Caroline Baum asks, Which writers do you turn to for moral guidance?

by |August 20, 2012

After reading Ailsa Piper’s very thought-provoking, candid and energising Sinning Across Spain and talking with her at the recent Byron Bay Writers Festival, I wondered about what a list of typically 21st century sins might look like. I like the list she quotes from the Vatican, not normally one of my most trusted sources of moral guidance, but they do supplement the traditional Seven Deadly Sins with more contemporary ones such as creating poverty and doing environmental damage and the selling and manufacturing of illegal drugs… I’m thinking of lesser sins, maybe lower case sins as opposed to capital S sins.

So far my list includes: Impatience, Pettiness, Trivialisation, Distraction, Dissipation, Entitlement, Gluttony, Spitefulness, Schadenfreude, Rudeness, Meanness, Apathy, Indifference, Narcissism, Vanity, Self-Absorption, Indiscretion, Exploitation, Humiliation, Conspicuous Consumption, Vulgarity, Humorlessness, Callousness.

What would you add?

And which authors do you look to as moral arbiters, or at least as able to map and mine the complexities and flaws of human nature and create situations that make you ask yourself ‘what would I do if that happened to me?’, that expose human folly without preachiness?

My starter-kit list includes: Eliot Perlmann, Anna Funder, Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, Richard Flanagan, Charlotte Wood, Jodi Picoult, Richard Ford, Thomas Hardy, Richard Yates, Colm Toibin, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan, Leo Tolstoy, Chris Cleave, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Shakespeare, Henry James, Bernard Schlink, Lionel Shriver, Vladimir  Nabokov, George Orwell, Carson McCullers, Wallace Stegner, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing…

Who would you add? Leave a comment below….


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  • Robyn Wilson

    August 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Barbara Kingsolver, her essays ‘Small Wonder’ and novels ‘Poisonwood Bible’, ‘Bean Trees’ and ‘Pigs in Heaven’ for conservation morality and a female take on loving the planet; our Marcus Zusak for ‘The Messenger’ and ‘When Dogs Cry’ for lessons in humility and innate goodness, and Geraldine Brooks for helping us love our differences. Bert Facey’s ‘Fortunate Life’ for courage. Garcia Marquez nailed obsession in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

  • August 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Can I please add to Ms Baum’s exceptional list – Arthur Miller and John Webster. Dramatists both, who can frame moral puzzles for us with such power.

  • August 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Can I please add to Ms Baum’s exceptional list – Arthur Miller and John Webster. Dramatists both, who can frame moral puzzles for us with such power.

  • August 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Reading Jack Schaefer’s ‘Shane’ as a teenager gave me the template for the kind of man I hoped to be, then I ran into several on the list above, as well as Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Ken Grimwood, James Hilton, Robert M. Persig and even Howard Lee, to name a few.

  • August 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Reading Jack Schaefer’s ‘Shane’ as a teenager gave me the template for the kind of man I hoped to be, then I ran into several on the list above, as well as Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Ken Grimwood, James Hilton, Robert M. Persig and even Howard Lee, to name a few.

  • DearStephenKing

    August 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Stephen King often deals with morality, ethics, choice & consequences in his stories!

  • DearStephenKing

    August 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Stephen King often deals with morality, ethics, choice & consequences in his stories!

  • sue rosly

    August 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Jane Austen, John Keats, Julian Barnes, William Wordsworth, George Eliot…

  • sue rosly

    August 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Jane Austen, John Keats, Julian Barnes, William Wordsworth, George Eliot…

  • Darren B

    September 9, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Colin Wilson (the Outsider),James O’Barr (The Crow), Tony Vigorito (Nine Kinds of Naked)[one of my favourite fiction books of all time…you can only be disappointed if you read it now after that plug, I guess ],Paulo Coelho,Louis De Bernieres,Caiseal Mór
    (A Blessing and a Curse)…for starters anyway.

    And the biggest sin in my book is not being true to myself/yourself.
    I see sin for the word it is (missing the mark),so if you lead with your heart instead of your hurt,you shouldn’t miss.
    And don’t think this advice is coming from an expert archer either,
    sometimes I miss the board altogether and when I do hit a bulls-eye it is cause for celebration,but I try to keep my aim true,and try not to harm people with my hurt.
    I may never get a medal for my archery,but like the Tin Man it is heart that I’m aiming for.

    Oh…that reminds me of another author to add to the list –
    L. Frank Baum.

    Any relation Caroline ?-)

    • October 3, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Do you know, I have no idea?! Also there is Vicki Baum, who wrote Grand Hotel ( which became a film with Greta Garbo) and I don’t know if there is a connection there either. Must investigate as it would be great to be connected to either… or both

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