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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » moral nutrition?

   
Author Topic: moral nutrition?
Crane
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Kathleen suggested that I open this topic here. It developed from a topic about GRRM's books in another area of this BB.
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If people are living in the worlds we create while they are reading what we write, those worlds are going to affect them, just as the food they eat is going to affect them. Perhaps its the responsibility of fantasy authors to offer nutritious meals. Jung proposed that our subconscious communicates with our waking mind with symbols (in dreams and perhaps in 'prophetic' portents); and it seems likely that we also absorb symbols from our waking mind which affect our subconscious. If we want to be healthy and happy, and if we want the people who live on this planet with us to be healthy and happy, perhaps it is our duty to create morally strong, healthy stories. What do you guys think? Am I reaching here, or is my logic sound?

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KayTi
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I'm all about the stories that have upbeat tone, upbeat endings. I have never had patience for books where life sucks, then the characters all die (or so it seems.) It's one of many reasons I found myself drawn to science fiction from a very very young age (I was reading much of Heinlein and Asimov before it was age-appropriate for me!)

Now it's one of the strongest reasons I write. I love writing for young people (I write MG and YA sci-fi, occasionally fantasy.) I wish more of contemporary genre YA fiction were more upbeat, but it's not. A lot of today's stories are about the way life sucks, enumerating all of them.

I aim for a different meal, I suppose, to use your metaphor. Rather than the meat-and-potatoes life sucks and then you die, I prefer to write and read lighter fare. A vegetarian diet, if you will. My stories are grilled asparagus with a really lovely white wine cream sauce... (If Bent Tree is around I know he'll appreciate the metaphor!)

I do think you have a point, and it's one of many reasons I've avoided not just GRRM, but also other contemporary fantasy novelists whose primary goal seems to be to gross me out, rather than to entertain, enlighten, and leave me with a sense of the transcendence of humanity. That seems lost in today's fiction, at least to me...


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Owasm
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I'm more with KayTi. I don't think of in terms of healthy food, but just a different kind of fare.

I read to enjoy the story. I don't get a kick out of gratuitous suffering. Mothers and children dying and bad people running around without any inhibitions about killing others, unless there is a real purpose and it doesn't happen for long.

It's like writing a story about an MC who no one likes. Plus... I like happy endings. I just watched the last Harry Potter movie. (SPOILER WARNING) If it ended where Harry throws a wand into a deep ravine and walks away, I would have thought, what a waste of life to bring the story to that point... but to soften that, there is a denouement that takes the harshness away. Even the last three or four books were actually too dark for my taste and my enjoyment of them lessened.

Give me Retief! Fafhrd and Mouser! Jack Vance and his brash young men fighting against the establishment! Those were the days! I say that with a shawl around my shoulders in my rocking chair. Certainly not pablum, but not raw meat cut off a freshly killed carcass.


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EVOC
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Ah yes. I agree with this.

But, I have also read some stories where the world is just too good. I would argue that any realistic world needs a mix of despair and job. A little defeat is sometimes good, and builds even more moral character.

So, a candy bar every now and again won't hurt anyone.

Of course, a morally uplifting story can take place in the darkest of worlds. And, the characters dying is not necessarily a morally bad thing. It really is the message of the story that has to be looked at to determine morality.

As KayTi said, I want to be entertained not grossed out.

Now if you will excuse me. All this talk of meat and potatoes and grilled asparagus has got me a bit hungry.


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Crane
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I just finished a book that is one of the least enjoyable reads I've had in a long time. It was well written, and the author captivated me in the first few chapters by introducing an adorably bumbling and hyper-intelligent fantasy reader as the MC, and it seems that all his dreams are coming true. Now what fantasy reader isn't going to love this guy? It was a set-up, but I didn't see it coming. He spends the rest of the novel, screwing up this guy's life and giving the reader heavy handed symbolism. I'm actually outraged that he decided to use a Narnia-like fantasy world to do all this with. It burns my toast. I just finished the book this morning, so I'm still taking it a little bit personally. This novel is actually a fairy tale: the kind of horrible scary fairytale that's supposed to leave children with an important moral in the end. The moral of the novel is: you can't fix your life by escaping into a fantasy world.

Yeah, ok, fine. I agree with that. But his nasty, stab-your-reader-in-the-heart methods leave me cold. That's right: my toast is not only burned, but also cold. And by not acknowledging that fantasy has value beyond escapism makes his attempt at parable fall as flat as... cold burnt toast.

Fantasy has value beyond escapism: I've heard it said (and my experience bears this up) that our dreams are messages that are meant to help us improve ourselves. We can solve problems in our dreams, for example. Problems that we aren't consciously aware of, or that we've been ignoring can come up in our dreams, for another example. I feel like fantasy literature is similar to dreaming in those ways. I find that the more I read about chivalrous knights and men of honor, the more picky I am about the kind of men I let into my life, for example. Do you guys see this effect?


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Osiris
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quote:
perhaps it is our duty to create morally strong, healthy stories. What do you guys think? Am I reaching here, or is my logic sound?

I think the logic of this statement is sound though I'd respectfully disagree with the notion that a story must be upbeat in tone to accomplish this. I think the most artful writers are the ones who strike a balance that reflects reality. I'm not interested in a story where everything is perfect, because then there is no conflict, and I'm not interested in stories with no upside, because then there is no satisfying conclusion. Life is nuanced, and I feel stories should be the same. To me, nuanced writing is proper writing.

Take the novel 1984 for example. It has a strong moral message carried by a vehicle that is dystopian. Certainly, the ending won't leave anyone feeling upbeat (except for perhaps, Hosni Mubarak), but there is love in the story, and this provides some relief for the reader.

Crane, what I found most disturbing about the book you read is that it denies that fantasy has no value beyond escapism. I'm primarily a sci-fi reader, and often encounter the same attitude from non-SF readers. Lord of the Rings? No value beyond escapism? 1984, a social-SF work, no value beyond escapism? I'd be very curious to know if the author of the novel you mentioned has actually read any fantasy or SFF.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited August 06, 2011).]


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Crane
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The author of this book is apparently a well-respected book critic. So he probably is well-read. Maybe he hates his job. I've been reading reviews of this book and they are polarized. Some folks love it; some felt like I do about it.

As to a nuanced story, I think you're right. If all our fantasy books are set in candy-land we'd all have tummy aches. A nutritious, enjoyable meal has a mix of flavors. A little bit of bitter is nice: who doesn't enjoy a coffee or tea now and then? What I resent about the book I just read is that it felt like the author handed me a pretty cupcake filled with lye soap and aspirin.


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Natej11
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This is sort of written musing, and it may be a bit rambling and I may be way off base with some of my points, but I'd like to explore the why of those depressing stories that are full of despair, and their prevalence at the moment.

Fantasy really took root and flourished during the years of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and a little bit earlier on in WWII. Conditions were terrible for a lot of people and everyone was tired of the constant wars. Fantasy served as a form of escapism. People could visit other worlds where things were brighter, where people were noble and honorable and good and evil was black and white with no gray areas to worry about.

Science Fiction really boomed during the early years of the space program. Suddenly everyone was thinking about humanity moving beyond this planet. A new frontier to explore. Everyone was full of hope for the future, and the stories reflected that hope and search for adventure. In a way sci-fi was like a new skin on the old westerns that explored the frontiers on this world. Then the space program didn't go as far as we thought it would. We weren't creating massive space stations circling our planet, we weren't traveling to Mars, we weren't terraforming Venus. Sci-fi remained popular, but its appeal began to wane.

In recent years things have begun getting tough again, and fantasy has had a resurgence in popularity. Again people are looking for an escape.

But there's a new type of story as well. One where people can look around the world and see that it's just impossibly messed up and they can't think of any way to fix it, so people are looking beyond mere escapism to thinking maybe it would just be better if it all went away and people could start fresh. Post-apocalyptic stories, particularly zombies or nuclear disaster, are becoming much more popular. I've talked to plenty of people who talk about the collapse of society with great eagerness, squirreling away food and preparing for chaos and meeting with groups to gleefully predict the calamities to come. And they might not even be wrong. If you're looking for an emerging trend to dive into go ahead and write about the end of the world .

But even with fantasy and sci-fi and other genres this general despair is starting to rear its head. Stories aren't so much about heroes overcoming odds and everything turning out okay anymore. Heroes are often villains, or somewhere gray in between. The world plunges into chaos and everyone is scraping by and the world is populated by evil people hurting each other with no end in sight. If escape is the message of fantasy and hope is the message of sci-fi, today people are turning to the message of despair wherever they can find it.


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Foste
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I like GRRM. And Abercrombie and Erickson. After A Dance With Dragons I plan to read Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, which seems quite dark.
But I also read Sanderson's books. I loved every word of The Name of the Wind and Wise Man's Fear by Pat Rothfuss.
I try to vary my reading diet. Now, I am not into grittiness for the sake of grittiness. I am interested how characters react in a morally ambigious universe. That makes Geralt of Rivia such an engaging character. He tries very hard to be a good person.
A good story entertains me and makes me think. That's what I want, so that is the writer's responsibility (for me at least). And while I disagree with Grin's over-the-top essay that decries the nihilism of modern fantasy, I think if grittiness becomes a cliche that'd be... porn (for the lack of a better word).

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KathiS
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quote:
Fafhrd and Mouser!

Haven't thought of them in ages!! Might have to do some digging and blow some dust off some covers. :-)

I personally don't need a happy ending or a world dripping sugar, but I do need a story that leaves me with at least a glimmer of hope. That's why I'm terrified of the T-Rex. Seriously. There's no hope with him (even though he has those stubby little arms). You can't escape and you're doomed. Even if I feel that way in the middle of the story, I better come out of it feeling I'm not doomed or I'm one unhappy camper. And nothing can ruin my day more than investing time into a book and coming out of it feeling somehow cheated. It can be as dark as you want with everyone dying and the world going to heck in the proverbial hand basket so long as I can feel those deaths weren't in vain, weren't gratuitous, and that something good may just come of it.

kls

Mmmmm....grilled asparagus.....


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Robert Nowall
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You can read The Lord of the Rings just for escapism...but you can read it from the moral lessons it teaches, of which there are several. A lot of post-Tolkien commercial fantasy lack quite a bit in the morals department.
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EmilyS
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quote:
I think the logic of this statement is sound though I'd respectfully disagree with the notion that a story must be upbeat in tone to accomplish this.

Exactly. In the darkest circumstances, you can shine the greatest light. The ending may be uplifting, but the book itself could be quite dark. I enjoy lighter fare as well, but I find the greatest satisfaction in books that follow this particular pattern (usually epic fantasy, because they have the most room to play with dire circumstances, but not always).

@Crane: I'm pretty sure I know the book you're talking about, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It felt like the author had gone to all the trouble of writing a fantasy book only to make the point that he doesn't like the genre.


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MattLeo
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We have a responsibility as moral agents to leave the world a better place in everything we do. That isn't license for us to beat other people over their heads with our opinions.

Of course if somebody wants to be beat over the head with your opinion I suppose that is a kind of license, but I'm not sure it leaves the world a better place. When people want to hear your opinion, it's invariably because they think it's the same as theirs. We are living in the age of the Great Sorting; where our ideas are no longer honed against our neighbors, who by chance often have different viewpoints than us; we settle into online communities of like-minded people in which our opinions are never seriously challenged.

So I am dubious about books that have something to say ... unless it is something that hasn't been said before, of course. I think an author focused on a message we've already heard is apt to do more harm than good, even if the author is absolutely right about everything (which no human ever is). The problem with polemic writing is that its like the roulette wheel in Rick's cafe: the author controls the outcome. Therefore if we are persuaded to the author's position by the events in the story, it's a cheat. Enlightening people this way is like burning a village to save it.

Now writing an entertaining, well-constructed story, there is an unmitigated good deed. Does that mean stories can't be serious? Or have sad endings? Of course not. It's just that it's quite presumptuous of an author to set himself up as a sage. I am particularly irked by writers who see it as their duty to show us the world can be a cruel, painful place. Do they think we don't know that? Is it a service to presume to inform a cancer patient that life is full of pain? These are things we know; as a writer you can either use them, or set them aside, whichever serves your primary role best, which is to tell a satisfying story.

So how do you handle serious subjects without presuming to take the role of the reader's rebbe? By assuming the role of somebody who asks interesting questions. Rather than tell people what to think, invite them to think for themselves. You can have a conclusion you'd prefer readers to walk away with, but if you're in the persuasion business you've got to run an honest game. It's all too easy to exploit your authorial control over chance and circumstance to convince gullible people, but even if your position is right that's a disservice.

In a nutshell, write with integrity. If your aim is to entertain, you'll be more entertaining. If your aim is to persuade, you'll be more persuasive.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 06, 2011).]


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MAP
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I disagree with a lot of what is being said. I really don't think that a writer needs to write things that are uplifting nor do I believe that writers shouldn't have something important to say when they write. They don't have to have something important to say, but surely they can. Although I do think that it takes a great writer to purposely write something profound, but it has been done many times, and it will be done again.

Arthur Miller's play, the Crucible is deep, profound, amazing and not preachy at all. It is based on real events (Salem witch trials in case you live under a rock ) and parallelled disturbingly similar events that were occuring (I believe) at the time he wrote the play (The McCarthy trials).

If I remember correctly he wrote it to show the craziness of the McCarthy trials, and the story is depressing as hell. But it was powerful and something I believe society needed to hear.

I like gritty stories (that are gritty for a reason), depressing stories (that are depressing for a reason), stories with deep meaning without the use of a sledgehammer, but mostly I do prefer the upbeat stories (although not swimming in sugar).

These different types of stories do different things and have different purposes, and any of them done well enough can be meaningful and good for society.

But if you don't like a certain type of story, you certainly don't have to read it.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 06, 2011).]

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 06, 2011).]


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MattLeo
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Well, MAP, I don't know if you meant me, but I never said writers shouldn't have anything important to say, or that stories have to be uplifting or can't be dark or sad. I simply believe that if you have a point to make, you'd better be making one that hasn't been made over and over, or you'd better have a nuanced, thought provoking treatment for it.

*The Crucible* makes my point. Miller was standing up and saying something that wasn't safe to say in 1953. That was important, and the play remains a cultural landmark, but *The Crucible* is not nearly as powerful now as it was in 1953. It can't be, because we all know history's ultimate judgment on McCarthy: he was a egotistical, hypocritical monster.

Now if you like *The Crucible*, you'll probably also like Jean Anouilh's *Antigone*, a play that has held up much better over the years than *The Crucible*, fine though that play may be. It was first performed in 1943, in Nazi occupied France, and as an allegory for the French Resistance to German occupation it had to somehow get past the Nazi censors.

Creon the tyrant is portrayed much more sympathetically than in Sophocles. He is given reasonable sounding arguments; and in contrast to Sophocles' Creon he's even willing to be flexible. In this version it's Antigone who's stiff-necked, and she doesn't offer reasonable arguments. She faces Creon with little more than obdurate defiance.

This is the principle of making your villain understandable and somewhat sympathetic taken to its extreme. The Nazi censors no doubt thought Anouilh had rewritten *Antigone* to vindicate the dictator, but they were mistaken. For most people coming away from the play, Antigone's vindication is all the more powerful for giving Creon every possible advantage. It doesn't matter how reasonable Creon sounds, because the audience knows he's wrong. It doesn't matter how flexible Creon is if he won't do the right thing. It's sheer genius: stronger arguments in Antigone's mouth would only obscure the moral emptiness lying beneath Creon's reasonable facade.

And, if you insist on a dark ending, Antigone is buried alive for her trouble.

So Anouilh's *Antigone* and *The Crucible* are both allegories for the time they were written in, but in my opinion *Antigone* retains more of its emotional and persuasive power. Why? Because it forces us to think, to work harder to walk away with the conclusion we know is right.

As for "gritty", I detest that adjective almost as much as I detest "edgy". Both suggest a kind of self-conscious artificiality, at least to my ear.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 06, 2011).]


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MAP
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Mattleo, I guess I did misunderstand you. I agree that if you are trying to get a message across in a story, you need a light touch with a skillful hand.

I know that I'm not ready for that level of writing, and honestly I probably never will reach that level.

My point, which I think I made poorly, is that life is hard. We all know that. But sometimes we ignore the evils of the world especially if they are not directly aimed at us. And maybe reading a fantasy novel about a brutal, harsh world can help remind us of that and help us sympathize more with people who are truly suffering. So that 29,000 children dead in Somalia will mean something more to us than just a staggering statistic.

I guess what I'm trying to say is sometime society needs someone to hold up a mirror to the harshness in the world, and other times (or at the same time) society needs hope and heroes that prevail against all odds.

I know not all gritty novels do this (I'm not a fan of grittiness for grittiness sake), but some stories do. Like The Crucible. But I don't like the idea that all dark, gritty, depressing stories are harmful to society.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 07, 2011).]


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Owasm
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Having read the discussion, for me a story doesn't have to be sweetness and light for the entire story. If it was, there wouldn't be a story with sufficient conflict to get interested in or to properly identify with the MC.

My issue is I don't read books to get a dark thrill, to get scared. I don't go to horror movies or pursue dark fantasy. Still there are plenty of stories where good fights evil. I like evil to take it in the shorts, most of the time. That's all.


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philocinemas
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quote:
If we want to be healthy and happy, and if we want the people who live on this planet with us to be healthy and happy, perhaps it is our duty to create morally strong, healthy stories.

I believe in messages, but I also believe in subtlety. I do not believe that moral soundness is necessary in presenting a viewpoint, nor do I believe that one necessarily has to agree with a certain viewpoint when presenting a message. To me, what is important is the question. It is then up to the reader to determine the answer. How's that for ambiguity?

Here is an example:
One of the most recognized stories of inspiration is about a young man who kills another man two or three times his size in a sparring contest and becomes famous. This brings him to the attention of his king, who treats him as his own son for a while. After the king becomes suspicious of him, he runs away and becomes a bandit, robbing and killing people by ambushing them in the desert. His fame precedes him and he eventually rises to the throne, indirectly causing the death of his former king. After he becomes king, he purposely sends one of his best friends to die in battle so he can sleep with his friend's wife. Then some of his children have incestuous relationships, and the one that inherits his throne uses his power to enslave people and have sex parties all the time.

Sounds like it would make a great GRRM novel...


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Crane
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One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors, China Mieville (who is apparently a communist):

quote:
Iím not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. Iím a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, Iím not writing them to make political points. Iím writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that Iím creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... Iím trying to say Iíve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, thatís fantastic. But if not, isnít this a cool monster?

[This message has been edited by Crane (edited August 07, 2011).]


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History
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A story should leave the reader with something.
It need not be upliftng, but it must be true.
Ideally, this will be memorable.

As authors (or in my case, would-be author), we are entertainers. We are also fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, doctors, lawyers, bakers, and candlestick makers. We are fellow human beings with diverse cultural backgrounds, education, and experiences. We each have our own windows through which we view the world, the universe; and we possess (or strive to possess) the gift of sharing what we see and feel and touch and breathe with others. We cast light on spans joining what someone believed unbridgeable, we demonstrate the canyon between what others believed inseparable. We let others see the world through our windows, our eyes, our heart and offer affirmation or new perspectives, new appreciation, of what someone has taken for granted or open their eyes to something new.

All writing is shared experience and thought.

The Jewish history, folklore, wisdom, and teachings in my stories are inherently moral-based--but they are only relevant to the story as beliefs held by characters and as points of internal character conflict. The truth is: they may lead to as many questions as they do answers. My current WOTF offering is a particular example of this. We all struggle with morality, immorality, amorality, and moral ambiguity. We may not always find absolute answers, but we may accept, however imperfectly, answers that suffice.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

[This message has been edited by History (edited August 07, 2011).]


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Robert Nowall
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I figure, with my writings, I'm competing for the attention of readers who'll switch to something else if the moral-message-within-a-story I'm telling isn't damned entertaining. (Ignore for the moment that I haven't sold anything professionally.) There's a lot of stuff out there, and some of it does a pretty good job of entertaining as well.

Aside, kinda: as I recall, I read The Crucible when I was in high school (don't think I've seen any of the movie versions)...much later on, I found that neither the Salem witch hunts nor the McCarthy era were anything like it. Not the only example, I'm afraid: Inherit the Wind wasn't anything like the Scopes monkey trial...and if you think you know something about the JFK assassination from watching that Oliver Stone movie, you're a few thinks shy of a full brain...

Of course, however deficient these things are in connection to the real events, doesn't detract from the entertainment value these things present. The creators worked hard to make them entertaining, so as to get their twisted message across.


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Reziac
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Speaking as one of the old fogies hereabouts, and pulling no punches:

I can see all the Reality I want to all around me, I'm old enough to make my own moral judgments, and I'm tired of moral snobs telling me how I should think. I read fiction purely for entertainment and escape. If I catch your book making a moral at me, it's liable to impact the far wall at high velocity, and be the last of yours I ever touch.

That has nothing to do with whether your characters are moral or immoral or even amoral (or by whose standards), and by all means stretch the boundaries all around. Do whatever you want there, so long as it's reasonably self-consistent in the world you've created. But don't try to SELL it to me. I ain't buying.


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