Popular Fiction and Moral Values

The following discussion with regard the moral message and therefore the natural sympathy or antipathy the reader (viewer) will feel, applies to all forms of fiction – whether for stage and screen or novels and whether genre fiction or literary fiction, even that which is set in contemporary society, because the current readership of most any book is likely to be global.

I emphasize the distinction between literature and ”genre fiction”, because I recently learned that the latter is by some people considered of a lesser quality, because it would be quickly written and for popularity. This I believe to be a naïve generalization: Fiction is fiction; the quality difference can be found across the field and is author dependent, not genre dependent, nor is a genre fiction quickly thrown together – it took me ten years to write my science fiction – and I do not think it right to allow popular fiction to take liberties with quality just because it is intended to please the mainstream readers.

Before going into detail, and despite my belief that one of the functions of fiction is to keep a society alert to dogmatic thinking, I want to emphasize that not every writer writes for the same reasons, and when it comes to moral values, I believe there to be two different types of writers: Those that endorse the current morality of the society they live in (whether consciously or not) and those that criticize it for ethical reasons.

Generally, that which is popular within a society is that which endorses its existing beliefs, while that which criticizes it is more likely to find support outside of the society it is written in or in a different era. This has its reasons in the psychological types of people, which I have discussed elsewhere.

So I want to focus on the TV series Downton Abbey, because it is widely known and a good example of a story that has to deal with both the moral beliefs of the place and time it is set in, as well as those currently held and which influence the writer.

Downton Abbey is set in one of the rich mansions of England in the early part of the twentieth century and the characters comprise a small family of lords and ladies and a large number of servants. The first season covers the period from 1912 to 1914 – the years leading up to the First World War – during which women’s rights, especially the right to vote, was one of the important political issues.

The meticulous research into customs and practical detail, which sets historical fiction apart from other genres, is evident in the show, and it is obvious that the writer has tried to include all the news and political issues of the time: The main problem for the family is the inheritance of the estate, since they have no male heir. Additionally, one of the rich ladies supports the ‘votes for women” view, while one of the servants reads socialist literature and another is homosexual.

The story begins when the heir to the estate drowns with the Titanic, so that a distant relative from a lower class gets introduced, but just when the oldest daughter is about to be married off to him, her mother becomes pregnant (with a boy), only to lose the baby again within the same episode. To add to the political intrigue a foreigner dies in one of the daughter’s bedrooms – after the gay servant took the liberty to make advances on this man within minutes of meeting him – which is covered up as if a crime and leads to gossip with regard the girl’s marriage prospects. The back stories of the servants include marriage proposals, injuries, theft, betrayal, drunkenness and death.

But although these are all possible for the time, to have them all included within the first season creates the sense of it being forced – the way soap operas have every possible unlikely event happen within their small neighbourhood.

However, that is not the problem I have with the story. After all, would we stick with the reality of life in those days, we would most likely all be asleep.

My problem is with how these issues are treated in view of today’s western morality.

Despite the characters having a back-story, they are either good or bad and the events are rather predictable. Two of the daughters are portrayed as unkind to each other, each ruining the other’s prospect of marriage, while the third daughter is the pretty one, who embraces the servants and gets injured when supporting women’s rights – in other words, the picture perfect promoter of today’s view of equality.

One of the servants has an injury sustained in the previous war and admits to having selflessly taken blame for theft to protect a relative. Although it takes many episodes before his moral righteousness is confirmed, it was obvious from the moment he was introduced, while two of the servants are portrayed as ‘bad’; they gossip, smoke, steal and try to lay the blame with others.

But it is the gay servant, who is shown to have influenced the others badly, who doesn’t have the turn-around some of the others have in the end, suggesting they were inherently good and he was not.

Now, I have no issue with one of the characters in the story calling this man “a troubled soul” because he is a homosexual, which is correct in view of the morality of the time.

But the writer – who lives today – chooses to portray this character as a thief, a traitor, a smoker, a liar and, especially, a coward. That last sentiment comes with him choosing, in view of the coming war, to join the medics to prevent having to go to the battlefield.

This contributes to the still widespread stereotype of gay men as weak and effeminate – not “real men”, which are supposedly those who risk their life in war. The writer thus emphasizes the moral sentiment that is popular, not just with regard homosexuality and smoking, but especially with regard war.

This moral message – that soldiers are brave and manly – is kept alive by those who run the society to ensure that enough young boys will be willing to risk their lives when politicians choose to engage in the next war. Many people will verbally express that they want peace , but their actions don’t support this (and the same goes for accepting homosexuality); like the show, they say they want peace, but they pass on the message that soldiers are brave and those who value their lives are cowards.

And most do this unconsciously, without realizing this contradiction; without considering that today’s soldiers throw bombs onto civilians from the safety of a plane, and that even in the First World War many soldiers used women and children as shields, so that the concept of “brave” no longer applies – if it ever did. Needless to say that I will not watch the rest of the series, because I don’t like its moral preaching. My books, after all, are written to help establish world peace and I can’t do that while promoting the virtues of war or the hero-message.

Now, I only used Downton Abbey as an example, because it was so blatantly obvious, but I think that every fiction – whether historical, contemporary or science fiction – will express a writer’s own ethical views. This, in turn, influences how the audience responds to a story.  So I believe that Downton Abbey is popular because it appeals to the unconscious sentiments of the majority of the population and in addition, it allows for a certain amount of escapism, since it deals with the problems of a past generation, while today’s audience (mistakenly) believes to no longer support war and inequality. In turn, this popularity suggests that this is the right way to think, so that the story endorses today’s moral views.

And since this is the case with most popular fiction, it becomes very difficult for the alternative view to be noticed – unless a novel creates a total moral outrage, like Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons did – so that it takes a long time before new ideas become accepted. Yet had it not been for countless writers and story tellers to portray, for example, homosexuals as real human beings rather than the stereotyped “troubled souls”, they would still be thrown into prison.

My view is that there is never one moral opinion that rules an entire population, but that the ethical (personal) views of individuals are not considered when portraying a culture and are soon forgotten when we look back at a past era. For example, today we say things like “the Ancient Greeks believed … “ as if they were all in agreement with each other.

Therefore, I am interested in the views of readers and writers alike – especially of historical fiction – on how they believe the writer’s moral and ethical views influences a story and what that means for how the general population regards right and wrong.

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