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The Ethics of Contemporary Literature: Are Writers Promoting Wrong Values?

The Ethics of Contemporary Literature: Are Writers Promoting Wrong Values?

by Harry Burke (United Kingdom)

Novels by serious writers of genius often eventually become best-sellers, but most contemporary best-sellers are written by second-class writers whose psychological brew contains a touch of naivety, a touch of sentimentality, the story-telling gift, and a mysterious sympathy with the day-dreams of ordinary people.” This quote by Leonard Woolf depicts the realm of best-selling lists: they are filled with badly-written prose that does not help readers establish lasting impressions and values. Throughout the history of literature, the system of values has been clearly set: “populist readers” did not bother to comprehend the complex hidden meanings, sound theories and sophisticated uses of language present in masterpieces. All academic debates depict such culture as bad taste and proven manner of manipulating the masses. The contemporary literature, with 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight as some if its most notable representatives, is brought down to the moral and political values of popular consumerism.

People have always relied on literature when they wanted to replace the mundane experiences with a world of heroes, adventure, and romance. Popular literature reflects contemporary culture and life, which is a rapidly changing category full of contradictions. However, there are certain generalizations that can be made, mainly because authors who intend to produce best-sellers do not dare to create anything new. In his book Cultural Populism, Jim McGuigan defines this term as “the intellectual assumption, made by some students of popular culture, that the symbolic experiences and practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and politically than Culture with a capital C.” With this definition, McGuigan emphasizes the uncritical general conception of the study of popular culture, which reinforces the strategies of interpretation at the expense of promoting real literary values. Fifty Shades of Grey, as one of the most popular publications in recent years, degrades women’s values and character. Nevertheless, millions of women from all around the world are thrilled by the story, mainly because the male character is powerful, rich, and dominant.

Popular contemporary literature, as a factor that depicts the cultural values of society, is characterized by consumerism and strives for entertainment, marketable efforts aiming towards mass consumption, misinterpretation of historical facts, and clichés. The novels written with the intention to become best-sellers are light, exciting and entertaining, but lack worth that would make them valuable for future generations. The man is imperfect, and contemporary authors are trying to depict that characteristic through their work. However, the best-selling books are not a representation of reality; on the contrary, they the lives of common people into a parody. Writers adapt to readers’ needs, and their work is formed by the expectations of the masses. Due to the increased working hours and the tendency to spend most of the free time online, today’s readers don’t have time to analyze complex characters. Those are the main reasons why people prefer “light reads” that do not necessarily encourage critical thinking and reassessment of one’s values.

The general Goodreads community has voted The Hunger Games as “the best book ever”. Although there are some literary classics on this list, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Orwell’s Animal Farm and Hugo’s Les Miserables, readers’ preferences are dominated with pleasurable reads, whose writers don’t intend to produce intellectually and emotionally stimulating prose. The prevalence of bad literature on the shelves of bookstores does not imply that agents and editors lack sophistication and knowledge of what good writing is made of. This fact inevitably leads us to the conclusion that contemporary publishing is driven by marketing and sales. If millions of readers are willing to spend their money on a particular type of literature, the publishers are ready to popularize it, and many writers are motivated to follow the trends. In the world of publishing, the criteria for “good books” are not equalized to those for “well-written books”. The main function of today’s fiction is to comply with the hedonistic values of the masses.

Instead of dealing with serious literature, populists seek the pleasure of mainstream culture, which requires minimal effort on the part of the consumer. The overall reading preferences of our generation are contributing towards the trend of misshaping moral and cultural values. The writers who aim towards modeling their readers’ contemplations and understanding of the world are a minority. Through its intention to meet the preferences of the general reading audience, contemporary literature is promoting mass consumerism, cultural populism, and lack of critical evaluation. More than a hundred million people have bought Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. Since a great number of writers are focused on reaching such success and selling more copies of their work, we come to the conclusion that the trends in literature are characterized with corroded ethical values, determined by the fact that most people who are willing to read are rejecting traditional literary authorities and incline towards shallow narratives.

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