Do You Dislike Books without Strong Morals? (Discussion)


In 2013, I wrote a post explaining why I don’t need YA characters to be role models. In January this year, I wrote one discussing why I don’t need every story to have a moral.  Yet here I am again, explaining why I don’t think every book needs to be secretly (or openly?) didactic, doesn’t need to have an inspirational ending that mirrors my own morals and beliefs.  I’m writing again, first, because this is such a complex topic, and there’s always more to say.  Yet I also believe this is an ever-relevant topic because I consistently see tweets and reviews and other complaints that a book (especially a YA book) isn’t doing something “right” and is promoting bad ideals.  And, frankly, I’ve come to believe this doesn’t really matter.

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Why “Lessons” Do Matter

As a disclaimer, I actually do believe that the content and “messages” of books are important, especially in children’s (and YA) literature.  Most people who love books recognize that books are powerful, and the books we read as children often have disproportionate influences on the way we think and act, on the things we believe.  In that sense, the books we write for children matter, and the things that we tell them are “good” matter.  There are reasons we generally don’t give children extremely violent or sexual books or ones that represent terrible human beings as heroes. We want the books we give children to impart values.  Even if we’re not thinking of giving them fairy tale stories that say “And if little Greta had only eaten her vegetables when her mother said so, she wouldn’t have been devoured by a dragon! Eat your vegetables!” the truth is that we often want children’s (and teen) books to be didactic.  There are certain values and lessons we want the readers to take away, even if that’s something fairly abstract like “It’s worth being brave to help those you love.”

And Why “Lessons” Don’t Matter

However, even while I see the value of giving supposedly wholesome literature to young readers, I still do not believe every book should promote the things I value.  When I wrote my previous posts, some of the replies were, “I totally agree! I don’t mind if a character is a bad person, as long as they change by the end.”  But that’s not what I’m saying. I love a good character arc and a character who changes their ways as much as anyone–but that’s not the only type of story we can or should have.  When I say a character doesn’t need to be a role model or a book doesn’t need to have a moral, I mean the character can still be “bad” or still believe things I think are wrong by the end of the novel.

Variety and Artistic License

In the first place, it would be really boring to read so many books that promote the same values.  And for the sake of this post I’m assuming we’re talking about books that YOU would think have good values.  Whatever that looks like, imagine that EVERY book you read did the “right” thing and showcased your personal values.  (In reality, of course, what you think is the right thing to do or believe is not always what other people think.)

So imagine that every book had, say, a kickass heroine like Katniss because “showing girls they can break the patriarchy and be active” is the correct thing to do. Or imagine that every book where a character disliked his or her appearance ended on an uplifting note of body self-love.  Or that every book had no sex because the characters were waiting for marriage and that’s the right thing to do. While these are all perfectly valid opinions, reading would be so dull if they were the only options represented in literature.  Reading would be flat and predictable.

YA fans have argued for a long time that YA books count as literature, that they’re as much art as adult books and shouldn’t be considered of less quality.  If that’s the case, we cannot put too many constraints on what YA represents, cannot expect it to be didactic and formulaic.  If we demand that every character has a character arc where they learn their lesson and every ending is happy and promotes a good value, we are limiting what YA can be.


“Diversity” is becoming something of a loaded term, but to me the most fundamental form of diversity in literature is just the idea that everyone’s experiences deserve representation.  Generally people think of racial diversity or LGBT representation, and Krysta explored the idea of religious representation, but it also means there’s room for a variety of personal beliefs and experiences.

In the past several months, I have seen the book blogosphere explode over books they thought represented detrimental experiences–books about people they didn’t think should be falling in love, or books about teens who were uncomfortable with their weights or appearances.  The basic idea was that such books are disrespectful and possibly damaging.  (How could an author dare to write about a teen who thought she weighed too much?! That’s body shaming!)  However, the reality is that some teens do not like their bodies.  Some readers thought this book was fine, as long as the protagonist came to love her body by the end. And, again, I love such an inspirational character arc as much as anyone, and I think loving yourself the way you are is a pretty good message. However, in reality, this is not always what teens experience.  Some teens graduate high school still uncomfortable with the way they look.  Some people are far into adulthood before they come to terms with their appearance.  And I think representing this is okay, too.  It’s not body shaming the character or the reader. It’s telling readers that if they’re struggling with this issue, it’s okay because other people are, too.  And if they’re still struggling with it when senior year of high school ends, they haven’t failed; there’s always the future to change.

Gray Areas of Interpretation

At any rate, discussions of whether a book is “wrong” because it promotes bad values always make me a little anxious because it borders so closely on trying to figure out authorial intention.  To me, there is a stark difference between representing something I see as negative and promoting that thing.  The first is neutral, while the second is what’s possibly damaging to readers.  Yet it’s not always straightforward which is going on in a book, and I say that as someone completing graduate coursework in literature.

If a character says something sexist, or even if the main character is continuously sexist, that does not immediately mean the book is sexist or that the author is promoting sexism.  Sometimes, authors are just representing what’s real in the world. Some people are sexist.  And while some of these people will learn the error of their ways and change, some will not.  Some will never even experience negative consequences due to their sexism. Life is not always a fairy tale. The bad characters are not always punished, and the good ones are not always rewarded.  Some people will cheat their entire way through life and…just have really successful careers. They may never get a comeuppance. It’s okay for literature to represent this, and it’s okay for it do so neutrally. The author doesn’t have to add a paragraph gently reminding readers that cheating really is bad, even if Character X is never punished for it.

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Books are powerful. It makes sense that people harbor a desire to see them promoting what they think is right.  However, there’s also a place for books that represent other things, that challenge our worldviews and make us ask ourselves “Why would someone do that?” Why would someone be a bully? Or commit adultery? Or hate their body?  Reading should challenge us and bring us outside our comfort zones. I don’t need every book to reflect my own worldview back at me.


21 thoughts on “Do You Dislike Books without Strong Morals? (Discussion)

  1. Greg says:

    Nice thought provoking post. I think there’s room in books for all perspectives, all experiences- and yes I don’t need to always have my own values reflected in every book. It is good to challenge ourselves, or see other viewpoints- otherwise how do we grow? Books can be great at opening our minds and making us more understanding of others, even as (and I can attest to this) a lot of what I read early did inform my thoughts on things and who I became.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I definitely get the frustration of not liking a character or having a character not get what they deserve. I’ve also read books where I ended a little grumpy because “Seriously, that guy gets away with adultery? He just has a happy relationship now after cheating on his poor wife?!” or whatever my grievance is. But, I have to admit, that’s something that could actually happen in real life. There’s no reason not to write a story about it. I would be immensely bored if everyone in books made choices I approved of.


  2. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Amen! This is wonderful! I absolutely agree; the point of literature I think is to just explore the world as it is, not necessarily as it should be. We can’t learn if our books don’t show everything: the good, the bad, the diverse, the hateful, etc. If all books reflected our worldviews, nothing would change and we’d probably be in some sort of brain-washed dystopia, lol. Human nature is complex, and so too is literature. Love this post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Exactly. I understand reading for escapism. I love books where everything turns out just as I think it should be. It’s nice to imagine, nice to hope for. But I don’t think that’s the only type of book that’s valuable. I’d also feel a bit as if I were reading old children’s parables if every book made a distinct point of saying something like “And so we learn that introversion is ok” or “The message here is to love yourself as you are or “Cheaters always get their comeuppance.” Not everything has a lesson; sometimes it’s just a story to get you to start thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lunch-Time Librarian says:

    This definitely hits on some of the things I was talking about in my low-self-esteem in books post. It’s completely true that there are teenage girls that don’t like their body, and if you create a character that still doesn’t like their body in the end, are you promoting that, or simply presenting a realistic character? I have a lot of trouble with this. And while I don’t think the character needs complete resolution, I do think characters need small wins. But that’s me personally, others might prefer the opposite.

    I agree that some people are sexist their whole lives, and so having them suddenly change in a book can almost feel insincere. I think what people take issue with are characters who are sexist, racist, etc. where that behaviour isn’t addressed. In The Wrath and The Dawn, a book I enjoyed and gave a great rating too, when the two leads first have sex, she doesn’t want to (but goes along with it), and neither does he (as written) but it happened on his terms and as his choice for literally no reason, and it’s never addressed again. She doesn’t give consent and she’s also in a position where she can’t say no. But not addressing that this situation was wrong, in fact, it’s treated as him giving her special attention because he never did that with the other girls, it seems to promote ‘not saying no’ as ‘consent’. Which I doubt was the intention.

    But overall I agree that things don’t need to tie up in a perfect moral bow to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Agreed. I have gut reactions of dislike myself sometimes when I read books I “disagree” with. Like, “Wow, it’s so depressing this girl hates her body the whole book!” or “Ugh! I can’t believe that character got away with theft and no one said anything!” Much of my review of The Boyfriend App, for instance, was my complaint that the girl was manipulating people and probably committing sexual assault, and no one said anything. I think that book came in the gray area, though, where it seemed to be celebrating what the character had done. So it was more than the lack of comment; it was the praising of the girl for doing unethical things. I definitely think there are individual cases for each book, and The Wrath and the Dawn does sound problematic from your description.

      Some of my ire is from the small but vocal groups of people who like to go on Twitter rampages about books “promoting bad morals” and try to harass the author and publisher into changing the book or pulling it completely. An author representing a character who’s uncomfortable with the way she looks should not be grounds for demanding a book not be published.


      • Lunch-Time Librarian says:

        Yes, it’s sad, but there will always be people that end up disagreeing or protesting a book based on their interpretation. And this is great with books that are overtly stereotyping or avocate for terrible things. But sometimes the ‘morals’ can get really mixed up. Which happens because morals are so subjective in the first place.

        If you disagree with something, say your piece, and be done with it. But I wouldn’t ever agree with direct attacks or continuous online abuse

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Puput @ Sparkling Letters says:

    I love reading this post! It’s so thought provoking and since you pointed it out, I realized that I don’t particularly care about life lesson in a book. Most of my favorite books revolve around the topic of crime, assassinations, thievery, and morally ambiguous characters and that’s totally fine by me! I luuurve morally ambiguous characters who did a lot of bad things πŸ˜› and I agree with your point on diversity, if ALL books are delivering the same value, then we wouldn’t get anywhere with diversity and I consider it more important. BUT, I’m completely against books that deliver the wrong message. There was the time I read Thirteen Reason Why and completely dislike it because I feel like it’s sending a wrong message for the readers. So in my opinion, books don’t need to have strong moral value, but that doesn’t mean they can send the wrong and negative messages out there. Great post! πŸ˜€


    • Briana says:

      I haven’t read Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s always recommended, but it also seems as if it’d be a bit depressing, and I’m never quite in the mood for that!

      I do think there are some books that are sending bad messages. The trick is finding the line. Is the book celebrating something, or just not inserting a narrative voice that distinctly condemns something?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lindsey says:

    Wouldn’t it be terribly boring to read only about characters who match your beliefs? I think, instead of seeing different viewpoints as a threat, we can use reading as an exercise in empathy and to clarify and strengthen our own thoughts on life and morality.


    • Briana says:

      Exactly! Even if a character “gets away” with being “bad” at the end of the story, that could still be thought-provoking. Why did he/she get away with it? Is there something society could change? Why does it even bother me the story ended that way? Etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    Hmm, I have mixed feelings about a lot of this. Of course, every author is free to write whatever they want. But if a character is sexist/racist/homophobic or whatever and doesn’t get called out in some way (at least in another character’s thoughts) I will think that it’s intentional and that the author encourages those opinions. That’s just how I read.


    • Krysta says:

      Criticism can be implicit, as well. Charles Dickens, for example, presents a range of characters without necessarily moralizing about them. But if you read between the lines you start to see how some of them are truly ridiculous or hypocritical or dishonest, even if the author or another character never directly remarks upon it.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. DoingDewey says:

    I actually have read a few books lately that promote morals I mostly agree with in a heavy-handed way (The Regulars, When She Woke), and I didn’t like it. I liked that they made me think about important issues, but I felt as though the author was telling me her beliefs through the story and that’s not what I read for. I do struggle when I read books where a character does something I think is immoral and the book in no way suggests their behavior is wrong. In the same way that it could be reassuring for a teen to see a book character continuing to struggle with their weight, I think depicting behavior like sexism or racism with no critique could serve to normalize that behavior. For all that I don’t want to read a book that promotes those behaviors and although I believe authors should approach such topics cautiously, I certainly don’t believe in censoring books because of the morals they promote is a good alternative.


    • Briana says:

      That’s a good point I didn’t think a lot about, but I’ve also read books I technically agreed with that I found irritating for being aggressive with their agenda. My gut reaction is just “Ok, I get it! I agree already! Leave me alone!” :p

      I do think there’s a line where the book itself seems to be actively promoting bad behavior, rather than simply portraying it in a neutral way or without much comment. I felt that way about The Boyfriend App, where the narrative voice was praising and all the action in the plot was rewarding a girl who lied, stole, and created an app that facilitated sexual assault. Sometimes the lines are blurry, and honestly I’ve run across people who I thought were incorrectly suggesting a book was “promoting” something just because the narrator didn’t say “This is bad!” in an extremely obvious manner. However, some books do seem to really be celebrating sketchy things.


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