Do we celebrate the family
as an unquestionable good?
Books these days are products of the society in which they’re written, just as all books have been since books started getting written. The thing I notice increasingly about books of our time is how they value the domestic and domestic values as the highest good. By the domestic, I’m referring to the values that place the family, the home, and their harmony as the highest good.
Let me give you an example. A contemporary novel might follow a troubled family with truly toxic relationships. Maybe one sibling has a terrible influence on another; he lies, manipulates, withholds love in exchange for money or support, etc. Maybe he does this relentlessly, and we learn throughout the story that this character is unlikely to change. And yet — by the end of the story, we’re almost certain to see the main character still trying to make peace with this character, even indulging his behavior yet again, in some way tolerating the abuse for the sake of family. Whether this is successful or not, this is going to be portrayed as the desirable outcome in a contemporary novel. Have you seen this trend?
And how many recent novels have you read that show our hero breaking away from his family and cutting ties, and showing this as a liberating choice? I’m sure there are stories out there, but they’re few and far between. The clarion call of family as good has stamped out the possibility of other voices, other stories. In some ways, the values I’m seeing in many contemporary stories take the family=good thesis as whole-heartedly as do the novels of the 1950’s and earlier. We’re seeing a backlash against the devil-may-care abandonment or liberation of the sixties and seventies.
There’s something a little disheartening when writers feel afraid to show the rupture of a family as a good thing because it might make their characters less relatable. Is it now true in life as well as in fiction that it is better to tolerate abuse or endure agony than to break apart a family? We see this message hammered home in television and movies; this message has thoroughly invaded books as well. I saw this when watching the film Lincoln this weekend; it was a fascinating and well-made movie, but in places it seemed to imply that Lincoln was a great figure and deserving of awe not for all his great ideas, but because he was a kind and loving father (according to the movie).
Is there no more room for the truly transgressive novel, the one that puts liberation or disharmony at the heart of things? That’s the question I’m struggling to answer in my own novel, but it’s something you can be thinking about as well. Do you assume family to be a constant and unquestionable good in your writing? Do parents or siblings getting along seem to be most important, or the way that you show someone as a “good” or “bad” person? Maybe it’s time to be a little more transgressive, and to show that there just might be an alternative — a life in which family obligation is not the highest good, but just one more fraught thing we carry with us through life. Couldn’t family obligation sometimes be an obstacle, a burden? I might add that this burden is one that is unequally shared; the very onerous job of caring for ill parents, for example, has been shown in many surveys to fall disproportionately to female children. Is it only the men who are allowed to go On the Road, and the women who will be ashamed to leave family behind?