Moral “Simplicity” and the Complexity of Reading

Most of the time, I read interviews with authors and don’t write anything in response. However, when I read the interview Susan Lerner did with Jonathan Franzen, his take on the “hard lives” of people and their reading habits set me off. So, here we go:

First, in response to a question about adults reading YA literature, he said, “If it’s a loss, it’s their loss, not mine.”

You know, as a teacher of disadvantaged teenagers, I will say this one time: THERE IS NO LOSS IF SOMEONE IS READING AND, as a result, DISCOVERING LITERATURE, no matter the method of discovery. Not everyone is on the same “intellectual” level; we cannot all be “the best living” something. Even if we were the best living anything, I’m sure we would all have some semblance of humility. Or relatability. But that really is not my point.

Anyway. On to the question of “moral complexity” in reading. Here is Franzen’s response when he interrupted Lerner’s reference to Ruth Graham’s argument that it’s a “collective loss” if adults read YA literature:

“Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes. That’s exactly what you want if you’re having a hard life. Who am I to tell people that they need to have their noses rubbed in moral complexity?”

Yes, the general population has hard days. We work at jobs where we are not respected, where we don’t have the luxuries of arrogance and condescension. We work hard for what we bring home—even, as I’m sure, JFranz does. But who is to say that what we read—even if it isn’t Alice Munro—is not morally complex? Living is morally complex. Going to work and swallowing your pride every day to provide for your family is morally complex. As I said on Twitter, Moral complexity is life, is literature, is living. It’s everywhere. Not to mention the fact that, no matter what we are reading, our brains are convincing our muscles we’re doing the things about which we read. We become the characters. We live through them. We learn. We do. The fact that books increase brain activity has to count for something, right?

Do I want “to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all”? Some days, yes. Some days I want to be assured that good and light exist in the world, and so I might re-read a Harry Potter book. But other days I want to live through the emotional, mental, and physical struggles of Mireille Jameson. And then other days I want to read how Nora Sutherlin processes through her feelings about her personal journey. I also want to follow Toby on her journey of self-discovery and finding love in the aftermath of a world-ending pandemic. Still, on other days, I want to read Little Blue Truck Leads the Way to my son, so that I can impart a complex moral tenet—that leading is not always easy, especially if you feel out of place—through the simple story of a blue truck.

And to say that those are “schmaltzy tropes?” I would love to know what world Franzen lives in that he looks down on everyone else—and on everyone else’s perception of the world around them. Maybe Rebecca Schinsky was correct:

Bottom line: Reading is a complex thing; we discover new moral truths, new perspectives on life, and new ways of thinking with every book we read. And so, for those of us that read on a consistent basis, we embark on a complex journey of learning every time we open a book, no matter what the story is. That is the true beauty of reading, no matter how “simple” or “complex” others may think the story.

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