A Few Notes on Message Fiction
One of the perennial topics here at Mad Genius Club is the gradual creep of message fiction, and how this is irksome. Most of us like our stories to be just that- stories. If we wanted to listen to a sermon, we’d go to church.
But message fiction has been around since, well, forever. The first stories probably went something like this: “Gather ‘round, children. Let me tell you about my brother Og. Og was not very smart, and went hunting alone one day. Og was eaten by a lion. Don’t be like Og.”
Most people would call that message fiction. Or perhaps, message nonfiction. But there was a distinct lesson to be learned from the story. Medieval mystery plays were nearly as heavy on the teaching aspect- in a mostly illiterate world, drama was used as a means of education. The good guys went to Heaven and the bad guys… didn’t, complete with loud wailing laments and special effects to simulate the fires of Hell. But, and this is key, they were obvious about it; there were no attempts to hide the teaching aspect of the story.
Not all early fiction was overt message fiction. Greek myths, for example, are pretty light on morals, and though works like The Iliad and The Odyssey show moral and immoral characters, the bad guys occasionally come out ahead and the good guys die for no good reason. Poor Hector.
Message fiction really came into its own with the development of the modern novel. England led the way, and the rest of Europe followed. Japan also had a tradition of epic fiction, though the message contained in works like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book aren’t always obvious to Western audiences. But the Western-style novel really took over in the few hundred years following 1600, and we usually think of that format when we think about written fiction, along with lesser amounts of poetry and short stories.
The novel took off for a couple of reasons. First, Gutenberg’s development of the printing press in the mid-1400s made printed material more numerous, less expensive, and more accessible to the average person. No longer were hand-copied manuscripts the ultimate in written material. This accessibility helped improve literacy, and as England became slowly more democratic, the poor and middle classes had more chances to go to school. Other countries slowly followed suit. Before the 1800s, England still wasn’t a particularly literate society by our standards, but literacy was increasing. When the printing press was developed, about 5% of Englishmen could read; that jumped to 50% by 1650 and to 75% by 1900. Interestingly, the Netherlands, a hub of early modern trade and capitalism, had the highest literacy rate in Europe in 1500- about 20%.
Most early novels were morality tales, a.k.a. message fiction. Some were more blatant than others. Characters might be named after the virtues or vices they embodied, and there was a strong component of ‘truth’ in these stories. Not necessarily that the story was true, but that it was honest and didn’t try to pretend it was something it wasn’t.
By the 1800s, the lessons were a little less obvious, but there were still there. I’m rereading Jane Austen’s works, and each time, the preaching becomes a little more noticeable to me. I still like the stories, and read them to get my head in the right place for writing regencies, but I cringed when Louisa fell down the stairs in Persuasion. The narrator makes a point of contrasting Louisa’s impetuosity (which she calls stubbornness, as if no teenage girl had ever wanted really badly to do something fun and exciting) with Anne’s calmness and willingness to take advice. Hello, message fic. It’s even more obvious in Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne’s histrionics nearly lead to her death. I will say that Sense and Sensibility is more readable to me, because Marianne’s absurd mood swings are in line with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas about the innocence of children and the noble savage concept, and I can’t stand the guy. So I’m not particularly touchy about a hysterical character getting smacked down.
A couple generations later, the Victorians loved their message fiction, especially for children. I Will be a Lady: A Book for Girls and How to Get On: A Book for Boys sound absurd to us, but these are real titles, that people bought for their children (it’s hard to say if the books were actually read, or used mostly as pillows for bored and tired little heads). Truth and honesty were also great virtues in the Victorian Era, possibly because reality was changing so fast that it was hard to tell what was a lie and what was the future.
The mid-1900s saw message fiction become slightly less obvious. A lot of stories still had morals, because it’s easier to teach a lesson that is wrapped up in something interesting, like an adventure. But pulp books and magazines concentrated on rollicking good stories, on the reasonable theory that people would be more likely to read something that wasn’t dry as dust.
But as we’ve seen, obvious message fiction has started to creep back in recent decades. I wasn’t around during the seventies and eighties, but I’d lay a small bet that Soviet propaganda is at least partially responsible for this trend. There was a concentrated effort to take over Western culture and institutions, and storytelling was part of that. Which meant that the messages in these works were no longer relatively palatable lessons like, “Work hard and you’ll be rewarded,” but rather, “It’s polite to share, even with people who hate you,” and the like. The white, male, Christian businessman became a standard villain, and the cute little girl of indeterminate race was the hero. Every damned time.
Now we come to the point. Message fiction is boring, unless it’s extremely well-done. A huge proportion of message fiction exists only to tick the appropriate boxes and signal the author’s virtues. Now, instead of having to prove that their character is a good person, authors are increasingly driven to prove that they are good people, and ostracized if they are not. This makes for boring, predictable books, and if the politics (because everything is political nowadays) are not to your taste, the book gets thrown against the wall. There’s nothing to hold a reader’s attention in a story that’s just a bunch of clichés pretending to be new and exciting. Clichés can be fun, particularly in light, easy reads like romance, but too many authors use a cliché and then claim they’re being “so daring and courageous, OMG!”
Readers don’t want to be insulted. They don’t want their intelligence insulted. If a book promises something familiar, they want familiar; and if it pretends to be new and fresh, they want to be surprised. And now we’re back to Victorian notions of honesty and truth in the arts (hey, maybe we, too, are in a period of rapid technological and political change!).
Message fiction has its place. Humans learn by telling stories, but as I said in the beginning of this ramble, stories are not the same as sermons. If an author must commit message fiction, it should be subtle, and signal (again, subtly) its purpose. I’m getting tired of rolling my eyes when an author drops a political screed into the middle of a totally unrelated scene (because God has a sense of irony, I just realized that I put a few screeds into The Garia Cycle; fortunately they were short and relevant to the story, or I might have to hide under a rock. I was a green-as-grass newbie with no editor; it would have taken a far more talented and self-aware writer to avoid screeds in those circumstances).
What egregious examples of sermonizing have you encountered in your reading? Would you prefer the lesson to be overt (so you can easily skip it) or subtle (so you can enjoy the story)? Have you ever committed message fiction? Do you think the trend will go away any time soon?