For Goodness’ Sake

WHAT MAKES A PERSON GOOD? We can create a profile using social media and essays published in popular magazines. First and foremost, a good person possesses a deep understanding of power structures and her relative place in them. She has a sense of humor that never “punches down.” She doesn’t subtweet, buy stuff on Amazon, or fly on too many planes. She has children in order to fend off narcissism—a bad quality—and develop a stake in the future of planet Earth, but she would never presume to judge another woman’s choice. And though she occasionally makes mistakes—cheats on her boyfriend, offends her friends after drinking too much, doesn’t call her mom very often—she admits them. A good person is not perfect (she has read enough not to fall for that trap), but she is self-aware. If she ever has to ask, as the title of the popular subreddit goes, “Am I the Asshole?” and she receives an answer in the affirmative, she accepts it willingly and humbly, employing a template response, provided by her therapist, to convey how she’ll do better next time. Though she could rest on her morals, a good person is always trying to do better—not in a capitalist, life-hacking way, but in terms of acknowledging and improving the lives of others. She makes sure to let others know they should do the same.

I’m skeptical of the idea of good people, but I would be. Writers are notoriously bad people, a truism pronounced most often by people who go out with writers and second most often by writers themselves. Points added for self-awareness are deducted elsewhere. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” George Orwell says in “Why I Write.” Authorial biographies that support the claim are too numerous to bother listing.

For writers, it would make sense to give up on being essentially good and focus on being occasionally so, yet anxieties about being a good person, surrounded by good people, pervade contemporary novels and criticism. “I had to do everything I could to be a good person,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in volume five of his series of autofictional novels My Struggle, in a representative passage. “I had to stop being a coward, stop being evasive and vague, I had to be honest, upright, clear, sincere.” In the next volume his best friend, Geir, jokingly calls him “a bad person . . . one of the few true narcissists” while discussing the uncle Karl Ove has angered by writing his books. In the dialogue of recent fiction, “good person” and “bad person” are employed as matter-of-fact judgments that, it’s implied, ought to guide the characters’ actions. The educated millennials in Sally Rooney’s novels often worry about being “good people” and question whether their friends and lovers are bad ones, and their comments suggest that self-development is just a matter of figuring out your own essential goodness or badness. “Equally if you’re sleeping with him because you believe his affection proves you to be a good person, or even a smart or attractive person, you should know that Nick is not primarily attracted to good-looking or morally worthy people,” Melissa writes to Frances in Conversations with Friends; Frances is sleeping with Melissa’s husband as part of an apparently tenuous polyamory agreement. (Frances is also a writer.) Ottessa Moshfegh’s novels are an exception that proves the rule: Praised for their portrayal of “unlikable” women, a feminist and therefore moral project, they’re often narrated by a person who seems to be taunting the reader with her awareness of her own badness. As if the reader would really be scandalized by an immoral fictional character.

Jim Shaw, Dream Object: Paperback Cover (Dancers), 2009, gouache on ragboard mounted on plywood, 9 1⁄4 × 6 1⁄4". Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York
Jim Shaw, Dream Object: Paperback Cover (Dancers), 2009, gouache on ragboard mounted on plywood, 9 1⁄4 × 6 1⁄4". Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

But perhaps she would be; the pressure to be good in these novels is no longer spiritual but external. In Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and The Topeka School, Jenny Offill’s Weather, and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, any consideration of the afterlife is rerouted through literary or theoretical analysis and worries about the future of one’s children; their narrators seem to be modeling contemporary ideas about morality, which is measured by contributions to the collective good rather than determined by a divine judge. The title of Heti’s breakout book, How Should a Person Be?, just about sums up all these novels, and as collectivity is made ever more explicit through globalization and social media, it’s easy to see why. The shift to socially conscious art and criticism Molly Fischer termed “the Great Awokening” has meant most books are judged on everything except aesthetic terms, and the frantic discussions about separating the art from the artist that reappeared as part of the #MeToo movement ask: Is it OK to like a book written by a bad person?

It’s hard to be a writer under these conditions. Every narrator is understood to be unreliable—the better they are at the job, the less you can trust them—so every “I” is plagued by self-doubt, or the performance of self-doubt, and fears about causing offense or revealing obliviousness (or the performance of those fears). On one end of the spectrum is the blockbuster novel American Dirt, which could have perhaps used a little more self-doubt. It’s about a middle-class Mexican family forced to migrate illegally to the United States; it caused huge controversy, and struck fear into the hearts of many writers, when its author was accused of stereotyping the Mexican migrant’s experience and appropriating a story that wasn’t hers to tell (she had also posted a picture of barbed-wire centerpieces from a book party). On the other end, a spate of recent metafictional novels about writers, including Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, and Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, have approached this as an ethical problem by using surprise perspective switches that make feminist arguments about how the shiftiness of narrative can be used and abused in imbalanced power relations. They use form as a tool for moral instruction, but in a way that suggests their authors want to show how to be both a good person and a good novelist among all the famously bad examples (a thinly fictionalized version of Philip Roth seduces the young aspiring writer in Asymmetry, for instance).

But these novels resemble performances more than tutorials. If the author was once God, creating worlds over which he had total control, the reader has usurped this position. Under the terms of popular, social-media-inflected criticism, she is now judge and jury, examining works for their political content and assessing the moral goodness of the author in the process. The novels that have resulted feature writers who are wildly self-conscious about both the thing they spend all their time doing and what that says about the essence of their souls. The novels that are most engaged with, and critical of, this new paradigm are those deemed autofiction. This may seem like an odd claim, as authors of autofiction are often accused, by critics and their loved ones, of extreme narcissism. Their books are populated by protagonists who closely resemble the author in name and biography, and they rarely feature much in the way of plot or structure, suggesting that they’re more transcriptions of their authors’ lives than good-faith attempts at impressing or entertaining a reader. But while the popularity of these novels may seem like the product of a self-obsessed culture that is incapable of imagining others’ lives, they’re also successful at reckoning with the value of fiction writing at a time when our awareness of others’ lives is greater than ever before.

The books do this by acknowledging what they are: texts written by the person whose name is on the cover, whose biography and publication history you may be more or less familiar with. In fact, the ease of researching this kind of thing has likely contributed to the rise of the form, which concedes the conditions of the reader-writer relationship without the excessive cleverness of metafiction. (When the narrator of Lerner’s autofictional 10:04 tells us that he could get a “strong six figures” to expand a New Yorker story into a novel, we can trust that the New Yorker story actually exists, and we may have even read it.) Details may be altered in the translation of the author’s life from reality to fiction, and it isn’t as if these novels don’t ever seem novel-y, with narrative arcs and recurring characters and well-constructed scenes. But their form always emphasizes that, as Heti writes in How Should a Person Be?, “character exists from the outside alone.” I, a critic, may want to ascribe a character to Sheila—Heti’s narrator in that book—but it doesn’t mean the character is Sheila Heti.

These books are both celebrated and despised because they seem to hew closer to “reality” than traditional novels, and because they keep the reader down to earth with them. “A person who makes art wants to be trapped in the collective mind of humanity,” Heti writes in a recent Yale Review essay, “A Common Seagull.” “Artists make earthbound things that live among living humans . . . no one is more afraid of leaving the earth than the artist who hopes his or her work will endure for centuries.” In this view, the author is the least godlike figure around. Though Knausgaard, Lerner, and Heti are prone to making grandiose observations about the meaning of life and art, they usually admit these observations were grandiose, through self-deprecation or comedic timing. (When we first meet Lerner’s autofictional protagonist, Adam Gordon, in 2011’s Leaving the Atocha Station, he is wondering pretentiously about whether it’s impossible for him to have a “profound experience of art.” In 2019’s The Topeka School, we see him as a child who has covered his penis in gum that cannot be removed.) And while Knausgaard is fixated on his own greatness and (lack of) goodness, he also grounds My Struggle in his daily life: descriptions of cornflakes and boring days as well as his real lovers and family members. Book Six culminates the series by pulling the old metafiction trick on reality itself: The book you’re reading is a long examination of the drama of its own publication. One of the several controversies was that the series shares its name with Mein Kampf, which Knausgaard discusses at length in Book Six:

If we view Hitler as a “bad” person, with categorically negative characteristics even as a child and a young man, all pointing toward a subsequently escalating “evil,” then Hitler is of “the other,” and thereby not of us, and in that case we have a problem, since then we are unburdened of the atrocities he and Germany later committed, these being something “they” did, so no longer a threat to us. But what is this “bad” that we do not embody? What is this “evil” that we do not express?

Although autofictional authors embed their anxieties about being judged in their novels, they ultimately refuse to allow the reader to play God. Presenting the author as what he is, some guy who writes books that you may ignore or pay attention to as it suits you, seems the most moral approach to novel writing one could take; it is also the least “fake and embarrassing,” to use Rachel Cusk’s description of traditional fiction. Sometimes this leveling appears as the hand-wringing that accompanies discussions of the author’s relative place in the real-world hierarchy of power relations, as in Olivia Laing’s Crudo or Offill’s Weather; in her “Outline” novels, Cusk makes her autofictional narrator a supremely judgmental force in her day-to-day interactions, which is, paradoxically, a humanizing quality. Any yearning for divine judgment is immediately undermined as kind of silly, as are worries about the fate of one’s eternal soul. “I made a slip of the tongue the other day,” Sheila says in How Should a Person Be?, “and instead of saying I wanted an audience, said I wanted a Godience.”

Speaking to Geir in Book Six of My Struggle, Karl Ove frets about the betrayals he’s committed against his family by writing the series; his uncle is sending him threatening emails for defaming his father:

“Imagine there’s a life after this,” I said. “If we take that thought seriously. Only the body dies. The soul lives on in the world to come, in whatever form. What if it’s true? I mean, really true. It struck me the other day. What if there is life after death? It’d mean my dad’s out there somewhere waiting for me. And he’s going to be angry as hell.”

Geir laughed.

“You can relax. He’s dead as a dodo.”

Lauren Oyler’s first novel, Fake Accounts, will be published in 2021.