The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Good Writers Do Not Have to Be Good People

I recently read a column with this quote from Neil Gaiman (who is a decent writer of novels and was a great writer of comic books):

“Bad fathers are bad writers are bad people.”

There is no relationship. None. Zero.

You can be a terrible person, and a terrible father, and a great writer. Most wonderful, good people are terrible writers.

No relationship.

I will suggest that the one moral virtue that is related to good writing is truthfulness. Not truthfulness in strict detail, but in describing the world as the writer understands it. The writer may be wrong, but the writer is truthful.

Even this, I offer hesitantly. But humans who don’t act believably in fiction do (usually, not always) detract from the experience; and in non-fiction, if the writing is not true to the world, it is deformed.

Great skill in almost anything does not translate into being a great person. One can be a great therapist and a horrible father. One can preach a great sermon and be a terrible person. Many surgeons, who have saved many lives, are horrible people.

There are certainly professions which make it hard to be a good person: politician, say, or salesperson, but even in those fields there are good people.

And being a good father doesn’t make someone a good person. Plenty of people are wonderful to their families and then go out and do horrible things to other people. The archives of the Nazi death camps are full of guards who were wonderful to their families. Many politicians are great to their families then do horrible things to other people.

This sort of vapid confusion of morality, skill, and interest is immensely harmful. A claim on goodness is always followed by the question: “Good to whom?” I have had many friends who were basically assholes, but who were good to me.

A bastard, but my bastard, is a very real thing. Wonderful to his family but a genocidal maniac is also a very real thing. A great friend, but an asshole to people he doesn’t know is another real thing.

Good to whom?

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  1. Nick

    How much of this mixed moral behaviour is a result of our lingering hardwiring for tribes? I really suspect that our moral abstraction fails too frequently above Dunbar’s number to result in just societies. Perhaps networked tribalism could be a workaround. Morality could be local and autonomous and massively diverse as it needs to be and yet there could still be a language for overall system unity.

  2. DMC

    One gets this reading Celine. You’ll be asked “How can you bear to read a virulent anti-Semite?” and one is compelled to answer “If Adolf Eichmann could write like this, I’d read him.”

  3. Steve

    This is true. When I was struggling with a career transition, I noticed that people that I considered assholes (but nonetheless liked) stuck with me in my tough times. People I considered more decent, completely cut off contact with me. I daresay that all in all, people with asshole tendencies tend to be more loyal. Niceness, on the other hand, seems to be correlated with moralistic preening.

    At work most of all, I can be a pretty shitty person. I have changed jobs so many times, that it’s hard for me to fully identify with whatever nonsense I am doing on the job. It seems weird to me that people actually think that they can have meaningful work. So many management techniques these days are just manipulative attempts to get employees to see meaning in their work and feel valued. I don’t give a shit – pay me.

  4. The Socialist

    In Russian there is a good sayinf that is exactly about this: “A good man is not a profession”.

  5. Tom

    My boss is an asshole always bitching about the money we waste in EMS and hitting the roof when equipment is damaged in the course of our work. He always wore expensive suits.

    Then the Courthouse shooting occurred and being an ex-cop, he unhesitatingly placed his own body between me and potential danger while I worked a patient.

    He is still a fucking asshole. But he will throw down with us when the chips are down.

  6. markfromireland


    I daresay that all in all, people with asshole tendencies tend to be more loyal. Niceness, on the other hand, seems to be correlated with moralistic preening.

    Very true. It’s why nice people will stab you while simultaneously snivelling about their principles. Their squeals if you grab their wrist as the blade descends and force it back into them are downright tympanum shattering.

  7. markfromireland

    @ Ian –

    Good to whom?

    Cui bono?

  8. Thanks for dispelling the type of linear thinking that plagues so many of the general masses.
    Reality is actually quite nuanced and fluid, not the analytical stereotypes concocted by the sociologists and mass media types.

  9. someofparts

    About a year ago some of the ladies I worked with ganged up and told HR a bunch of lies about me to try and get me fired. They almost succeeded. The next day they brought food and had a noisy party to celebrate in the break room within easy earshot of my desk. They were laughing their socks off and named themselves the Ladies of Love. I’m an asshole and they are nice girls.

  10. Steeleweed

    “humans who don’t act believably in fiction do detract from the experience…”

    Believability is in the reader’s experience. In a writing course at NYU, I wrote of an 11-year old girl taking over a woman’s role when her mother died, – cooking & baking, cleaning, laundry, childcare, gardening, livestock; the whole 9 yards of a county housewife circa 1880. The entire class, including the teacher, refused to find this believable. I replied that my grandmother had done this at the age of 10. They shut up but were probably not convinced. This did teach me I had to take my audience into account, so it was a good lesson for an author.

    I have long noted that some of the most competent people I’ve known professionally are assholes. The only common denominator I’ve found is an almost obsessive need for perfection, possibly from a sense of insecurity. It drives them to be good at what they do and intolerant of anything less than perfection in others.

    Writing is simply a skill and I’ve never understood why it is holds special status.

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