Ethical Criticism of Genre Fiction (Part 2)

This is a sketch of a project I am working on, and of a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association conference in April. Part 1 is here. Part 3 to come.

I. In Part 1 I argued that ethical criticism is not about rating books for how well they provide moral education. That view, known as instrumentalism, reduces the role of art to handmaiden of morality.  As a reaction to instrumentalism, aestheticism claims that there is no connection between art and morality. Oscar Wilde’s comment that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” is the classic example of aestheticsm. It turns out that aestheticism has its own reductionist problems, which become clear once one considers how to keep morality out of an evaluation of any novel that attempts to deal seriously with moral matters.

So ethical criticism tries to steer clear of the faults of both instrumentalism (aka moralism) and aestheticism (aka autonomism). Different ethical critics have cashed out the relationship in different ways. Here are a couple of contenders:

a. Noel Carroll: “clarificationism” : The idea here is that don’t gain new moral knowledge, especially not in the form of propositional knowledge, but rather that art works have to engage their audience, and to do this they have to “fit” them. The audience has to mobilize its knowledge, including moral knowledge, and its emotions, in order to experience the work. This is especially true with respect to mass art, which has to be accessible.

Narrative art deepens our moral understanding by encouraging us to apply our moral understanding to specific cases. It forces us to move from knowledge to understanding (ability to application). When we read fiction, we connect different parts of our “moral knowledge stock”. Fiction thus exercises and enlarges our moral understanding.

Just understanding the narrative often requires exercising our moral powers. So reading a novel just is a continuous process of moral judgment. This is not a “consequence” or “result” of reading. It is reading. It is not going outside the work. It is of the work.

b. Martha Nussbaum: “virtue ethics”:  Martha Nussbaum has argued that engagement with fiction can cultivate certain highly cognitive moral abilities related to attention, attunement, and discernment, including the ability to notice morally relevant details, empathy, and the ability to better understand complicated moral issues. In discussing James’ The Golden Bowl, she writes:

[T]his novel calls upon and also develops our ability to confront mystery with the cognitive engagement of both thought and feeling. To work through these sentences and these chapters is to become involved in an activity of exploration and unraveling that uses abilities, especially abilities of emotion and imagination, rarely tapped by philosophical texts. (Nussbaum 1990, 143)

Nussbaum has certain goals in mind that have more to do with moral philosophy than art criticism. Her arguments about the moral importance of literature have a lot to do with her development of a neo-Aristotelian ethic. She thinks that morality is less about universal principles and more about human flourishing and the capacities needed to do so. In making that kind of claim, she situates herself as part of a later twentieth century philosophical take on morality that emerged as a critique (some would say antidote) to the abstract formalism that had dominated moral philosophy for a long time.  My own views on moral philosophy have been shaped mostly by this tradition.

Nussbaum actually says that fiction itself can be moral philosophy, and can be better moral philosophy than what you find in philosophy journals. This is because fiction captures the elements of moral life that an Aristotelian sees as most important, like character, emotion, and visions of the good, while traditional ethics essays remain at a level of abstraction – even their example of ethical dilemmas tend to be schematic and far fetched — that bears no resemblance to how moral deliberation actually works.

Nussbaum has interesting things to say about the inseparability of form and content. James isn’t just Aristotle dressed up with pretty images that you can remove like ornaments on a Christmas tree and have the essence left over. You can’t summarize or paraphrase any passage in fiction and hope to keep the same meaning, the way you can with a philosophical argument.

There are a number of other takes on ethical criticism, of course. I just give these as examples of kinds of ethical criticism that are more intelligent and compelling than those that seek to glean nuggets of moral lessons from books and throw out every thing else.

Note that for ethical critics, active reading is assumed. Carroll in particular emphasizes the way readers must fill in gaps in the narrative with their own stock of knowledge. Narrative also calls for us to feel certain emotions. If we don’t, we simply cannot understand the text.

II. What exactly do ethical critics evaluate?

This seems obvious: the book. But what is that?

Here’s my view (not unique to me. It’s from arguments found in Alexander Nehamas for example, and others, like Seymour Chatman)

I don’t know how to read a novel other than as someone trying to tell me a story. It is natural to posit a rational agent when we read a book. We assume the text is organized in a certain way for certain reasons. We realize we can find all of these words elsewhere but they are here, together, in a specific purposeful arrangement. More, the text is for us, the readers. We are engaging with someone who is deliberately engaging with us, aesthetically, morally, politically, cognitively. I think that positing an author is just part of what reading is. It is not some extra psychological effort readers may or may not undertake. The idea of a purpose leads naturally to the idea of an agent. But who is that? It isn’t the narrator or the protagonist, because the first can be unreliable, and the second is limited in understanding (her point of view may not be the only one we get).

The writer is the individual person who writes the book. But that’s not who I am thinking about when I review a book or do ethical criticism. You can tell because I make claims about the text and not about the flesh and blood writer. (Wayne Booth has a set of terms for this, as do others. Booth calls it the “implied author”. For Nehamas is it just the “author”. ). There are probably lots of things that go into the writing from the writer’s standpoint that, in caring deeply about the text, I do not care about — like that she needed to finish this book to make a mortgage payment or that the name of the protagonist came from the name of her best friend in first grade.

So the “author” (or “implied author” or “posited author”) is a fiction, with one main function: to allow us to read the text as purposive.

It follows that in ethical criticism, moral judgments are made about the literary work, i.e. about the author, not about the writer. In my experience on this blog, this can be a challenging distinction for some authors to grasp. And in some ways I don’t blame them: it is a very tight circle indeed. (The reader constructs the author, but the author constructed the narrator, so does the reader construct the narrator, and thus the text, too? Something has gone awry.) Are we just adding agents when we would do well to stick with 2 —  the narrator and the writer? Luckily, I don’t have to solve this problem to get to my main point. I just wanted to let you know I know it exists.

For my purposes, all we need is some conceptual space between the flesh and blood writer and the posited or implied author, enough so that when we make moral judgments about the text, we are not seen as making, mutatis mutandis, moral judgments about the flesh and blood writer.

Why am I spending time on this? I think it is because I am coming at this as a reader of genre fiction, and genre fiction is different from literary fiction in the closeness of its readers, who may aptly be called “fans”, to the authors. The question of the relationship between writers and readers is there in literary criticism, but it has special resonance for genre readers because of the relative closeness of genre writers to their readers in comparison to literary writers.

III. The relation of the moderate moralists’ theories to genre fiction.

I teach a course in philosophy and fiction, particularly ethics and fiction. I have read a lot of ethical criticism. And most of it –almost all of  it, really — is criticism of “literature”, and not just literature but the “classics”.  (And not just the classics, but a mini-canon of works, as I explain below). Here I am mainly referring to philosophers who write about ethical criticism. (Also, I am using the terms “literature” and “genre fiction” in their loose and popular senses. I am not, in doing so, necessarily buying in to invidious distinctions between them, least of all to an invidious distinction between their relative literary merits.)

So we are finally at the central motivating question of the paper: What is the relationship of our best known philosophical champions of ethical criticism to genre fiction? And is that relationship contingent or necessary (that is, do they just pick the classics because that’s what they happen to read or like, or do they not pick genre fictionspecifically because they believe that ethical criticism of genre fiction doesn’t merit ethical criticism in some sense?)

a. Nussbaum, like most philosophers who engage with literature, focuses exclusively on the classics, especially Henry James. She does not engage with genre fiction at all.
b. Booth – As an aside, I will say that I have problems with his theory overall, as it comes very close to moralism — not moderate moralism — about literature. But the moralism is most noticeable when he is talking (which he rarely does) about genre fiction. For example, Booth worries about “what [Stephen] King’s 300 million sold copies have taught the world’s unsophisticated readers”, and when challenged on whether he has actually read even one of King’s books, he says in a footnote: “I’ve tried to.”

This is a very common tendency: to use literary classics are exemplars of salutary moral effects and genre fiction as exemplars of potentially corrosive moral effects. It’s quite amazing, really. I mean, would you take your lessons on father/daughter relations from The Golden Bowl, as Nussbaum suggests? Squicks me right the heck out.

But Booth — unlike most others in this group — at least tackles head on the question of what kind of books work best for ethical criticism. And here’s what he says:

i. Using Sheldon Sacks’s typology of authorial invitation – satire, apologue (idea novels) and action novels, in which category Booth includes “novels like those of Jane Austen or Cormac McCarthy or, moving down the line in quality, Agatha Christie or Louis L’Amour”. He notes that that writers of action novels get “furious” when ethical critics focus on their work, because “for them, it is the beautifully formed action, conveyed in beautiful or witty or original style” that counts. “Consign the ethicists to hell, where they belong” so the authors of action novels are purported to say. My own view is that such authors are probably sick unto death of critics using genre fiction as an ethical punching bag.

But it is not just the authors’ faults: Booth claims without argument that action stories do not openly demand ethical criticism. This is very interesting to me, since actions — and the people who take them — are the natural subjects of moral judgment.

For Booth, the most important literary kind for ethical criticism “has no label” –”it engages us in serious thought about ethical matters, based on the reinforcement of certain ethical positions as admirable and others as questionable or indefensible, but also hooks us into plots of conflict that are inseparable from that thinking” (note that he implies action stories do not do this). His example of such writing? Henry James. (From “Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple”, Style, 1998).
ii. In his earlier (1988) book, The Company We Keep,  Booth offered a list of passages written by…


Ford Maddox Ford

DH Lawrence,

Barbara Cartland


I am guessing the order of this list tells us in no uncertain terms what he thinks of the ethics of romance novels. Booth allows that all of these texts claim to offer the reader something (his model is of the implied author as a friend, a friend who is always offering the reader something via the text). He writes:

The simple and obvious question, for example, ‘Do you, my would be friend, wish ME well, or will you be the only one to profit if I join you?’ can make the implied creators of the Cartland romance and the Penthouse garbage writhe with embarrassment.

When he says, in a footnote, that “almost any of the literary classics could for most readers be said to provide the kind of friendship we are celebrating”, he is at his clearest.

c. Carroll, who has done important work on horror, comedy, film, and on mass art  in general (The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, New York, Routledge, 1990, A Philosophy of Mass Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998), is, not surprisingly, an important counterexample. He is explicit that Harlequin romances (despite being a “more mundane example”, contrasted with a “special case” like Citizen Kane) “can engage our imaginative and reflective powers.”

Yet, even someone like Carroll, who defends the potential of ethical criticism of mass art, tends, in his examples of morally significant narratives, to rely on literary fiction. And his examples of morally obfuscating fiction tend to be from genre works  – for example, when he singles out Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction, both of which “encourage us to forge an emotive link” between gayness and horror. I am not claiming he is wrong about those films — he makes a persuasive case, actually —  just noticing where the chips tend to fall when philosophers are mining for examples of ethically bad art.

IV. Textbooks

You can tell a lot about the commitments of a field of study by looking at textbooks.

There are a few popular ethics textbooks that use literature as a source of  examples. (I would never use them. I don’t like making literature the handmaiden of philosophy.) These focus heavily on the classics. So, for example, in The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature, the chapter on “Love and Marriage” has selections from:

Jane Austen (PP)

Leo Tolstoy (AK),

Shakespeare (R&J)

George Bernard Shaw

Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders)

Guy de Maupassant (“The Model”)

John Cleland (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure).

When it comes to ethical dilemmas in love and sex, wouldn’t you think contemporary romance is the obvious place to start? But there is very little genre fiction among dozens of selection in the entire textbook.

ii. Ethics, Literature, and Theory. This is the book I used in Ethics and Fiction, and it is very good, but it makes use of all the usual suspects. At this point there is a mini-canon in ethical criticism of Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, anything by Henry James, Frankenstein, anything by Joyce or Flaubert, etc. We can’t explain this by pointing out that philosophers chose them because they can ssume audience familiarity, because can’t they also assume audience familiarity with Harry Potter, or The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind, or Miss Marple? Not insignifiantly, in this collection, genre fiction gets the most attention in a section on writers’ responsibilities.

iii. There is one popular intro to ethics textbook, The Moral of the Story: An introduction to ethics through literature, which is a bit misleadingly titled, as the majority of its narratives are actually popular film narratives. But when it uses fiction, it tends to be literary fiction.

Summing up this section, ethical critics tend to focus almost exclusively on literary fiction.  I think we should turn at least some of our ethical attention to genre fiction, especially romance. In the next part I will say more about why we should, about why that idea may not be enthusaistically embraced by all genre writers, and also about the difference genre makes in ethical criticism.

Literature and Medicine

Reading Literature for Life

Prof's Progress

... on making sense, one word at a time

Bkwurm: /book*worm/ n. a person devoted to reading and study

Nyssa Harkness

Media and Cultural Studies with a focus on Genre Fiction, Gaming and Creative Society

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life

Love is the Best Medicine

Harlequin/Mills and Boon Medical Romance Authors

Blue Moon

Audiobook reviews and book reviews. Occasional opining.


reviews by a speculative fiction romantic

Centre for Medical Humanities

News, updates and insights from the Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University

Miss Bates Reads Romance

Miss Bates is the loquacious spinster from Austen's Emma. No doubt she read romances ... here's what she would have thought of them.

Badass Romance

heroes, heroines, and books that demand to be taken seriously

bad necklace: not quite pearls of wisdom

mala, media, maladies, and malapropisms

Thinking in Fragments

but making connections too

Tales from the Reading Room

A Literary Salon Where All Are Welcome


thinking about teaching, learning, home and family

Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Fit and Feminist

Because it takes strong women to smash the patriarchy.

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health

Heloise Merlin's Weblog

Virtual people read books, too!

Victoria Janssen

Just another site

Bblog Central

Your source for book blogging.

Insta-Love Book Reviews

Deflowering romance - one book at a time

A Striped Armchair

Bookish thoughts from a woman of endless curiousity

Sonomalass's Blog

Another day in paradise

RR@H Novel Thoughts & Book Talk

Featuring Author Interviews and Commentaries

Something More

my extensive reading

Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

Enjoying crime fiction one book at a time

The Romantic Goldfish

"Cheapest mother fucking goldfish on the planet"


...spruiking storytelling

Joanna Chambers, author

Historical romance




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,807 other followers