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Opinion

Looking for real virtue in literature

Fiction should reject solipsistic preoccupations and examine the world at large.

By Diana Sheets / January 9, 2008



Champaign, Ill.

The publishing industry has reduced its fictional offerings in recent years to the most banal, the most feminized, the most gentrified, the most formulaic, the most politically correct pabulum. Yet its readership continues to plummet. In response, publishers have increasingly promoted nonfiction: celebrity tales, exhibitionism-cum-memoir, and a deluge of informational prattle. Sadly, the once wild and dynamic range of fictional offerings is no more.

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To correct this abysmal trend, fiction must dispense with solipsistic preoccupations of self and love and family – and reclaim classic virtues and the work of examining the world at large. For the Greeks, the word arete translates as both excellence and virtue with the implied search for truth. Plato noted that only under special circumstances will individuals tame their unruly appetites to devote their lives to the search for truth. Aristotle saw happiness as the manifestation of the soul expressing virtue.

How is this Greek notion of virtue represented in literature today? Is it evident in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"? A Pulitzer Prize winner, it's the story of a hermaphrodite of Greek heritage, Callie, a girl who at 14 becomes Cal, a man. The story achieves "virtue" by celebrating a marginalized man whom women may nurture as their own.

America's founders upheld the Greek emphasis on virtue. They placed great stock in character. They favored meritocracy. Virtue, in pursuit of excellence, lay at the foundation of their core values. Sadly, in today's literary context, those core values are either marginalized or mocked.

Consider M.T. Anderson's "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party." It is unlikely that the novel could have received the 2006 National Book Award for Young People's Literature except for its unremitting focus on social justice. The history of the American Revolution is presented against the backdrop of slavery, racism, human rights violations, and the ravages of war. It lays waste to the values of the founders in an effort to ensure the ascendancy of social justice.

Today, the neoclassical ideals of virtue that form the basis of America's national character have been replaced by the relativistic values of an increasingly godless civilization. Lifestyle, the culmination of these values, is navigated by a protean Self, the arbiter and actuator of its own moral realm.

Literary fiction reflects these contemporary mores. It has become relativistic and solipsistic, donning the vestments of social justice at the expense of truth. It celebrates interior thought or consciousness while denigrating the discomforting landscape of the real.

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