Looking for real virtue in literature

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

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.

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Today, the neoclassical ideals of virtue that form the basis of America's national character have been replaced by the relativistic values of an increasingly godless civilization.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.

Since Charles Darwin, scientists have sought to examine altruistic and cooperative behavior as correlates of virtue. Their research suggests that all human motivations are selfish and that cooperative behavior is merely a tool to further human survival. Consequently, unlike literary writers today, the scientists would argue there are no virtuous actions removed from selfish desires to promote individual and group interests.

Enter Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist who argues in "The Happiness Hypothesis" that moral decisions are based on primitive emotional behavior developed prior to language and reasoned judgment. Consequently, rational analysis is considered only after we have arrived at the emotional outlook that dictates our actions. Mr. Haidt suggests our motives are selfish, although guided by moral norms.

His staggering implications challenge the contemporary liberal assumptions underlying modern civilization: 1) People are fundamentally good-natured, and favor peace and prosperity; 2) Social justice demands equal outcomes for all, even when that strips opportunities from those with more talent.

Haidt suggests that modern Western societies emphasize "do no harm" and "fairness" at the expense of deference, ritual, and group loyalty. These traditional values deter selfishness, integrate people, and formed the foundation of social norms prior to the 1960s.

Modern Western society's reliance on "do no harm" and "fairness" forms the basis for fiction today. The criteria for "great" literature are perverted: a subjective world existing entirely within the minds of characters; impassioned advocacy for the disadvantaged, devoid of economic and social realism; and a denunciation of masculine aggression in favor of idealized femininity and perpetual childhood.

The corruption of these criteria is never acknowledged. Otherwise, publishers might consider fiction that is fully engaged in describing the social and cultural circumstances of our world, rather than an idealized fantasy of love and "virtue" that female readers hunger to read.

The solutions are as apparent as the light of reason. Embrace the neoclassical values of excellence directed toward the pursuit of truth. Strive for exalted standards. Acknowledge science and the less-than-virtuous motivations that influence human actions, but temper this understanding with morality shaped by character and driven to revitalize civilization. And celebrate writers such as Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth, who dare to describe in realistic detail our world so that society may comprehend its failings, endeavor to improve, and aspire to all that is most noble.

Diana Sheets, a novelist, writes literary criticism and political commentary at www.literarygulag.com.

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