'I think too much complexity can actually be a bad thing.'
February 22, 2024 12:00 PM   Subscribe

"I decided to write a sequel of sorts to a craft talk I gave in Paris last month on what I’ve been calling moral worldbuilding, which to me just means being more conscientious about the kinds of value systems we include in our work, and facing up to the fear of being called didactic or melodramatic. That talk was pretty diagnostic and focused mostly on theorizing causes of how we got there. This one focuses more on the aesthetic qualities of bad moral worldbuilding and their immediate causes. It’s pretty vibey." Brandon Taylor's new essay, living shadows: aesthetics of moral worldbuilding.
posted by mittens (18 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
(reserving my editorializing for this comment: good god i love hearing brandon talk about writing.)
posted by mittens at 12:01 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]

This is great stuff. It can be hard to write contemporary fiction that gives the protagonist much agency against the world. So much of modern life reduces our range of choices to absurdity. Taylor says, "Do not merely copy and paste the value systems of our world into your story. Ask yourself, is this particular milieu I am describing governed by the hazy rules I feel in my own life or by some set of more concrete if arbitrary norms," reminding us that fiction is not just descriptive but aspirational. We go to fiction looking for models of how to be, and it's good to hear someone calling us out (as writers and readers) to be better.
posted by rikschell at 12:47 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]

posted by mistersix at 12:53 PM on February 22

That was awesome--thanks! It's hard to put a finger on why some stories feel like they have a moral dimension without being didactic, and moral worldbuilding is a great term for it. Many authors with free works online leapt to mind while reading this. Like in my head Olga Tokarczuk is doing it and Yuriko Miyamoto was writing social realism if not straight up socialist realism--but in a grounded and personal way focused on practical realities, making implications of everyday life interesting to think about.

In SF/F it's easy to think of allegories, dystopias, and satires--cozy stories too--that probably are didactic yet also totally worth it. Meanwhile, other stories simply have a moral point of view that's humane and thoughtful and that makes being kind to each other part of what gives a difficult situation or an adventure meaning, e.g. one by Susan Palwick or the whole Liaden universe series by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:02 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

Holy hell, I'm not sure if any of that was completely new to me, but I am sure that it raised my level of awareness by more than a few levels. Also, that man knows how to wield the proverbial pen; that was superbly written.
Thanks for posting this, mittens.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:17 PM on February 22

Dude just doesn't like realism and would prefer horror. Us horror writers have, I promise, thoroughly retained all these features, from centering the feeling or sensation of strong "morality," both traditional and in the weird way he uses it in this essay, to keeping the unknown, the inexplicable, and the omnipotent other as a common narrative feature. Get this man a subscription to Nightmare Magazine and a few anthology podcasts.
posted by Scattercat at 1:35 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]

I sent this link to a friend - a friend who, approvingly I thought, quoted the "...a moral fiction is a fiction that does not bend in favor of external value systems and does not waver in order to curry favor with existing orthodoxies. " line.

Thinking more on that line and others in the essay, and reading Taylor's other pieces, I'm thinking a lot of what he says can be taken in multiple ways, depending on the specifics - specifics he doesn't get into. (Which external value systems are the problematic ones here, my friend?) Specifics he doesn't spell out, perhaps for fear of alienating half his readers.

Perhaps I am too used to reading explicitly political/culture-war essays, which perhaps this is not.

In any case, thought-provoking and worth reading.
posted by mistersix at 2:24 PM on February 22

This was a big part of what I love about Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series. It's deeply informed by a historical moment (the enlightenment) when there were piles of competing ideas floating around about how to organize a modern society, and in many cases it seems pretty arbitrary which ones actually 'won' and have wheedled their ways into our deepest assumptions about how the world works. So she gives a future world where the ethics and organization of society are radically different, often built on some of those Enlightenment-era ideas which didn't, in the end, survive.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:36 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]

Dude just doesn't like realism and would prefer horror.

To my read, that's not it. He wants the writer to take a stance. He's not against realism, he's against non-judgement.
To then reformulate what we have been saying here: I would like to read fiction set in a world that has values and patterns of emphasis and de-emphasis. What matters in this world. It is not enough to undertake pure mimesis. Pure recreation of life in your art. I suppose that this de-emphasis of value comes out of the cinematic mode as well. The pseudo-objectivity of the camera lens when transposed into fiction really is just the author deciding not to partake in interiority. The result is a coolness. A remove. A world that seems harsh but fair like watching animals go at it in the wild.

In fact, this is just the abdication of authorly responsibility. It is a variety of cowardice. There is no objectivity, even in cinema. No image is objective. Every image is a creation, a curation, of objects and light and theme. Every image has an author and therefore an implied audience. And so we must begin to ask ourselves, even in the face of pseudo-objectivity, why has this image been presented to us? Why has it been composed in this way? To put it another way, when an author presents a world that is simply filled with events that themselves do not seem to matter beyond spawning more events, when the inner values of the world remain opaque and distant, they are not in fact partaking in moral ambiguity. They are in fact writing poorly.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:38 PM on February 22 [9 favorites]

Even when we act badly or misbehave or bring about misfortune for others, we interpolate this recognition of bad acts with knowledge that we aren’t evil.
I’m going to go harder than this excellent author — if it’s impossible in the story for the protagonist to do something that they know is wrong, and that may do an evil in the world, then there isn’t much story and there isn’t much character. And I’m not looking for grim dark, I just know that in my real life seemingly minor lapses can turn out to be serious, where I have been good previously people are more vulnerable to me now, every comfort is something somebody else needs.

"The line between good and evil is drawn through every human heart."

This is a structural flaw in romantasy - the plot-armor of the guaranteed HFA almost had to undercut the stakes in everything else. The worst versions tend to rearrange the story so that the protagonist’s mistakes were always someone else’s fault. It would be so dangerous to be their friend, getting a plateful of sin to eat every time Act 4 rolled through.
posted by clew at 3:23 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]

Get this man a subscription to Nightmare Magazine and a few anthology podcasts.

Shortlisted for the Booker, has probably heard of horror.

Ordinarily I agree with Taylor's critical work, but there's something subtly off here. Must think about it.
posted by praemunire at 5:21 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]

I was very interested in this essay in part because I read a lot of work in a specific subgenre, neo-Victorian fiction, and it simultaneously has some of the problems Taylor describes (a near-total inability to think into the minds of people with sincere religious beliefs, which is a big chunk of the nineteenth-century British population) but not others (there are minor characters of the sort he wants, there is arguably a lot of the moral world-building he calls for, etc.). He gives no examples from actual contemporary fiction, which is understandable but promotes some confusion. We've had discussions here before about literary fiction as a specific genre in its own right, and that specifically appears to be what he's thinking about, not "the novel" in toto.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:47 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]

I don’t care what the author approves of. I just want to read fiction that occurs in a world that has a moral vector. That doesn’t take as its operating scheme a kind of rote moral relativism. I don’t want a morally democratic fiction, where everyone is a little bad and a little good and it’s really just about the tragedy of the irresolvable conflicts that characterize human life.

Okay then, that's fine for you, but what if life in the 21st century, in a struggle for a vision of a post-capitalist, ecologically sustainable world, is mostly morally ambiguous? It may be that future critiics, looking back on 21st century lit the way Taylor looks back on Austen, will be able to frame whatever great works may come from this age as a product of the sense of moral relativism that is present in the liberal west.

Reading this essay just left me wondering who the audience might be. Is Taylor expecting to create a movement among a generation of writers wiling to follow his advice, or simply whining that his fellow contemporary authors lack his ability to see what he thinks is missing?
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:50 AM on February 23

You can create a movement among readers if you say something clearly enough that it can’t be ignored afterwards.
posted by clew at 11:02 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

After reading some Tolstoy and Zola recently,* it struck me the way that books from that era do so much more tell vs. show than contemporary fiction. A lot more of a book is a judgmental narrator explaining what happened in a character's thoughts and life over a period of time, and then you drop in for a scene. Whereas I feel like the contemporary advice is "show don't tell" and by default everything is scene, scene, scene. (I've been thinking, why do I kind of love the old style where they just tell you what people are thinking and feeling, am I too stupid for the subtle removed style that's popular now?)

Reading about the cinematic mode made a ton of sense to me: "fiction that mimics the time signature of cinema, meaning a constant present-ness that itself results in a flattened narrative relief." It really named the shift I've been thinking about, that it's so much rarer for most fiction I read to compress and dilate time frequently.

*lmao, both on recommendations from Brandon Taylor's newsletter
posted by little onion at 11:16 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]

I don't mind some "morally democratic fiction, where everyone is a little bad and a little good and it’s really just about the tragedy of the irresolvable conflicts that characterize human life" on occasion, and I don't always need clear protagonists, but I'm certainly also here for drive-by-villains without origin stories, and somewhat thinly sketched minor characters, and definitely more tell rather than show. "Show don't tell" as a rule of thumb needs to be put to rest yesterday - I think the art is never so much in showing rather than telling, or telling rather than showing, but in knowing what to tell and what to show.
posted by sohalt at 12:28 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]

Looking back at my reading this year, I wonder if this explains what books I put down and which I finished. The best book I read was True Grit, which has a strong narrative voice that puts its beliefs and prejudices at the forefront. I don't agree with it; I think the literal Bible interpretations that form Maddy's values are the gateway to a lot of evil themselves. The protagonists are Confederates! But to paraphrase the Big Lebowski, at least it's an ethos. Now I am reading Brothers Karamazov which is nothing but characters arguing about value systems, while violating every modern writing workshop axiom.

The two books I really looked forward to recently but gave up on were The North Woods and The Vaster Wilds. The North Woods is a display of what we call "virtuoso" writing, with captivating folks songs alongside parables alongside realist vignettes. The Vaster Wilds is written entirely as parable (well, at least the chunk I read), and unlike The North Woods, relies on a universalizing vagueness. In The Vaster Wilds, a character would lay down in the grass and in The North Woods would lay down in a very specific type of grass native to the area, which I think sums up my preference for The North Woods. With both, however, the characters seem a bit empty, like puppets. It's not that there's no moral force exactly, but that these historical novels allow us to view the past with the black and white lense of hindsight. There's slavery, there's rape, what more do we need to say? What more motive do we need to give characters? In the North Woods there's a segment from the point of view of a slave hunter. He's presented as a gray character of the type that Tyler derides. He's not "evil," we can tell because he's more thoughtful than the other slave hunters. He seems to be primarily motivated by a pride in his skills. But what is his value system? We don't need to get into it because we think we know enough about that period of history to elide it.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:32 AM on February 24

In contrast to her The Vaster Wilds, I enjoyed Lauren Groff's Matrix, which is about a specific person and their internal motivations.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:34 AM on February 24

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