Back when I taught eighth-grade literature, Ed Abbey's coming-of-age novel, Fire on the Mountain, was always on the reading list. It's about a Southwestern rancher fighting to protect his property from condemnation by the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force wants the property for a missile range.
The 12-year-old narrator is the rancher's grandson. He who knows the old man will die if he's forced off the place he loves. But his parents are trying to get his grandfather to live with them in the city. The novel showcases conflicts between the collective and the individual, parents and children, military and civilians, modernity and agrarianism.
I didn't choose the book for its good writing. I chose it because Abbey makes bad guys really bad,and good guys really good. Bad: collective parental military modernity. Good: individual civilian child agrarians.
But when I asked my students to write essays supporting one side or the other, the response was, "The old man didn't want to leave his ranch, but the Air Force needed it for missiles. They were both right." Most of my eighth-graders had recently discovered how to use relativism against their parents, and were loath to give it up. When I insisted their essays take a moral stand, they wouldn't do it, even when I threatened F-minuses.
Later, when I taught undergraduates creative writing, I told them writing necessarily involves moral judgments. My students still hated this idea. Many of them were channeling the Writer as Tragic Hero, or above-it-all Nietzschean Hero or Sullen-Hero-in-Black-Who-Chain-Smokes-Gauloises--sometimes the same person channeled all of them at once. These Beyond-Good-and-Evil folks seldom got much writing done.
Other students, finding evil tough to write about, found easier subjects in prelapsarian childhoods. I was handed stories about secret meadows, favorite sweaters or finding long-lost stuffed animals a week before college.
Remembering my experience teaching Ed Abbey, I put Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita on the reading list of a course titled The Literature of Desire. It went well, sparking insightful discussions and essays that noted Nabokov's technical skills, empathy and genius as a witness.
But it was a rare student who would identify Nabokov's pedophilic Humbert Humbert as a horrible human being. Some students--not all of them men--defended Humbert's journey toward evil, saying that he was simply trying to escape a stultifying and ordinary life. Eighteen- to 22-year-olds are by nature voraciously narcissistic. I suppose they could claim Humbert, a predatory and lonely narcissist, as one of their own. But it was disturbing to have students who thought Lolita neither contained nor required a moral judgment.
A teaching career leads to the inescapable conclusion that people aren't born with an innate sense of right and wrong. It's something they have to be taught. Reading literature is a good start, and Lolita is a better instruction manual than Pollyanna, because Lolita is not about thinking of six impossible things before breakfast. Instead, it's about the awful possibility that ordinary life requires child victims. If this idea is shocking to you, you didn't grow up during the Vietnam War.
It wasn't until I began to teach graduate-level writers--specifically, women in their 40s and 50s who were going back to school--that I encountered students who understood life requires an understanding of who is being traded for what.
Their reaction to my rule that writers must make moral judgments was, "Tell us something we don't know." It meant we could get to work, that they could find their subjects in the alternating light and darkness of the world rather than in the minor aches and pains of the self. That doesn't mean that I discouraged inward-looking autobiographical fiction. But I pointed out that the great human struggle between awareness and shadow is usually easier to see in fictional characters than it is in one's own interior.
I recommended morally-purposed novels to my graduate students. Besides Lolita, their reading list included Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Joyce Carol Oates' Black Water. These novels make explicit the evil that a powerful male hierarchy inflicts upon women, children and less powerful men.
The bleakness of these novels is balanced with a dark humor--the humor of the tumbril, if not the gallows. Without an awareness of the dark, funny and lethal ironies of life, literature degenerates into the ineffectual didactic cant heard in fundamentalist churches and American history courses.
Like Lolita, these books lead us to an unvarnished vision of humans as poor, deluded, mortal, forked animals--even the most powerful, even the most wealthy and, God forbid, even the wisest.
After a career teaching writing and literature, I can say it's better to be outside power than in it. It's better to abdicate power than to use it to oppress others, to be self-consciously weak than unconsciously powerful.
Of course, writing offers the possibility of being consciously powerful, of being able to look at the world in its disturbing entirety, to eventually come to the knowledge of what's right and what's wrong, and to share that knowledge with everybody, if everybody's lucky.
Adapted from the MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.