Five Books With a Moral Purpose
Ron Charles recently reviewed Hillary Jordan's novel Mudbound, which had won the Bellwether Prize for "socially responsible" fiction. Ron didn't much like the book, which for his taste was too preachy and predictable.
What turned him off seems to be exactly what turned on Barbara Kingsolver, who established the prize to encourage literature that advocates for "positive social change." As the prize's Web site explains, "The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature."
Reading the criteria for the Bellwether Prize got me thinking about the line between morality and moralizing, righteousness and self-righteousness.
Writing that is overtly, intentionally "socially responsible" is hard to oppose in theory, but it's hard to like in practice. I resist any resounding social commentary that is spoon fed to me: It's not that simple, I think to myself, or if it is that simple, it's not interesting.
And yet, I've been moved by books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are full of righteous indignation, have clear moral messages and seem aimed at "positive social change." Here's a list of five (as always) and some thoughts on how they broke through my resistance. Which overtly, intentionally "socially responsible" books have you loved, and which have you despised?
1. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
I read Sinclair's blood-and-sweat soaked description of the meatpacking industry in Mrs. Jones's ninth grade social studies class. I had not really given a thought to where meat came from or to the people who produced it, other than farmers. I was shocked not just by Sinclair's descriptions (some of which I assumed were no longer true) but by my ignorant, callous, blithe dependence on people and conditions far away. I re-live those feelings of guilt and vulnerability every time I read about fish farming, factory work and chemical production in China.
2. Hiroshima, by John Hersey
What socially responsible theme could be more obvious, and therefore uninteresting, than that atomic warfare is a horror to be avoided? Even at 14 or 15, when I first read Hersey's book, the underlying message was no revelation. But I challenge anyone to come away from Hersey's book unmoved. Survivors' stories, simply told, with little of Hersey's voice but all of his journalistic attachment to detail and his novelistic talent for pacing. It's still the closest one can come to being there in 1945. Still the best argument for nuclear disarmament.
3. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, by James Carroll
A former Catholic priest, now a Boston Globe columnist, Carroll examines his own conscience along with the history of Christian anti-Semitism. I've seen Carroll attacked as anti-Catholic, but that makes no sense to me. What comes across in the book is his deep love for the church, which for him necessitates a deep examination of its historical role in anti-Semitism. It clearly is not easy or comfortable for Carroll to think about the church and the Holocaust; I found the book an exemplar of hard introspection.
4. Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, by Matthew Scully
I did not expect this book to move me, but it nearly turned me into a vegetarian. Were I a better person, it would have.
Scully was a speechwriter for President Bush from 2001 to 2004. Dominion, which takes its title from the Bible, is a religious argument for better treatment of animals. You might think it would be easy to dismiss Scully's argument either as irrelevant to non-believers or as the sheer sentimentality of a man who never got over the loss of his childhood dog.
You would be wrong. The way we treat animals is wrong; Scully has me convinced.
5. Standard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
I'm now reading this detailed account of the events and personalities behind the Abu Ghraib torture photographs. The whole episode is still appalling, of course, but it's also becoming more understandable -- not rational, not excusable, but no longer unthinkably bizarre. For one thing, I'm beginning to get a sense of who the prisoners were and what they were thinking. The one who haunts me is the one who turned the psychological tables on his captors by intentionally inflicting on himself all the humiliation they doled out; if they rammed hooded prisoners against a wall, for example, he rammed his own head against the wall with his eyes wide open, wearing no hood.
-- Alan Cooperman
By Christian Pelusi |
May 8, 2008; 6:34 AM ET
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