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Looking for real virtue in literature

Fiction should reject solipsistic preoccupations and examine the world at large.

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The publishing industry has reduced its fictional offerings in recent years to the most banal, the most feminized, the most gentrified, the most formulaic, the most politically correct pabulum. Yet its readership continues to plummet. In response, publishers have increasingly promoted nonfiction: celebrity tales, exhibitionism-cum-memoir, and a deluge of informational prattle. Sadly, the once wild and dynamic range of fictional offerings is no more.

To correct this abysmal trend, fiction must dispense with solipsistic preoccupations of self and love and family – and reclaim classic virtues and the work of examining the world at large. For the Greeks, the word arete translates as both excellence and virtue with the implied search for truth. Plato noted that only under special circumstances will individuals tame their unruly appetites to devote their lives to the search for truth. Aristotle saw happiness as the manifestation of the soul expressing virtue.

How is this Greek notion of virtue represented in literature today? Is it evident in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"? A Pulitzer Prize winner, it's the story of a hermaphrodite of Greek heritage, Callie, a girl who at 14 becomes Cal, a man. The story achieves "virtue" by celebrating a marginalized man whom women may nurture as their own.

America's founders upheld the Greek emphasis on virtue. They placed great stock in character. They favored meritocracy. Virtue, in pursuit of excellence, lay at the foundation of their core values. Sadly, in today's literary context, those core values are either marginalized or mocked.

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