The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Literary Fiction’s Dilemma


The study of a case known as Heinz’s Dilemma is often cited in ethics and morality classes—usually at the college and grad school level, but on occasion in high schools.

The dilemma: Heinz’s wife has a rare form of cancer and a local pharmacist has discovered the one drug that offers a good chance that her life can be saved—a form of radium (or left vague in some versions of the narrative of the study…it has several minor variations among its many different examples—including some versions that the drug offers a certain cure).

The pharmacist pays $200 for the medicine and charges $2,000. Heinz goes to everyone he knows in the town and can only raise $1,100—still greater than five times the druggist’s cost for the drug. Heinz asks him to sell it for the $1,100, but the pharmacist says no, that he’s a businessman and the price is the price and that’s the deal.

Heinz steals the drug. The ethical question: is he wrong? The question has been put to a number of subjects in several studies (the famous Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development offers six stages of response), but the one I’m focusing on was offered to three age groups (with only three possible responses)—children of ten, teens around fifteen, and a number of people in their early twenties.

Now: before offering the results, I should say that any anecdotal conclusions I draw here came from a conversation I had with another writer of literary fiction about our shared frustration that most people (perhaps increasingly) don’t seem to be drawn to fiction that offers more questions than answers. This is nothing new—but the situation, as Jane Smiley points out in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, is getting worse. It’s doubtful that we would see, say, Mary Gaitskill’s dark and emotionally complex debut collection Bad Behavior on a major press today. But the late 80’s and early 90’s were something of a heyday for challenging and gritty work—to the point that we even saw writers such as Kathy Acker on a major house like Grove. The major press support for work that often aimed to (or did, at any rate) unsettle changed radically around the time of the recession—and had already begun to erode with other factors such as 9/11 and the increasing corporatization of publishers and demise of brick-and-mortar stores. All of which created  a perfect storm of the marginalization of literature that was not, by its very nature, “crowd pleasing” and aimed to make people forget their troubles, while also economically consumed in large numbers.

Smiley’s argument extends beyond the common lament that people are leading less and less and she focuses on statistics that point to only adult males reading less fiction while women and children are, in many studies, are reading more than in the past. She then argues that the basic power structure of our society has not greatly changed—we are still governed, by and large, by men of affluence. Smiley makes the point that if we continued to be governed by people who are losing, increasingly, the ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view (fictions’ great gift as an art form), we are only on track to become a more selfish and less empathetic culture.

Back to the study (or, rather, one of the many studies based around this dilemma)—and the theory behind this is that it’s unimportant what the participants think Heinz should have done, but why they think he should have done what he chooses to do:

Just shy of one hundred percent (near 98%) of the ten year olds said that Heinz was wrong because he would be punished. Not surprising—it’s not an age of complex emotional thought and it is an age where an internalized version of Freud’s superego (or whatever you choose to call it) tends to dominate such choices. Things are wrong because someone in authority says they are wrong.

The same amount of fifteen year olds said he was wrong simply because stealing is wrong. An age dominated by conventional morality. Though also an age of rampant shoplifting, so take from it what you may. (A friend offers the theory of the teenager’s tendency to view him/herself as an exception to everything, feeling invincible, feeling “special”—the rules apply to Heinz, but no rules apply to themselves.) 

Between ten and fifteen percent of the oldest (not coincidentally when the frontal lobe—especially in women in their early 20’s and men by their mid-20’s—develops most fully, with one of its primary functions determining “good” from “bad”) said that Heinz was correct in his choice because his motivation (love) was better and more important than the pharmacist’s (greed/money). This is where non-conventional (and/or relative) ethics start to enter the picture. Though still at, I would argue, a frighteningly low percentage of a population—but also a relatively large number, in total (if not percentage), of those who buy books.

But/and it strikes me that most good writing (and here, I’ll put my vote in for “good” being synonymous with ethically complex—among a great many of other things that factor into quality, only a couple being a rigorous attention to craft and perhaps an author’s desire while writing the work to matter/last beyond a New York publishing “season” that often gives books about as long a chance as fresh produce to reach its buyers) concerns itself with issues of non-conventional morality. It’s is also about the reader’s ability to interpret ambiguous morality for him/herself. And it’s about texts open to numerous interpretations—about the complexity of reader response criticism.

And great fiction tends to arise from questions—not set or pat answers. As Kundera once said, his whole career has boiled down (no matter which narrative he told) to the question of what happens to the individual living under totalitarian regime. His lifelong obsession with that question is hardly “the” answer—but at times only a series of an ever more complex set of questions.

I’m of course making a leap here—if only ten to fifteen percent of adults argue for/respond to non-conventional ethics, this may be one of many factors that speak to why a greater portion of the reading public (to say nothing of the public at large) don’t respond to literary fiction the way they do to mainstream fiction. Most mainstream narratives (and I’m a fan of plenty of it—this is hardly an argument for its destruction)—books, films and TV tend to resolve themselves to what I’d call a narrative of reassurance. The average mystery or crime novel (to say nothing of the romance genre or of TV shows like CSI and any of the many shows—entertaining as they may be—in the Law and Order franchise) end with order restored. Justice tends to prevail, resolve is achieved and the social order is vindicated.

Whereas literary fiction (and I should, of course, include literary memoir…any such work) such as those by (to name a very few who, in previous eras in publishing, have broken through with their debuts/early work) Kundera, Baldwin, Lahiri, Carver, Hempel, Moore, as well as any number of writers such as Lethem or, at times, Ellroy, who consciously thwart the genre they are working in, concerns itself with ethical questions more complex than standard morality/ethics allow for. Fiction at its best is not often an argumentative form (the essay is a nice sturdy form if we have a persuasive argument to make). That’s not to say fiction can’t (and doesn’t) have ideas and arguments (though only the best can make this rise above propaganda), but fiction is largely a form of illustration and not explanation.

In a side note, Heinz’s Dilemma is hardly simply an intellectual exercise. Given the situation with the druggist, we can see parallels with modern drug companies keeping a position very similar to his. They are in business (sure, fair enough…but how much money is enough money?)—and if several poor people can’t afford what could cure them, well, that’s their tough luck. But this is general—the Heinz situation is specific. And it’s like the old notion that ten thousand people dying in an earthquake halfway across the world is sad, but your niece with lymphoma is tragic. It’s in the specifics that we connect. Where we allow ourselves to realize (or can realize) how much we matter to each other. How much the value of love and connection may allow us to see the world as more complex, more relative and flexible than our mainstream narrative of reassurance will allow for. To privilege narratives that simply reinforce the status quo is to remain stagnant emotionally as a culture.

To offer an audience a narrative that  not just fosters empathy but also disturbs notions of traditional morality—a narrative that mirrors and points out the ugly truths of life: that evil is frequently unpunished, that greed is not only rewarded but celebrated and encouraged, that celebrity is privileged over achievement—to offer a narrative that ends with characters shifted, lost or disturbed and left without pat answers in/for his or her world is to offer the reader a narrative that leaves them disturbed and upset. Think about the metaphoric implication of when we say we’ve been “moved” by a piece of narrative. This suggests a shift. Us rocked off our previous footing. This can’t be done by a narrative that offers no challenge to what the reader already thinks going in to the narrative. Work that moves us has disturbed (in the best sense) our previous sense of the world. This is where growth occurs.

We are messy creatures. Beautiful, flawed, disturbed, at times selfless and at times selfish animals left to attempt to make sense of a world that doesn’t lend itself to easy questions or easy answers. To document a world where we are neither gods nor beasts but often a mix of both is to document a world most don’t like to think about. One of my best friends has been told by one of her best friends that she won’t read her books because they are “too depressing” and she has no desire to think of such things. The writer’s friend is far from alone.

Our childhood fears prove true. There are monsters under the bed. Everything is not always going to be okay. The world breaks us all in a million little ways and a few big ones all the time. And we are, at our best, there for each other through those times, in a million little ways and a few big ones all the time—but with few answers and no resolve.

Still, for all of this, I think the Heinz Dilemma stats may be overly pessimistic and that the audience for fiction is being done an enormous disservice by marketing departments that, repeatedly and increasingly, seem to underestimate the intelligence and desires of readers. While all of the above may argue that challenging books (and I don’t mean inaccessible or elitist books, but works that question rather than reaffirm readers’  expectations) may have a smaller audience than works that only aim to entertain, they may have a larger audience than major press publishing seems to think. Every year a few works that seek to be of lasting value (while seeking to entertain as well), such as Franzen’s Freedom or Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad break through and reach a wider audience. There may never be the audience for literary fiction that there is for the narrative of reassurance, but it is there and it’s probably greater than current publishing trends illustrate. Just because someone doesn’t naturally gravitate towards a more morally complex framework of thought doesn’t mean that framework cannot be interesting to them if presented.  The Heinz Dilemma stats also don’t investigate whether this form of thinking can be acquired over time if a person is exposed.  Human beings aren’t static, and change is possible.

I want to believe—and on my best days do believe—that writers who have made their peace with reaching a smaller audience in a deeper, more lasting way over those who’ve made a cynical premeditated choice to reach a larger audience in a simpler and more disposable way have a chance for a wider readership than they currently have. And the hope would be for work that seeks to matter and reach a wider audience—and that writers and marketing departments don’t decide beforehand that the two are always mutually exclusive. I have no expectations, the current industry trajectory being what it is, that this will be the case. But for both writers and readers there is always hope.

Rob Roberge is the author of four books of fiction, most recently The Cost of Living. His memoir, Liar, will be published by Crown in February, 2016. He can be found online at More from this author →