When I first read Little Women as a child, I had no appreciation for the scene where Jo March burns all her creepy stories about crime and monsters, which she wrote for a tabloid called the Weekly Volcano. I thought it was ridiculously old-fashioned to say that such stories harmed the public morals; and I felt sure that if I had been in Jo’s place, I wouldn’t have meekly burned up my own creations, no matter who disapproved of them.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand what the scene was about. The Volcano isn’t just a clever name for a fictional tabloid; it’s a metaphor that represents all the anger, fear, and other molten-lava emotions bubbling away under the surface of the human consciousness. Because stories first create a dramatic conflict and then resolve it, they can’t be effective without touching the reader’s emotions in one way or another. Thus, an author has to consider what sort of emotional response a story is likely to get. Will the story take its audience for a harrowing stroll on the volcano’s edge? If we choose to dwell on sordid or gruesome material, then we bear some responsibility for the unhealthy feelings we stir up in our readers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean stories should have nothing in them but sunshine and joy; nor are we obligated to preach sermons to our readers. Rather, reading a good book can be like making a good friend. Fictional characters can give us comfort, inspiration, and helpful advice, just as our real-life friends do. Like real people, our fictional friends may have to deal with crime, death, and other less than pleasant aspects of the real world. As authors, we wouldn’t be honest with our readers if we pretended such things didn’t exist. And although monsters and the paranormal may not be literally real, they give us an opportunity to exercise our imagination and gain insight into our society’s collective psyche. Plus, they’re just fun to read.

So I wouldn’t say that any particular genre of fiction is harmful, in itself. What makes the difference is how the characters and images affect the readers’ emotions—and to some extent, the author’s as well. In Little Women, Jo’s quest to produce thrills by ‘harrowing up the souls of the readers’ left her feeling disturbed by morbid thoughts because she spent so much time focused on the world’s grimmer aspects: ‘She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her…’

If we’re honest with ourselves, both as authors and readers, we know what sort of emotions a story stirs up. If the main characters were real people, would we invite them into our homes for a visit, or would we nervously close the blinds and make sure all the doors were locked? If the latter, then we may find that we would benefit from choosing our fictional acquaintances more carefully.

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