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russell smith

The Man Booker Prize judges have just released their short list, and with it their citation praising the finalists. One of its gushing lines reads: "We ... were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose." The use of the word values stands out – are we talking aesthetic or moral values here? Are the judges praising edifying literature?

I suspect they were actually just accidentally writing a little fuzzily. But it's true that a discussion about the moral effects of literature continues to be gnawed at all over the place right now. Last month, the finalists of another literary prize were announced: The Dayton Literary Peace Prize (a $10,000 prize administered from Ohio) aims to reward work that "uses the power of literature to foster peace, social justice and global understanding." There are fiction and non-fiction categories.

Michael Ondaatje was nominated for the Dayton award in fiction for The Cat's Table. The idea is that novels that lead readers to "a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions and political points of view" are those most likely to encourage peaceable behaviour.

I'm happy for all those nominated and hope for merely jingoistic reasons that the Canadian on the short list takes home the 10 grand. I would love to win 10 grand myself, so wouldn't complain, but might fear that I was winning a prize for the most improving story of the year – the Good For You Award, if you like, the Fibre Prize. I don't know if that characteristic is likely to be its selling point.

A lot of writers I know would balk at pressure to "foster social justice" in their stories, and would shy away particularly from the award's criterion, "nominated works should focus on peace."

That would mean an unpeaceable writer like Evelyn Waugh would never come close to qualifying – but as a reader I might prefer a bit of bile like Scoop to "a big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds" or "a beautifully moving family drama about love, loss and healing" (as two of the Dayton finalists are described).

And anyway, who says exposure to the frankly nasty doesn't improve?

Doesn't all fiction, by seeking to portray motivation, lead us to a greater understanding of conflict? Couldn't the most reprehensible of protagonists in the deadest of dehumanized worlds – Meursault in L'Étranger, Bateman in American Psycho – also be created in the service of social justice and world peace?

Around the same time as the Dayton Literary Peace Prize short list was announced (the winner, by the way, will be revealed on Nov. 11), a long essay by the philosopher Elaine Scarry appeared in the Boston Review.

It made a similar argument about the ethical improvements effected by poetry. Titled "Poetry Changed the World: Injury and the Ethics of Reading," it posits the idea that Western traditions of poetry actually improved ethical behaviour from classical civilization through the Renaissance. Scarry takes as her point of departure Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that the world has become more humane and less violent over 50 centuries of civilization. Pinker holds up the novel as one of the most civilizing influences, as social reform increased exactly in time with book production. Scarry goes further back in literary history and says it was actually poetry – a much earlier form – that began literature's great task of making us into nicer people.

Scarry says that poetry contributes to the diminution of injury through three of its attributes (1) its increase of empathy, (2) its reliance on the idea of dispute or deliberation, (3) its beauty. The idea about deliberation comes from classical and medieval genres of poetry that frequently contained two points of view, set up as pro and con, in a kind of stylized debate. Scarry's theory is that this poetry made society more receptive to argument generally. The beauty theory is the hardest to follow: Beauty is held to diminish injury in ourselves, the readers, and in others because (as best I can understand) it prefigures notions of justice, it "unselfs" us (gives us relief from our own minds) and it encourages creativity.

If that's true – if beauty made us better – then wouldn't all kinds of beauty have the same effect? So wouldn't the people who lived in the most beautiful houses then be the noblest?

See, try as the most educated and articulated of us might, we still can't give you any convincing moral reason to read. You might as well just do it in pursuit of the basest and most selfish of goals: pleasure.