The Gray Morality of Books


While reading, I now think about where a book stands morally. This is a new phenomenon for me. Previously, I'd inhale a book, think about if I liked it, and serendipitously move on. I wouldn't ruminate on the broader implications of what the story conveyed. However, increasing collective thought around social justice has made me keenly aware of a story's presentation.


A few weeks ago, I read Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa. If you're unfamiliar with the story, it follows Vanessa Wye and her inner turmoil after being sexually abused by a teacher. The turmoil, however, stems from her inability to recognize what happened to her as a teenager. She sees the events as romantic and loving, while we, the readers, are keenly aware that her teacher is a pedophile.



In reviewing the book, I mentioned that My Dark Vanessa righted some of the wrongs seen in Nabokov's classic Lolita. Rather than have this traumatic relationship recounted from the abuser's perspective, we instead see Vanessa's sordid journey toward ultimate clarity and healing. In my mind, there was moral weight in narrating this story from the victim's perspective. Vanessa chronicles the difficulty of coming to terms with trauma. She pleads with the reader to understand why it is difficult for an abused person to walk away. Russell outlines the wrong in this teacher-student relationship without ignoring the moral ambiguity of Vanessa's thinking. We know Vanessa shouldn't see her teacher as a romantic equal, but we empathize with her struggle in recognizing this.


After posting my review for My Dark Vanessa, I had a follower message me. They wanted to know why I had chosen the phrase "right the wrongs." In their mind, great literature took no sides on the argument between just and unjust. They went on to explain to me that's why Lolita is a literary giant. The novel obfuscates morality. Humbert Humbert, the novel's narrator and a child predator, is humanized. We, as readers, are made to empathize with his perverse longings for a child. Nabokov did the impossible. Through his writing and craft, he made Humbert Humbert feel familiar.



I stood behind my statements after speaking with the follower, but I also entertained their side. Why would literature be above morality? Why would books excuse themselves from choosing the just telling of the story? To me, that claim seemed in line with Oscar Wilde's "art for art's sake" argument, that literature rises above the spats of political and the just. Literature, books, and written stories exist on a tier of their own, only answering to themselves.


Continuing to think about the Lolita versus My Dark Vanessa question, I picked up Megha Majumdar's A Burning. Before beginning the novel, I read a review that noted it's anti-Muslim themes and encouraged readers to think critically about the book's message. Intrigued, I read A Burning with subsequent scrutiny.


In my mind, the book did the opposite of what the review claimed. Well, not exactly the opposite. The book follows three protagonists—Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir—amid a turbulent political climate. Jivan, a young Muslim woman, is accused of taking part in a terrorist attack, highlighting the tension between Muslim citizens and the Indian government (which becomes increasingly sided with right-wing nationalists as the novel progresses). From there, we follow Jivan's trial and time in prison as well as Lovely and PT Sir's attempts at entering the middle class. The stories intertwine but also stand alone as trials toward upward mobility.



Throughout the novel, Jivan and other Muslim characters are disenfranchised and othered. The government, the media, neighbors all turn against Muslim citizens in varying levels of violence. So, to turn back to the review, yes, there are ant-Muslim sentiments at the core of the book. But A Burning isn't endorsing that view—quite the opposite. The novel highlights and surreptitiously condemns what's happening to these citizens. You are made well aware of Jivan's innocence as well as the unfounded cruelty enacted by other characters. The novel acts as a witnessing to a tragic, unjust reality.


Here, my thoughts on books' morality were both simplified and immediately more complicated. I can't comment on Lolita's right to exist as a novel, but I can argue for literature's innate morality. Books entertain, but you also can't extricate them from being didactic. Fiction, nonfiction, articles, essays—they don't exist in a vacuum. The stories chosen to be told, how they're told, who tells them—books and their stories impact collective thought. When we consume novels, we are consuming information. That information comes with some commentary on right and wrong.


Great. Literature has ties to morality. But does an author have to write something moral? No, they don't have to, but I would hope they would. Lolita isn't an upstanding book; it allows a pedophile to tell his story of lusting after a child, sympathetically. You could argue, though, that Lolita makes you think about morality more broadly. By exemplifying the very wrong, it shows you what's right. Quite frankly, I think that might put too much hope in people's ability to discern things. We still have authors in 2020 that publish books steeped in racial stereotypes, non-consensual sexual encounters, and onward. It isn't until one reader calls these issues out well after the book's publication and marketing efforts that we see the problems books have.


I am sorry to present you with more questions, but here's another one: is it better to write a book that focuses on the ideal reality or to write a book that presents reality as is it? I already hope that books are just, but my debacle is figuring out what that looks like in practice. This fissure is what stumps me about My Dark Vanessa and A Burning; they represent the two camps. My Dark Vanessa offers us an ideal reality: the victim of sexual abuse begins to heal and see her past for what it is. On the other hand, A Burning offers little to no recourse to Jivan. While perhaps an extreme of what could happen to a Muslim citizen—a grossly unfair trial and the resulting consequences—it's a plausible reality. But unlike Lolita, you are painfully aware of injustice and not invited to sympathize with the media, the government, or the overt violence in Majumdar’s novel. To me, both are essential, and you need both when gauging a story.


Realism asks readers to confront reality in literature. It says, "Look at what is still happening. Look at this thing that is so obscene that it would be unjust to not include it, even in a work of fiction." Idealism asks the reader to be creative. It says, "Look at what should be and what could be. This is the reality we should aspire to." But there are pitfalls with either ideology.


Realism could excuse unchallenged racial stereotypes, homophobia, ableism, bigotry, misogyny, and the list goes on. But idealism could mask those issues as well, creating a false narrative of post-ness. I think you need the careful curation of both. Realism audited by condemnation and idealism checked by opacity.


There are so many points and veins of thought that intersect with a book’s morality, granting that you even think books should be moral. Books have ties to our collective morality. Books hold up what could be. Books reflect what unfortunately is presently. You simply need both.