The Evil in Good Books

If what we read becomes part of us, as C. S. Lewis asserts is inevitable when one reads deeply, taking in a work to enjoy every aspect of it, then what we read becomes vitally important. If our reading is more than just “passing the time” and becomes something we talk about, think about, and dwell on, then choosing our reading wisely becomes just as important as choosing good friends because our books become our companions throughout life.

We may not compare the people we meet to characters in books, perhaps, but they become part of who we are. We may be more sensitive and longsuffering with people like Miss Bates for having read Emma, for example, or strive subconsciously to withhold a decided opinion about a new acquaintance for having read Pride and Prejudice. The heroes that we admire in books will definitely influence our attitudes as we thought-lessly, resolution-lessly bend ourselves to follow their pattern, submitting ourselves to their greatness of character. Most of this happens without any conscious decision because the companions we surround ourselves with will inevitably draw us up to their level…or take us down until we are as weak and selfish as they.

From a writer’s perspective, this should affect not only what we read but what we write, for we help supply the books that people read. Some authors, most recently George R. R. Martin, seem to feel that what we write is completely up to us, that our content doesn’t affect our readers by desensitizing them, and, if it does, it isn’t our fault.

The question is, are we our readers’ keepers? If we have a responsibility to our readers, and to ourselves, to supply us with good companions for our journey through life, then the sort of people we write about should be worthwhile persons. They may not all be heroes, but some of them should be admirable and even the villains should be excellent in construction, creation, and execution. The story should leave readers better than they would have been if they’d never read our book—even if the book is sad and the ending unhappy—if we are indeed responsible for some aspect of the impact of our work.

On the other hand, I doubt that we can be held accountable for all of it, for there are always readers who may take our work apart, reading things into it that we never intended. Those who search for something will usually find it, even if it isn’t there.

This leads me to wonder, how much of a book has to be “good” to be a good book? Christians are encourage to write “good” books, and some Christian publishers will only accept work that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, with virtue and praise…but what does this actually mean (since it doesn’t mean just putting in Christian messages, as we discussed in last week’s post)? If we have villains in our work, must they be lovely? But if they are, how can they be villains?

I think, if we have villains in a story—people who do evil, who hurt others, who swear and kill and such—then we must portray them accurately to do our readers any good. If we are portraying the fight between good and evil, even in the smallest of ways, then we cannot whitewash the evil; however, I don’t think we have to focus on it for our readers to understand its nature. We can avoid certain scenes, summarizing what happens or alluding to it in such a way that we know exactly what took place without experiencing it.

Some would say it’s bad writing since we would be telling, not showing, but I would argue that there is less virtue in showing than some writers think. What is the virtue of showing the details in what evil does? If the human heart is like a flower, slowly opening to the sun, to experiences and life, then why do we want to take it and introduce it to grim, to dirt, to filth and rough usage and harm? “It’s part of real life,” some will say, “and human hearts are capable of creating such experiences for others, anyways”…but if that flower will choose to develop thorns and a horrid stench, being surrounded by more stench will hardly help it. If it has been the victim and has already experienced such things, why should it endure them in detail again? And if it hasn’t, who are we to submit it to such torment in the first place?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

2 thoughts on “The Evil in Good Books

  1. This post was a well thought out and well written look at reality of good and evil within the pages of a novel. I believe this can also be applied to most media as well…to adequately and beautifully express a story, to communicate truths, does not necessitate lurid and gross details for a reader, or audience, to understand and appreciate the tale told.

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    1. Thanks! I agree…a lot of the time, it feels like stories, movies, and such would be better off if they didn’t feel compelled to show certain things. And it would certainly increase their audience to include some demographics who currently dislike their content.

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