Arthur I. Blaustein obviously believes in the socially redeeming effects of fiction:
. . .Now more than ever, we need moral fiction as a healthy antidote to the Bush administration, which has elevated lying and deceit to an art form. Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems—and those political issues of our communities and our country—in a moral and humane way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting. They awaken us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism. They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition—about ourselves and about others. As our great Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism.
I know that Blaustein believes he is valorizing fiction by describing its ethical utility in such terms, but in my opinion he is advocating that we read fiction for all the wrong reasons. Far from elevating fiction to some kind of privileged place as an object of our regard, Blaustein's encomium to "moral fiction" really subsumes it to the prerogatives of good citizenship and reduces it to its potential value as instruction and therapy. When Faulkner said that literature is more "true" than journalism, he certainly did not mean that it was instead a way to deliver "metaphoric news," as Blaustein puts it later in his essay; he meant that it grappled with those "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself" that surely transcend our concern with the lying and deceit of the Bush administration.
Indeed, Blaustein trivializes those problems Faulkner identifies by diminishing them to our "daily personal problems" and by implying that fiction aims to teach us how to resolve "those political issues of our communities and our country." The writer, said Faulkner, must leave "no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed." Otherwise, "His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
I really don't know what it means to say that novels "can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world." Are out "inner lives" not part of the "world"? If not, where are they? And if in teaching us about "the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting," Blaustein is suggesting that, used properly, novels will encourage us to do more of the last-named, presumably in the name of the "outer world," I can only say that if you need novels to tell you that living in the world is important, that we must balance "thinking, feeling, and acting," you're not likely to take their lessons to heart, either. Not to mention understand why most writers take up fiction in the first place, which is precisely to avoid delivering lessons.
It is certainly the case that fiction "awaken[s] us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism." This is the one point on which I wholeheartedly agree with Arthur Blaustein. But it's hard to accept that he really believes this when most of his essay concentrates on the way in which reading fiction can simplify our current conundrums, can uncover for us the essence of our mass-marketed and politically corrupt social world and perhaps return us to the time when "the imaginations of young people have been fired by characters that function as role models." And it's equally hard to take Blaustein's own lessons to heart when most of his essay is as morally absolutist as this: "How has it come to pass that our founding fathers gave us a land of political and economic opportunity, and we have become a nation of political and economic opportunists? As we have come to worship the idols of power, money, and success, we have neglected the core political principles of justice, equality, community, and democracy." Or this: "This McNews approach has undercut our moral values and civic traditions. We have sought simplistic answers to complex problems without even beginning to comprehend the consequences of our loss."
(I don't necessarily disagree with these statements, but they're not conclusions one reaches from reading novels. They're moral declarations.)
Blaustein would like to see more people forming reading groups in order to share the socially constructive messages of fiction. Here are the questions he thinks such people should ask of the novels they read:
What do you think is the central theme?
What are the underlying themes?
Did the author raise any emotional conflicts you may have had… or resolve any?
Did the author challenge any political, economic, social, or cultural beliefs that you may have held with regard to race, sex, gender, class, or ethnicity?
Conspicuously absent is any question inquiring about those features of a novel that make it a compelling work of art. They're questions about "themes," emotions, and beliefs. Of course, I wouldn't want to prevent anyone from joining a reading group organized around such questions, but finally I can't quite see why in order to discuss them it would be necessary to read novels. Couldn't everyone get together and talk about certain pre-determined themes (perhaps even ones extracted from this or that novel by someone who'd once read it), specified "emotional conflicts," and selected "political, economic, social, or cultural beliefs"? If you're going to target novels because they might be useful as curatives or for raising consciousness, why not just dispense the cure or proceed with enlightening insights and save time?
The time actually spent with a work of fiction is the most valuable part of the reading experience. It is, in fact, everything. The "reading group experience" is something else altogether. Innocuous enough, undoubtedly, and maybe even helpful in the therapeutic sense, but ultimately a poor substitute for sustained engagement with a novel or short story at its deepest formal and linguistic levels or with works of fiction that aren't obviously congenial to "moral" readings. You'd think that Blaustein might at least acknowledge this.