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All novels are about sin

The touchstone by which books should be judged is not the moral lives of their authors, but whether they tell the truth about the human condition. Even great sinners can do that—and there are many examples.

(Image: Janko Ferlič/

Miriam Diller, in her essay “The Dark Side of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, writes:

Famous artists and writers often get a “pass” on unsavory aspects of their lives, for (some say) such details are not relevant to their “genius.” Their personal behavior and beliefs, like any celebrity’s, are often buried by their accomplishments.

Diller argues that, in the case of specific authors that she discusses, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, such authors should not get a pass on their unsavory personal lives.

Yet this would present us with a problem, for every author is a sinner, and if we don’t give authors a pass on their sinfulness when evaluating their work, we stand in danger of rejecting every author and every novel.

Take, for example, Graham Greene. Greene lived a debauched life. As Ruth Franklin wrote in a 2004 New Yorker article:

Greene lived his life to extremes: he had serious affairs, sometimes simultaneously, with at least three women, amid a host of more casual liaisons; he spied for MI6, smoked opium, visited prostitutes.

The whisky priest in Greene’s The Power and the Glory has lived a similarly debauched life. He is a drunkard. He has fathered a child. He is also the last priest in the Mexican province of Tabasco, fleeing from an anticlerical government. There is little heroic about him. He is, like Greene himself perhaps, hanging on to his faith by the skin of his teeth. The pathos of his attempts to procure enough wine to say Mass, only to have it stolen and drunk before his eyes by a corrupt official, is extraordinarily moving. The whisky priest finds his moment of grace at the end of the novel when, having escaped across the border, he is summoned back into Tobasco to the bedside of a dying man. He knows it is a trap, but he goes anyway, and is captured and executed.

What if he had not gone? What if, instead, he had sent the messenger away, and escaped? We would be deprived of that moment of spiritual uplift that the real ending gives us. But would that invalidate the beauty and pathos of the rest of the novel? Would it be a false ending? I think not. In many ways, it would be more true to life, more probable. It would complete the pathos of this sinner’s agonizing journey. I’m not arguing it would be a better ending. The ending we have is the better one. But the other ending is possible too. It is the ending that most ordinary novelists would probably have given, celebrating the ingenuity of their hero and his seeing through the trap intended to doom him. It is what most editors would have urged as well. Happy endings sell better.

In any novel there is a moment of choice, and in great novels the choice is poignant specifically because both choices are plausible, both choices are, in some sense, satisfying, if only because we recognize the humanity in both of them. A story in which only one choice is possible is a story without tension. Even if one choice is, in the literary sense, more satisfying than the other, it is only because the other choice is so real, so plausible, that the choice the character does make is satisfying at all, rather than merely predictable. This is why even the simplest, cheesiest romance novel requires two suitors, not just one.

We can’t, therefore, anoint The Power and the Glory a great Catholic novel merely because the whisky priest chooses to attend the dying man rather than escape. It would still be a great Catholic novel even if he had made the opposite choice. Both choices, certainly, would be true to how Catholics experience life, how they face the world’s demands that they apostatize. We are asked to deny Christ many times, and many times we do.

Another of Green’s Catholic novels is The End of the Affair, supposedly modeled on his own affair with another man’s wife. Art imitates life in a novel just as Diller argues that it does in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In both cases, it is serious sexual sins that are the subject of the novel and that are present or alleged in the lives of its authors.

In Brighton Rock, Green presents us with yet another Catholic sinner, Pinky, the petty gangster whose gang likes to cut up people with straight razors.

All novels are about sin. All novels are written by sinners. All novels are read by sinners.

Why, then, read such books at all? Are they not all simply an occasion of sin? Should we not say, “lead us not into temptation” and lay them aside? In some cases, maybe we should. But this is a matter of knowing our own limitations and proclivities, not a valid general judgement on the book. But I would suggest that a greater and more subtle temptation lies in the other direction.

One of the interesting features of The Power and the Glory is that the narrative of the whisky priest is interspersed with the telling of the story of Juan, told by another character in hagiographic style. In this parallel tale, all temptation and sin is expunged from Juan’s character. It becomes a straightforward tale of saint vs. sinners, a blithe and willing martyrdom. This, it seems to me, is Greene saying that this simple hagiography is not what martyrdom really looks like.

It is easy to write these kinds of black and white stories, to create characters who are essentially sinless, who show no fear, no doubt, who succumb to no temptation, and to pit them against an antagonist who is simply a tool of Satan just as they are simply a tool of God. It is easy. It will sell well in the church bookstore. But it is a lie.

Indeed, it may be a damnable lie. It is one of the most fundamental Catholic principles that we are all sinners, and that it is a sin to imagine we are sinless. This is something that the Jesus prayer reminds us of constantly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I have a hearty dislike of the kind of book that simple-mindedly pits the forces of good against the forces of evil. The Lord of the Rings sometimes skirts dangerously close to this, and gets particularly uncomfortable when the armies of dark-skinned Haradrim are summoned to the defense of Mordor, pitting the light of the north against the darkness of the south (as Lewis does too, with Narnia and Calormen). But The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, a meditation on temptation. Tom Bombadil, dismissed by many as a distraction, is, to my mind, essential to the piece because he represents a prelapsarian being immune to the temptation of the ring. His indifference to it sets a boundary marker. No one else is immune to the ring’s influence. Gandalf and Galadriel both refuse to accept it, knowing it would master them. Only Sam, essentially simple in his love of his master, ever voluntarily returns it.  Frodo, in the end, is mastered by it. The ring is not destroyed by the virtues of the hero, but in a biting clawing fight for its possession between two creatures it has corrupted. It is not triumphant virtue but the contradictions of its own nature that doom the ring.

In this respect, The Lord of the Rings differs markedly from Harry Potter and most other modern fantasies, where the virtuous hero masters power. That notion, that through virtue we can tame power and use it for good is, I suggest, a greater peril to souls than the depictions of sinners succumbing to temptation that we find in Greene or Tolkien. It is an invitation to spiritual pride and to reckless adventure. It is the temptation to say to oneself, “I am on the side of the angels and therefore all I do must be angelic.” And that, I think, is a very deadly sin.

A great novel about sin can remind us of our own sinfulness and make us wise to the ways of temptation. Such novels do not have to come from Catholic authors. They do not have to be doctrinally pure. (It is not the business of a novel to teach doctrine, but to create experiences.) They have only to be truthful about the human condition – truthful about its vices as much as about its virtues. And I would suggest that reading such novels is not just morally licit, but something close to morally imperative, at least for those who read novels at all. Again, imagining ourselves to be always acting on the side of the angels is one of the gravest and most subtle temptations that we will experience. As Horrocks the gardener says in my fantasy novel, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight:

“The Devil always begins by giving thee work that is just. Then he tells thee, thou dost just work, therefore thou art just. And then he tells thee, thou art just, and therefore any work thou dost is just.”

I make no excuses for the authors, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley, that Diller mentions in her article. But I think that the touchstone by which their books should be judged is not the moral lives of their authors, but whether they tell the truth about the human condition. Even great sinners can do that. Grahame Greene stands out as an example. So does St. Augustine.

Good novels tell the truth about sinful characters, about temptation, and about succumbing to temptation — not to condemn, but to reveal. This is the kind of truth novels should deal in, not the propositional truth of doctrine or moral teaching, but the experiential truth of what it is like to be a human being, to sin and to be sinned against, to strive and to fail, to love and to be accepted or rejected.

All novels are about sin. All novels are written by sinners. All novels are read by sinners.

Can a sinful author write truthful books? We must hope so, because all authors are sinful. So the question we should be asking about any book, even a book written by a manifest sinner, is, is the book truthful?

Later in her essay, Diller says:

Bradley, and my middle teacher, showed their true colors long before the public knew about what they had done. They showed it when they promoted literature that glorified such evil. We cannot separate an artist and their works. We cannot excuse books for celebrating alternate moralities. To publish such ideas is to take them out of the darkness, to promote these ideas and spread them.

There is a reasonable principle here. Novelists should not promote evil. But since every novel is about sin and must show sinners sinning, how are we to distinguish between the portrayal of sin and its promotion? Of course, if the author inserts an editorial passage advocating for the sin they are portraying, then we catch them in the act and there is no doubt. But this is not what good novelists (by which I mean technically competent novelists) do. They portray the experience, not argue the case.

We could try to argue that if they themselves commit the same sins that they are writing about then their intent must be to promote the sin. But that net will catch Graham Greene as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley. In fact, it is likely to catch a great many authors, for what is a more likely subject for a novelist to tackle than the sin to which they are themselves tempted?

So I would suggest that the real test here is, again, truth. Those who describe sin should tell the truth about it. This is not just a moral imperative. It is a literary imperative. The novelist’s job is to tell the truth—the experiential truth—as best they can see it. You don’t even have to personally regard a sinful action as a sin to write truthfully about it and its consequences. Attempting to write truthfully about it may actually convince you of its sinfulness.

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About G. M. Baker 1 Article
G. M. Baker has been a newspaper reporter, managing editor, freelance writer, magazine contributor, PhD candidate, seminarian, teacher, desktop publisher, programmer, technical writer, department manager, communications director, non-fiction author, speaker, consultant, and grandfather. He has published stories in The Atlantic Advocate, Fantasy Book, New England’s Coastal Journal, Our Family, Storyteller, Solander, and Dappled Things. He is the author of the historical novels The Wistful and the Good, St. Agnes and the Selkie, and the fairy-tale fantasy Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. Visit him online at


  1. “and if we don’t give authors a pass on their sinfulness when evaluating their work…” To give anyone, anywhere, and at anytime a pass on their sin is a cause for sin for us since it falls into the category of the gravest sin – the sin against charity.

    Secondly, it’s really not a question whether all men sin. What distinguishes one sinner from another is whether one acknowledges his sin, expresses remorse and then seeks forgiveness. We know far too well of Churchmen who extol sin in others, rarely if ever come clean about their own personal failings and never express personal remorse for their misdeeds. Our bishops are notorious for expressing regret for the sins of the collective i.e. the Church in general but rarely get up in public to admit their own wrongdoings. In fact, the essence of the clergy sexual abuse scandal is the hiding of sin and the absence of public remorse for specific misdeeds by the sinner himself. I know that this article makes specific reference to writers as sinners but we are looking at this topic of sin with the eyes of a Church that is currently experiencing a serious moral crisis over the very nature of sin. Our current Catholic Church is very confused about what constitutes sin and it has been confused for the past 60 years.

    • Shall we therefore not eat if the farmer has sinned? Shall we therefore not drink without first hearing the vintner’s confession? I was careful to say that we should give the author a pass on their sins in the specific case of evaluating their work. I’m not at all suggesting that we should give them a general pass because of the quality of their work, which, I agree, would clearly be wrong. I’m simply saying that the quality of the work itself is not different if they were a sinner or not.

      • Actually, I have a greater concern for the person of the writer and his ultimate fate than for his/her writings.

  2. All very good points, but I would argue that they apply when a novel is not a propaganda piece, written to promote certain behaviors or beliefs at odds with natural law. It may still be a great work of art, but there is a difference between a novelist who recognizes the sin in him- or herself and uses it to bring the reader closer to reality, that is, to truth, and one who uses it to glorify or promote sin and thus the turning away from reality.

    Graham Greene is, in my opinion, the former, while Marion Zimmer Bradley one of the latter. I am marginally acquainted with Bradley’s daughter, and won’t bore you with what she went through (you should buy her book). I reread Bradley’s novels in light of what I learned from her, and realized the parts I had “bleeped” over or assumed were just added for “world building” for the purposes of the story were in reality the whole point of the story. The plots and action were there to carry the message, not the other way around. The fact that Bradley was an excellent writer only made it worse. She made the abnormal seem normal, at least within the context of the novels, and got many people asking why they couldn’t have a society like that — moving them away from reality and truth, not toward it.

    In short, it makes a great deal of difference whether a novel is about sin, or is itself a sin, a fine distinction sometimes, but one essential to make. Throughout history, people who warn against sin have themselves been branded as sinful if the rich and powerful don’t want to hear that they are drifting away from reality, while sin has become touted as virtue.

    • I agree entirely. This is why I say that the criteria is truth, not skill. And yes, a skillful liar is worse than a clumsy one — harder to detect and more apt to convince.

      It’s also why I believe that the business of the novelist is experiential truth, not propositional truth. The falseness of an experiential lie is far more palpable than that of a propositional lie. You may not detect it at once, but it will give you a sense of unease that will stay with you where a propositional lie may slip past more easily.

  3. I have not read the article this one comments on, so I will only say that I do believe that the effects on science fiction and fantasy over the past 50 years upon our youth include harmful influences that most Catholics are not aware of. One might for instance look that the output of Samuel Delaney, who first made a splash with a story titled “Aye, and Gomorrah” about a peculiar sexual perversion that could only exist because of the supposed effect of radiation on young men sent to outer space. The story appeared in the 70s in a sci fi collection put together by Harlan Ellison called “Dangerous Visions”. It included as well a couple stories that were riffs on the Marquis de Sade. Delaney is a talented writer and his popular novels helped set the groundwork for transgenderism. He is indeed a case where his personal life (he has celebrated his own engagement in homosexuality) and literary output are of one piece.

    But it is an important point that the author makes that the work ought be judged separately than the worker and this applies to the other arts as well. Would we really want to be deprived of the work of Caravaggio or Bernini because of their far less than perfect lives? Would we deep-six Picasso’s “Guernica”?

    In my opinion, Roman Polanski ought to be in a California prison doing life for the rape of a child. But he also made some great movies, one of which, “The Pianist”, is on the Vatican’s list of the greatest films of all time. We could speculate that his fine film version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (“Tess”) was informed by his own falling into darkness.

    Back to the written word, I think Larry McMurtry is probably one American author, who though little respected by the literati, who will still be read a century from now. (I can hear the hoots and snickers of the well-educated from here.) His characters are often amoral in sexual ways and he does not criticize that behavior. His background is a fading rural protestantism and there is nothing that I know of him that reflects any abiding religious faith.

    All that said, I am fond of his story telling. He is an honest man and reports human behavior honestly. I recall one Catholic review of the movie version of “The Last Picture Show” which thought almost all the characters were vile and couldn’t understand why anyone was interested in them. My response was that they reminded me of the people in my small town and high school and I resented the nose-in-the-air piety and prissiness of the reviewer. They remain believable characters 50 years later.

    My favorite novel of his is “Leaving Cheyenne” and I will use it to make a larger point. It concerns two friends, one a ranch owner, the other a hired hand. They both engage in life-long affairs with the same woman. Each liaison produces a child. McMurtry does no moralizing about the affairs, they are simply reported as what the characters did, but he depicts quite clearly how damaged the two children are. He is an honest man in reporting the likely outcome of sin, even though he does no moralizing upon it. He also, like God perhaps, loves the characters he has created despite their sins. Like the small town sinners of “The Last Picture Show”, their stories are worthy of telling. The character Hud in “Horseman, Pass By” is a crud, even when played by Paul Newman in the film version, but the story of the grandfather and the grandson is the true heart of the story and cannot be told without the contrast and full depiction of the mileau. It probably won’t make the reading or viewing lists at any pious Catholic schools, but it depicts lives that are authentic and true, and what is true ought to be acknowledged and respected. I suspect Pope Francis would agree that that is part of the smell of the sheep.

    • Much of the current literary world, the fantasy and sci-fi parts of it included, is expressing and exploring an anthropology very different from the classic Western/Christian anthropology. That, in the end, is probably more harmful that any specific justification of particular sins. It is certainly more insidious.

      I’m heartened by what you say about Larry McMurtry. I haven’t read much yet, but what I have read has impressed me, and he’s on my TBR list. I hope to see in him examples of the “serious popular fiction” that I am advocating.

  4. A good article. However, I am not well versed in examining why books are banned. But, I may be cautioned when entering a library. I may be guided by sinful lying politicians who have mandated what books should be banned. Those politicians have instructed us not to say “GAY”. Harlan Ellison wrote “Dangerous Visions” and was gay. The book by Kathleen Connors’ “The Life of Rosa Parks” was banned because it focused on race and gender. Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” and a book-length edition of the “1619 Project,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning report from The New York Times on the legacy of slavery in the U.S.

    As a sinner, I was concerned that my Lord was not listening. So, I have prayed hard and changed my version of the “Lord’s Prayer” because my savior Jesus Christ could never “lead us not into temptation”, rather he would “take us repentant to the promised land”. Should that change be called a “sin”? As I recall, the Pope was in the process of changing the text.

    Pray that our parents will make the “final” decisions as to what books their children will read.

    • Harlan Ellison was most emphatically not gay! Quite the contrary!He talked quite openly about his many conquests of women but in his last decades finally achieved a happy, monogamous marriage. I knew the man as a friend.

      Dissecting people’s morals from a distance is not an appropriate–much less useful– critical approach. And if we are not to read books based on anthropology other than Catholic, that would cut us off from a huge swath of the world’s literature. I myself once published a story (“The Salt Garden”) inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.

    • Morgan,
      Parents are the primary educators of their children and only delegate some of that authority to schools. They don’t give it up entirely. Parents have every right to ask that books that promote deviancy and harm be removed from school libraries.
      If we were to judge a book by its author’s lifestyle many library shelves would be bare. It’s a question of content, not an author’s personal life.
      It’s true that the American colonies and every other European colony in the New World had economies closely tied to slavery. But the 1619 project is just inaccurate history. To be fair, most history books have inaccuracies also. Every era sees some version of historical revision and the 1619 Project is just the latest in a series.

    • Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

      The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert in order that Jesus would be tempted by the devil.

      The Lord’s prayer and scripture are words written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. If one is not tempted, one cannot prove oneself, and one cannot advance on the spiritual path WITH CHRIST. Why deny oneself the challenge? Christ Himself will help in all our temptations if we call upon Him. Why not believe in Him and His promises?

  5. Marion Zimmer Bradley is one my very short list of authors never to read solely due to her personal life. She and her husband sexually abused their own children. We don’t have to give authors or artists a pass when their sins involve the sexual abuse of children or other vulnerable people (Rupnik). The sins of Graham Greene are simply not comparable. There are better authors to read.

  6. All the best novels are about tragedy in some way. All the best plays are ultimately about tragic experiences. I could go on…All Art is painful, and so it should be. If we don’t feel, it’s not real.

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