Ethics and Examples… Including Writing

A survey of almost 30,000 high school students in 100 randomly selected public and private high schools nationwide revealed that 64% of all students have cheated on a test in the past year, and almost forty percent did so repeatedly, while 36% plagiarized assignments from the Internet and 30% stole something from a store. These figures represent an increase of 5% over the past two years, according to the Josephson Institute, which conducted the survey. Most disturbing was the finding that 77% of the students believed that “when it comes to doing what is right I am better than most people I know.”

These figures not only indicate that American public behavior is headed in the wrong direction, but they also suggest that American students are very perceptive. They see misleading advertising on television and understand that it’s effective in selling products. They see unethical behavior in the financial community and note that those who practice it are rewarded with multimillion dollar salaries and bonuses. They read about or watch superheroes who aren’t bound by conventional law and ethics and reap the benefits, as do their creators.

They also see that the people who are the pillars of the community — the teachers, the firefighters, the police, the social workers, nurses, and others — aren’t nearly so well compensated as those who use their intelligence to game the system, regardless of the ethical implications and the adverse effects on others. They also learn that the highest test score counts, no matter how the score is obtained, whether from the high-priced cram school, the higher-priced private school, or outright cheating, and that those high scores are the passports to better colleges and graduate schools and high income professions.

And, alas, the writing community hasn’t done much better. Even in F&SF… and especially in its spin-off sub-genres, various writers and publishers have sold out, in the name of profit and popular entertainment, in order to boost sales in an industry historically plagued with low margins and profitability. Understandable? Yes… but at what cost?

As I noted sometime back, one of the main critics for The Atlantic Monthly effectively trashed F&SF because it didn’t have enough sex. Recently, The New York Times notable book list for 2008 included several novels with passages cited as possible contenders for The Guardian’s “Literary Review of Bad Sex in Fiction” award, at least according to Andrew Wheeler, and not only were such sex scenes bad, but exceedingly graphic. What exactly does the “sex quotient” have to do with the excellence, or lack thereof, of a book? Not much, if anything, but from the best-seller lists, it’s clear that “sex sells,” and it sells big time. Just look at the Laurel Hamilton books and others of the same ilk… and all those hurrying to emulate such sales success.

Now… I certainly understand the need to sell books in order to stay in business, but there are more than a few authors who manage to sell well without resorting to graphic descriptions of human plumbing. I’d also be the first to admit that, at times, in some types of books, a certain amount of sex is necessary to both plot and resolution, but its necessity is far less than all too many authors will insist. Writing sex has always been the fast and dirty way to avoid hard and honest writing, and, in that sense, using bad and graphic sex as a sales tool is only a half-step removed from misleading advertising. For that matter, so is writing “action at all costs,” whether in thrillers or in SF. Again, I’m not against action. I’m just against filling a novel with gadgets and body-counts and pages that might as well be printed in blood for the sake of thrills and pseudo-action that have little to do with either plot or character.

After all, if we blame the financial types for cutting corners in their fields, shouldn’t we look at our own field? Just because the costs aren’t so obvious, or so immediate, doesn’t mean that there aren’t costs. How many of those “cheating” students were hooked on meaningless action movies or graphic novels or books? Or F&SF erotica pumped out as romance? Or vampire sex and slash best-sellers? The message is exactly the same: Self-satisfaction and more dollars at any cost and don’t let ethics, excellence, and good taste get in the way if they’re not convenient.

After all, we are a society that values results, no matter unethically they’re obtained — just so long as we can claim legality… and sometimes, even that doesn’t matter.