Sciences, given in 1980.

I have never read Card, but over the years many students have recommended Ender’s Game, his best known science fiction novel, along with Ender’s Shadow. He has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. He writes scifi (The Memory of Earth; Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus), biblical novels (Stone Tables; Rachel & Leah), fantasy (Magic Street; Enchantment; Lost Boys), reflections on writing (Characters and Viewpoint; How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy).

A conservative political activist, he opposes legalizing same sex marriage and believes that homosexuality is morally and socially unacceptable. This stance made his receipt of an award for young adult fiction in 2008 controversial.

The textbook version of this essay is much shorter omits all of the Mormon stuff. The longer essay is much better.

What follows is a quick summary with some comments.

Card begins with, “Some people regard it as their life’s work to drive pornography, the ultimate artistic expression of evil, completely out of their community.” I think some pornography can be evil, but it depends.

I would also like to know what he means by “evil” and how it differs from, for example “suffering”. he says later that natural disasters cause suffering but it would be boring to only write about that. I personally think people can cause each other suffering without being evil, and that’s an interesting thing to write and read about.

Card then responds to the question of why he writes “such depressing stuff”. He begins his answer by asking, “Well, why indeed? After all, fiction isn’t fact. Fiction is lies.” This is problem #2. A lie implies an intent to deceive. Later Card amends this odd statement, saying a story must “ring true”.

Then he writes,

He who writes about happy people being happy in a happy world ain’t gonna last long as a writer. Nobody cares about that happy stuff. Evil is intrinsically more interesting. More entertaining. Evil sells.

The brisk sales of romance in the recession suggest otherwise. Then again, plenty of bad stuff happens in a romance novel. I agree with Card that a 100% sunshine and puppies novel is not going to work for adults, but not because they want “entertainment” but because such a novel wouldn’t have even the “illusion of truth.”

He writes,

While readers of fiction know perfectly well that what they’re reading is made up, they also insist on the illusion of truth and on truth itself. First, the illusion of truth, because while the reader surrenders himself to the writer’s controlled tour of the life experiences of some interesting characters, the reader insists on some correspondence between the surface details of the story and the reality that the reader knows in his own life. It must ring true. And second, the substance of truth, because no matter how many deliberate lies a writer tells, his own most deeply held beliefs about good and evil will inevitably appear in his work. It is impossible to write a morally neutral work of fiction.

Card says it is impossible for a writer to avoid evil in his book, both because there is evil in the world, and because there is evil in the writer.

He then says there are 3 types of evil in fiction:
Evil depicted in fiction.
Evil advocated in fiction.
Evil enacted in fiction.

All fiction depicts evil, and that’s not morally problematic.

It’s the enacting of evil, as in pornography that is wrong. Why? Because it “teaches the viewer or reader to seek more such instant pleasure, eventually drawing the consumer into a fantasy world where women love to be treated cruelly and where the only good is self-gratification.” Card says this isn’t even really fiction, but “a masquerade of fiction” because its purpose is not aesthetic but orgasmic.

I do think sexual pleasure is a kind of pleasure that, often, the more one has, the more one wants, and the further one pushes for new experiences. This makes it slightly more dangerous than some other things. I sometimes wonder if we can see this happening in erotica. First it’s m/m, then it’s BDSM, then it’s menage, then its sex with beasts. Does this reflect that natural broadening of a subgenre, or a core of readers who keep seeking that new sexual experience?

We all know when we are consuming porn, says Card, but what about explicit material in other books, such as a John Irving novel? Card says, sensibly enough, that some ignorant readers might read these as porn, because they do not understand the author’s point. This is a problem for ignorant readers, not for the books themselves.

What about fiction that advocates evil? It’s hard to figure out what he says here. He doesn’t give any examples of fiction that advocates evil, and I honestly have no idea how he defines it.

Card does say that “It is impossible for a writer to convincingly violate his own conscience in his fiction.” In short, who the writer is will out in the writing, no matter what he or she actually writes.

I have a problem with this. I think we need to distinguish between the person and the writer, and I further think that who we are is not 100% transparent to any of us. Our “conscience” is our conscious image of our best self. But there is a lot more to us, and we can be strangers to ourselves.

Card then says that he must be “a lover of goodness and a student of evil”. He cites Tolkien, who was a decent man yet wrote characters like — not the simplistic Sauron, or the orcs — but Frodo wrestles with temptation, who is overwhelmed by evil at the end. I mentioned in a recent post that it is unusual in an essay or book that treats ethics and fiction to see references to genre fiction, so it is nice to see the Tolkien references.

He adds, in a passage I like,

You’ve all heard of escapist fiction, I’m sure. It’s a myth, and one with little foundation in fact. The standard image is of a twenty-three-year-old housewife, three small children biting at her ankles, ironing with one hand as with the other hand she holds in front of her face a paperback book. On the cover is a picture of a girl about her age, running from a dark and sinister building that has one lighted window, as the sky looms and threatens a storm-and worse. Of course, say the believers in the stereotype. She’s escaping from her humdrum life into a much more interesting fictional existence.

Escaping? I think not. Do you know what goes on in those gothic novels? If you actually identify with the main character, something that I am only occasionally capable of doing, you are put through terrible tension, an ordeal of fear and uncertainty, mistrust, pain, betrayal. The inevitably happy ending comes as a blessed relief, because along the way the poor reader has been through a grueling experience.

Card thinks fiction is cathartic, and he writes approvingly of the various emotions the author can arouse in the reader. But there are limits. He says “I have never written a scene in which I believed either sex or violence was provocative, though I have written scenes in which sex and violence take place.”

romance writers write provocative scenes, as do thriller or mystery or horror writers. these scenes are sometimes meant to bring the reader into the sexually aroused, frightened, or murderous state of the character. One question I have is why it is ok to engage all of the reader’s responses except for those?

12 responses

  1. Very interesting. Thanks, Jessica. I can’t bear OSC’s fiction, and these muddled views seem to fit.

    I agree with Card that a 100% sunshine and puppies novel is not going to work for adults, but not because they want “entertainment” but because such a novel wouldn’t have even the “illusion of truth.”

    Isn’t that the same weak argument as “Romance isn’t realistic”? Realism is a red herring often used to put down a readership’s maturity and intelligence. That isn’t to say it’s a completely false argument, but it doesn’t differentiate between children and adults as readers, or recognize the many different reading styles within the adult population.

    Realism is also so subjective and context-sensitive as to make “nobody believes in that” an unwinnable argument. For example, I’ve read some inspirational romances that are sweetness and light throughout, nary a cloud in the sky except for pretty little wisps of growth-in-faith. There’s a market for that.


    • I wasn’t clear. A book with a happy ending is as realistic as any other (see my discussion of teaching THATH!). But a substantial novel with not even minimal suffering, nothing bad happening (i.e not a single undesired event), only sunshine and puppies, is not truthful, in my opinion, to human life. I understand that others may disagree.


  2. He wrote this after some church members had blasted him for depicting evil in his books because, by and large, we (Mormons, culturally) don’t like too much realistic depiction of evil in our books or books by one of us. (This is why you very rarely [or never] hear people like Brenda Novak or Christine Feehan cough up their religious affiliation. Card’s out and proud about it.)

    So anyway, given that, I can’t take anything Card says seriously after he blasted Eugene Woodbury for Angel Falling Softly.

    In short, Card’s depictions of evil are okay, you see, especially when he’s taken to account for them, but other church members’ depicitions of…well, NOT evil…aren’t okay. (I loved Angel Falling Softly because it was morally ambiguous, but not evil. There is one major logical fallacy in the book, but I suspect that was either ignored for the sake of the audience or edited out deliberately because I don’t think Eugene would have missed it. And it took me about three weeks after I wrote the review to pin down what it was.)

    Card also wants to separate himself from the sweetness’n’light fiction that our specialty publisher, Deseret Book, is so (in)famous for spewing forth.

    There’s a lot of (religious) cultural subtext going on in his essay.

    The only things by Card I’ve read are the Alvin Maker series and a collection of short fiction. They were adequate. I wasn’t blown away, although I found his short (explicitly LDS-themed) fiction far more provocative.


  3. True that, Moriah.

    I read “Enchantment” by OSC and really liked it. I also read “Ender’s Game” when I was 8 but didn’t understand it and haven’t read it since. “Saints” made me angry but I don’t generally react well to polygamy unless its “Big Love” so that’s probably not OSC’s fault.

    I think the main problem with Card’s assertion is that he never defines evil. What does he mean by evil? Why is pornography evil and not merely sinful? There’s a huge difference in my mind between a sin and evil. Moreover, I find it very problematic when people start flinging around the word evil. Not because I don’t believe in evil or that evil actions and people exist (clearly, they do) but because I find that it is a word most often used to describe those things we dislike or fear without properly examining the underlying assumptions. Not that I totally disagree with him either and I do appreciate the support of genre literature but I don’t like the ambiguity of the word evil.


  4. I, too, would have liked to read a more definitive explanation of what Card considers ‘evil.’ I also don’t understand how he can, with such assurance, state that whatever sex and violence he has included in his books is not provocative, especially when he places responsibility for interpretation on the reader.


  5. What does he mean by evil?

    You know. What they talk about the first Sunday of every April and October from the shadow of the Rockies, which leads me to…

    …he didn’t need to define it. Consider his audience. These are people who have a certain collective understanding of evil and common definition. He wasn’t writing to the general writing populace a la Stephen King and On Writing.

    (And no, I can’t explain it any better than he can or I would try. It’s…ephemeral. One of those things you just “know” when you grow up in the church.)


  6. Moriah, I felt the same after his ludicrous criticism, all religiously based, of the film “Pleasantville.”

    I actually admire Card very much as a writer. I would recommend Pastwatch to anyone in an existential funk; it might really surprise you. But it’s become very hard for me to separate his work from his views, in recent years.

    One book of his which I quite hated is Lost Boys, which seemed to me to have atmosphere of gloating love for vengeance that feels “pornographic” to me. My husband, on the other hand, loves it, because it’s one of the few novels he’s ever read that shows a man in a happy domestic context.


  7. Willaful:

    Moriah, I felt the same after his ludicrous criticism, all religiously based, of the film Pleasantville.

    I LOVED Pleasantville. I had heard Dr. Laura say (long before I saw it) that it glorified promiscuity, but since I’d already decided she was batshit crazy, I dismissed her opinion. The day after my wedding, it was on TV and we watched it and I found it touchingly profound.

    It wasn’t about glorifying promiscuity. Batshit Crazy Lady totally missed the point. It was about bringing choice into play, the agency to choose to be something different than the role into which one was cast. COLOR came into the world as people CHOSE how to live their lives and attempt to be happy. As color came into the life of the Reese Witherspoon character, she CHOSE to STOP being promiscuous (a role in which she [the character] was cast as the token bad girl of every 50s-era movie ever made).

    Geez, I need to watch that again.

    I haven’t read Lost Boys, though it’s on my TBR list (far down on it).

    I think I have just hijacked the thread. Apologies.


  8. Dick makes an excellent point.

    The only Card books I have read are his books on fiction writing, and I found them worth reading and thinking about even though I am pretty far from agreeing with everything he said in them. I discovered the late Octavia Butler through a recommendation in one of those books, and I am grateful for that, but I completely disagree with his views on gay marriage.


  9. I liked the first three books in Card’s Alvin Maker series, the first couple of Ender books, and Pastwatch. But then I started seeing his political and social views in his writing, and now I don’t even try. I went back and re-read some of the ones I liked and found that I still do, for whatever that’s worth. But in his case I really can’t separate the author as a person from his writing, and I’ve given up trying.


  10. Card’s objections to Angel seem to revolve around the introduction of non-Mormon mythological elements into an explicit Mormon setting. Apparently Card judges Mormon theology incapable of withstanding the cognitive dissonance this might engender (something that didn’t bother C.S. Lewis).

    As for smoking (represented by the pipe), my brother reminds me of an old Utah Mormon joke: A girl’s been fooling around with her boyfriend and has gotten pregnant. After the initial dismay, her father announces that the two will have to get married. “But I can’t!” says the girl. “He smokes!”


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