The Nice-ification of Fiction

The Catcher in the Rye
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This comment reminds me of a pet peeve I’ve been meaning to address for a while anyway: the all-too-common tendency to dismiss narrative fiction because the protagonists are “unsympathetic.” I suspect this is a peculiarly American thing; in London, I had a Gothic Literature class with Professor Clive Bloom, and he would occasionally gripe that vampires used to be scary before Americans made them “the rebellious boy you wouldn’t want to bring back to your mum and dad.” You Americans have to make everyone nice, he would say.

He has a point. I’ve heard more than a few intelligent people say they stopped watching Mad Men because Don Draper is a sleazeball, or tossed A Catcher in the Rye aside because there was nothing redeeming in Holden Caufield’s philosophy. I can’t say I understand it. What’s so fascinating about clean, friendly, admirable people? Why is a desire to explore the minds of unsavory characters some kind of flaw on the part of the author? And why, in god’s name, would we want to set a standard of good fiction that has no room for some of the most fascinating, complex fictional characters of all time? I can’t wrap my head around a canon that has no room for the scoundrel Odysseus, the pedophile Humbert Humbert, the murderer Raskolnikov, or pretty much any Flannery O’Connor character. Are we really so unable to distinguish between the presentation of a point of view and its endorsement?

Serious readers should be able to appreciate the perspectives of morally bankrupt characters. We should be able to understand the appeal of their world views. After all, if doing the right thing is easy, then there is no story; the story comes from struggle, and the struggle exists because doing the right thing is often profoundly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that people—people just as good as us, and perhaps better—fail. A lot.

We exercise our moral sense in coming to understand these people, and in coming to understand how easy it is to turn into them. If we decide that right is easy, and wrong has no seductive power over us, then we cease to exercise our moral sense—instead, we practice the sort of unreflective arrogance that leaves people open to corruption.

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