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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?

 

63 Comments
  1. I like to think that I am being subtle when I have the intention of inserting a lesson into my books – not so much the later ones, but in my very first HF, To Truckee’s Trail, I was suggesting that our 19th century American ancestors (actual and metaphorical) were decent, hard-working and community-minded people, and certainly not a bunch of rapacious, minority-oppressing racists.

    February 20, 2019
    • TonyT #

      To me, showing that the MC’s are “decent, hard-working, and community-minded” (but probably not perfect) doesn’t make it message fiction.

      February 20, 2019
    • I’m not sure lesson-fic counts as message-fic….

      My kids use a lot of learning programs.

      There is a HUGE difference between the “message fic” of, oh, Education dot com’s inverted Three Billy Goats Gruff (The troll is fixing over-grazing…hey, not too bad, I got to explain grazing rotation and point out that if the troll hadn’t trapped them, the area would’ve recovered alright.) and iCivics dot org’s Argument Wars (where you game out actual Supreme Court cases. Bonus, the judge looks like Scalia crossed with Thomas).

      I can kind of see how they would overlap, though….

      February 20, 2019
  2. TonyT #

    I think you have to make a distinction between message fiction, where the message is the whole point, and fiction with morals.

    Did Flannery O’Connor write message fiction? I’d say no (and in the Habit Of Being, she talks about how she can’t write “good Catholic books” like many wanted her to, with saccharine characters), but she has a moral point of view.

    Did Tolkien write message fiction? Again, I’d say no, but TLotR has morals. And I think we can learn a lot more, much more enjoyably, by reading books with realistic characters and plots (so no Mary Sue), sometimes facing difficult choices.

    February 20, 2019
    • Mary #

      Technically, propaganda is any work written to propagate ideas, but there’s a reason why the term is generally used only for the badly written stuff. It applies to message fiction, too.

      February 21, 2019
  3. I think a common misunderstanding (especially from our detractors) is that we object to message fiction in totalis.

    This isn’t true. What we object to is when the message gets in the way of the story. For example, reading a fantasy novel then getting a not so thinly veiled rant about Trump, or the evils of American-analogue conservatives.

    Message fiction when the message is threaded into the story in a way that doesn’t get in the way is perfectly fine – and indeed, fun to read.

    Example of such: Matthew Reilly’s Troll Mountain. It’s YA, and he does it well.

    February 20, 2019
  4. Side note regarding Victorian children’s literature: even back then, there were people who snarked about it. See Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Good Little Boy” and “The Story of the Bad Little Boy.”

    February 20, 2019
  5. As much as I love her, it’s impossible to argue that Ayn Rand wrote anything other than message fic. (I know, shocking.) Anthem is a dystopia, and thus it’s expected. The Fountainhead is more subtle, but still inescapable. And then there’s Atlas Shrugged, with Galt’s speech as the most obvious (and longest) screed, but certainly not the only one.
    In more modern work, there was a web serial I had been enjoying until it apparently became the author’s communist soapbox, which led to absurdities like the goddess of wealth talking about how money is poison and how all things should be divided equally.
    For myself, I try to avoid inappropriate screeds by not putting in anything my current viewpoint character wouldn’t think/say/know. Which I think is slowing me down on one of my WIPs, actually, because I have a proto-villain as a POV character.

    February 20, 2019
    • I admit to liking Atlas Shrugged when I first read it. It’s too preachy for me now, but I discovered it when I was a teenager, and to a kid raised in a conservative house that didn’t discuss politics or philosophy, and going to school in liberal New England, that book was like water in the desert. It explained so many things of which I previously had only a hazy grasp, and made things so clear. I first read it right around the time Obama was elected, and it helped me see what was coming down the pike.

      But tastes change, and I can only read Rand’s work in small doses nowadays before the preaching and flat characters get to me.

      February 20, 2019
    • Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway is like Atlas, Shrugged inverted and vomited forth into the world drenched in SJW orthodoxy. The parallelisms are startling, up to and including a trans-centric variant of Galt’s Gulch. (Don’t ask.) About the only thing missing was the humanizing element of Eddie Willers.

      It was so over the top I almost felt like I was reading a parody by the time I was done.

      February 21, 2019
      • Well. I am officially cured of any budding desire to see if Doctorow is worth reading. That sounds vomitous. (Amazing what a difference it makes when one is preaching to the choir…)

        February 21, 2019
        • He’s quite left leaning, but I’m not going to lie, I liked the audiobooks for both Little Brother and its sequel Homeland. Both novels certainly have a leftish tone running through them, but in neither case did ideology overwhelm either the story qua story or the characters.

          An interesting question, one for which I have no answer: Will I read anything else by him going forward? Dunno. Probably I’ll just get it from the library. The libraries around here seem to fetishize stocking darn near everything Tor produces.

          February 22, 2019
  6. thephantom182 #

    “What egregious examples of sermonizing have you encountered in your reading?”

    I can’t even come up with the worst one. Lately, since 2010, it is more of a miasma. Like a stink in the air that leaves a thin layer of shit and coats everything. The most egregious that springs to mind is the Fantastic Four reboot where they replaced Johnny Storm with a black dude because Political Correctness. I’ve been extremely picky about what I read since I began writing, so I’ve managed to miss it all.

    Except “The World Turned Upside Down,” I read that -assinine- thing during the Sasquan Hugo farce. To be truthful I got to the part where the main character lets a woman fall to her death because he’s busy rescuing his goldfish, and thereafter skimmed. Motherfuckers can’t hurt my liver if I hit fast-forward quick enough.

    “Would you prefer the lesson to be overt (so you can easily skip it) or subtle (so you can enjoy the story)?”

    I would prefer they all stay inside their own little club and tut-tut among themselves, leaving me to rot out here on my own. I’m a member of the Republic of Get Off My Lawn.

    I find the current situation of Big Five publishing acceptable. If it has a TOR or Random Penguin etc. imprint, 95% probable it is SJW message-fic. If I don’t know the author, I pass on by. If in doubt, a quick check of the blurb usually reveals the SJW contagion. Hard pass, with prejudice on the author’s future works.

    “Have you ever committed message fiction?”

    Absolutely. All fiction has a message, mine is no different. Mine is pretty obvious: try not to be an asshole, and things will probably work out better for you. Five books in, I’m happy with it.

    “Do you think the trend will go away any time soon?”

    I do, as it happens. The resistance to Post Modernism generally and SJWs in particular is crystallizing. Pretty soon it will harden into a majority consensus, and anybody still peddling SJWism will go broke very fast indeed.

    February 20, 2019
    • George Phillies #

      It is not at all obvious to me which way the concensus will harden, assuming it does, which is also less than clear to me. While I enjoy reading this group, on this topic I occasionally seem to hear echoes. Perhaps I am simply old and cynical.

      February 20, 2019
      • thephantom182 #

        “Perhaps I am simply old and cynical.”

        Wondering which way it will tip is a legit question.

        I’m going by the number of what I like to call New Conservatives. People who have been hard Lefties all their lives, and woke up one morning during the last three years and discovered their Comrades had thrown them under the bus.

        Latest hit-and-run victim, Martina Navratilova.

        http://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.com/2019/02/martina-navratilova-now-conservative.html

        She’s one of the faction that wants, for example, women on the front lines of the military. The truth that women can’t survive in battle with men, and that the front lines are no place for the future mothers of the nation, has never been a defense for people like me. I get told to shut up on this issue every single time, even though the facts of human life have not changed. The truth is not a defense.

        So, Madam Navratilova is a crusty old lady these days, 62, and thinks she has some experience to offer the younger generation. She has been watching “men who identify as women” beating actual women on the tennis courts, in the boxing rings and on the wrestling mats of amateur sport, and she is DISGUSTED.

        And of course she is right, no Real Woman (TM) can compete fairly against a man in a dress. Its insane. But even saying that out loud makes Madam Navratilova a TERF, and that will get her beat up at this year’s Pride parade.

        That experience of man-hating radical lesbians suddenly finding themselves saying exactly the same things Conservatives have been saying to them since the 1980s is a powerful one. Women are too small to carry the M-60 and one hundred rounds of ammo into a firefight. Women are too small to compete head-on with men at tennis, or any track and field sport. Its the same argument.

        That puts lesbian royalty on my side, the Get Off My Lawn side. That is a huge divide, bridged by pure necessity. The political choice being made in the West today is not Left vs. Right, it is Rational vs. Irrational.

        The number of crazy people is small compared to the number of rational ones.

        February 21, 2019
        • George Phillies #

          Of course, what you carry intoa firefight is an M-16 or its modern replacement, and the M-16 was designed to be handled by small people. Small foreigners were American cannon fodder. There are several wars in which folks actually did go through all the men first, with women in place because they ahd run out of men. A half generation later, because humans actually are mostly naturally monogamous, these places ran into the problem that there were all these unattached women, and therefore the population was going to sink. A lot.

          February 21, 2019
          • thephantom182 #

            M-60 is the 7.62X51mm belt fed “general purpose” machine gun (GPMG) that is the platoon-level weapon for when you want to hurt something. In the field it has a crew of three. One carries the gun, one carries the ammo, and one carries the tripod. Because its a heavy SOB.

            Bottom line, 19 year old girls can’t carry it all day but 19 year old boys can. Because biology. Putting 19 year old girls on the front line is irrational.

            The M-16 was standardized during Vietnam mostly because the Russians had learned the lesson of the Nazi StG-44, and developed the AK-47. The Mattel-16 uses a 5.56X45mm, which was adopted because all their battles were fought at under 200 yards and they figured that wounded men put more of a burden on the enemy than dead men.

            “Small foreigners were American cannon fodder” was a popular accusation in the 1960’s and 1970s, been a while since I heard it.

            February 21, 2019
        • Draven #

          not even the ’60, they can’t really tote a SAW and its combat load.

          February 21, 2019
          • thephantom182 #

            FN-Minimi/M249 SAW is 16lbs empty, with a bipod. Standard loadout is 1000 rounds, I think. 4×200 round belts in soft-packs. That’s a hell of a load to carry over hill and dale. The SAW man caries the gun and one ammo bag, the other guys in the section carry the extra ammo.

            Chicks can’t carry that. Its too much.

            When I was a kid, (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I got trained on the FN-FAL, aka Canadian Forces FN-C1. 9 lbs empty, standard load was 5×20 round magazines. The FN-C2 was a heavy barrel C1 with 4×30 round mags and a bipod, about 12lbs empty, give or take. The issue GPMG was a Korean War vintage Browning heavy machine gun refitted to 7.62 NATO. That was a heavy bitch. It took three guys to run it. One for the receiver, one for the barrels (plural, you were supposed to have at least two of them, even though we never did because Trudeau) and one for the heavy-ass tripod.

            17-year-old Phantom had trouble running the FN-C1 at the beginning of the summer. By the end of the summer it was not a big deal, because I had carried the damn thing everywhere. It was replaced with the Mattel-16 in 1984, and one of the reasons was the girls complaining about the heavy-ass FN-C1 and how it kicked too hard.

            It is -stupid- to make 5.56 NATO the issue cartridge in a country like Canada, where the visibility limit is mostly the horizon. Our guys would be better off with .338 Lapua or .300 WinMag for motorized infantry. Or 8MM Schnauzer. ~:D

            But, the style is for 5.56 NATO and female support troops. Who struggle to lift the 7.62 NATO ammo boxes. (Lefties always forget that in combat, truck drivers have to load and unload the truck, not just drive it around.) So we get the Mattel-16, and told to shut up.

            Now, when I say that “chicks can’t carry that,” about the M249, clearly a hardened 19 year old female who’s been through the PT and the training, she can carry it. For a while. Couple months, maybe.

            But those girls are getting injured at probably triple the rate of the boys, or worse. They can’t sustain the effort for a whole 4 year hitch. Their ligaments and muscle attachments are too small. The bearing surfaces of their knees and their spinal discs are too small.

            Its physics. The gear is too heavy.

            And that is why Lefties have to end the conversation by screaming “Misogynist!!!!!” Because the truth does not favor their argument.

            Eventually the truth is going to win, because gravity does not play politics.

            February 21, 2019
            • Draven #

              well, its looks like very shortly our SAW isnt going to be running 5.56 anymore…

              February 21, 2019
              • thephantom182 #

                Let me guess, they went back to 7.62×54?

                February 21, 2019
                • Draven #

                  7.62×51? no

                  6.8mm telescoping round. We’ll see how it fares.

                  February 21, 2019
  7. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Some times the “message” can simply reflect the morality of the time.

    Some aspects of The Odyssey can be “how not to be a good guest” and/or “how not to be a good host” as one of the main pieces of Ancient Greek morality was Hospitality.

    IE Being a Good Host to travelers and proper behavior as a guest.

    February 20, 2019
  8. Synova #

    How about this one…

    Taking preaching as the standard… there’s pablum. Ick. And then there’s preaching. And the preaching that involves *preaching* comes in two flavors, generally.

    Anyone who’s spent much time in a pew probably has seen this. (Ignoring the feel-good pablum and talking about the preachers.) The first guy has sermons that exhort the congregation to examine themselves. The second guy has sermons that exhort the congregation to examine others.

    The first sort can be ineffective and heavy handed, true. Or if done well it can get in under your radar and reveal things about yourself or change your mind.

    The second sort can be gratifying finger pointing for people who like that, but it doesn’t change the minds of anyone. The “choir” has their opinions validated by being presented with examples to condemn.

    Any work that examines the human condition is going to have a message simply because it examines Truth. But the message isn’t going to be dictated by the author and it will vary. Readers will come away with different reactions and different impressions and different applications of what they’ve read to their own lives.

    What results is a book where, as one of my favorite authors managed, radical feminists and conservative military vets each manage to find themselves. (Judging by fan forums back when… these days the author might be required to choose.)

    February 20, 2019
    • Speaking of preachers’ styles . . . First preacher at the church I attend on occasion, talked philosophy, and your relation to God. Unfortunately replaced by a guy who preached about your duty to the church.

      And this relates to message in fiction, as when you finish a book are you the better for having read it? Has it planted some intriguing ideas in your head? Was it uplifting? Or do you set it down, glad it’s over, and swearing to never read anything by that person again? What a downer and now you feel depressed and guilty.

      I don’t like my fiction to preach, but even the subtle messages inevitable in any work come in both good and bad.

      February 20, 2019
  9. Jane Meyerhofer #

    In a way I think this topic goes back to the question of genre … or maybe sideways to it?

    People have to act, and they have to act for reasons, and we will like or dislike those reasons and we will always be judging characters, possibly in the sense of trying them on for size. At least I do that. It’s a way to see different points of view and try on different ideas without annoying real people. (Why did you do that? Are you serious? I would never do that! It turns out badly. Oh, it didn’t? Why not?)

    Books always have messages because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have a story. People can have a life that doesn’t follow a “story arc”, that is nevertheless full and important, and no one wants to read about them, even if they would obviously be the best neighbor ever.

    I think … that message fiction isn’t credible. It’s someone’s idea of how something should be, so they make it that way in a book. I think that’s why I don’t like it.

    On the other hand Cinderella is message fiction. So is the original Beauty and the Beast from long ago. And I hate and despise the Disney version of B&tB because it takes the original message and turns it on its head. And I don’t like the new message at all.

    February 20, 2019
    • Jane Meyerhofer #

      Synovial said it better while I was typing.

      February 20, 2019
      • Jane Meyerhofer #

        Ugh. And I didn’t type synovial …. I apologize for not checking the autocorrect!

        February 20, 2019
        • Synova #

          LOL! ‘sokay. 🙂

          February 21, 2019
    • In my head, I think of it as “Because The Author Says.”

      If that’s the only reason I can find for a thing…first time, I can sometimes pull through. Second? Third? Nope, I’m done.

      February 20, 2019
      • SheSellsSeashells #

        A couple weeks ago there was a collective Snit on the left-leaning bits of writerTwitter where I lurk, to the effect of :”so-and-so writes about dragons/space travel/steampunk, and Those Troglodyte Readers are griping about two gay siblings in a small family?” And…yeah. I would’ve griped had I been reading the book in question. I will cheerfully swallow one “because the author says”. Two if they’re good. But you only get so many “because I say sos” and you want to waste one of them on statistically unlikely orientation?

        February 21, 2019
        • Er… but I know actually TWO families like that.
          Yes, I know reality doesn’t need to be plausible.

          February 21, 2019
  10. 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.

    First exposure to cultural differences:
    A teacher explained that, for the Greeks, physical flaws (say, Hephaestus, who may have been club-footed and went all the way up to actually ugly depending) WERE signs of someone being bad, and that being too good was also bad, because it challenged the gods.
    (Along with a little explaining about not having a universal morality, etc.)

    …I still think: Poor Hector.

    February 20, 2019
  11. 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).

    Shelved less than half an hour ago:
    “The Humane Society of the United States: Jasmine.”
    Note on the back:
    “The Humane Society of the U. S. Animal Tales foster animal protection and environmental preservation in young children. This true story comes from The Northeast Animal Shelter.”

    Cat that looks like our big old boy, but is female, and tiny, gets abandoned. For three months. With only bird seed to eat, and thank goodness a leaky tub faucet.

    In verse.

    Bonus, there’s a note in the back that it’s before back seats had seatbelts…..

    Doesn’t matter, the Empress’s take-away was “Silly kitty! She plays in the bird seed! An’ has lots of kids to play with her after the doctor.”

    February 20, 2019
  12. 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.

    There’s a third type, too.
    “You deserve what you want, even if it means taking it from others.” and “people who tell you ‘no’ hate you, and are evil.”

    February 20, 2019
  13. I think the worst message story ever that I’ve encountered was The Rainbow Fish.

    Holy fuck. It was really widespread and I imagine lots of kids read it, and don’t realize it’s ‘message’ stayed with them.

    Which makes me wonder how many children did it damage, ever so subtly.

    February 20, 2019
  14. Draven #

    yeah as the 80s went on thee message fic intensified. the engine of social change the Soviets set up is still running, with no one at the helm.

    February 20, 2019
  15. Evenstar #

    I’ve always liked this quote “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”

    February 21, 2019
  16. wolfwalker #

    Question: How do you tell message fiction from non-message fiction? Meaning lies as much in the mind of the reader as in that of the author. The same book that Person A considers “a rollicking good story,” Person B might consider “message fiction.” Is “The Chronicles of Narnia” a great fantasy/adventure series, or is it heavy-handed Christian allegory? Or is it anti-Christian heresy because of its plentiful use of magic? I’ve heard it described all three ways. Is the Star Trek TOS episode “Devil in the Dark” a simple monster story turned on its head, or an attempt to convince the viewer that “humans are the real monsters?” Or something more complex?

    Question 2: How do you tell “egregious sermonizing” from “a valid message that more people need to hear”? The core message of the early Deryni novels is anti-bigotry: ” ‘because they’re different’ is not a valid reason to fear the Other, neither is ‘because they have power and I don’t.’ What people do with their power is what matters.” Given the political situation these days, that’s certainly a message I think more people need to hear!

    February 21, 2019
    • John R. Ellis #

      According to Lewis, he never set out to write “A Christian allegory” with Narnia. Rather, he’d had vivid images popping up in his head for decades that refused to leave. A faun wearing a muffler, walking in a snowy woods. An imperious woman riding in a sledge. A glorious but dangerous lion. He decided okay, let’s try writing them into a story. And it’s only after he was in the process of writing it that he realized who Aslan was.

      (He considered them to be what he called a “supposal”…suppose there -was- a world where Beasts talked and Trees were sapient people. What form might a divine being take there?)

      February 21, 2019
    • TonyT #

      I’ve never heard Lewis say that. For Tolkien, TLotR was a story first, and any messages come from his overall world view (he hated allegorical stories, and was very emphatic, for example, that TLotR had nothing to do with the Cold War. I view it as a modern prose saga). If Lewis did the same, the Christian elements would be simply his world view peaking through.

      Also, there was a Inkling influence; Lewis and Tolkien were going to write books about certain topics, IIRC, Atlantis for Tolkien (=Numenor) and science fiction for Lewis (so his space trilogy, not Narnia).

      O’Conner did want certain ideas to show in her works, but she did it in her own unique way.

      February 21, 2019
      • John R. Ellis #

        TonyT: Lewis states this in an essay he wrote for the RADIO TIMES, “It All Began With a Picture”, later collected into the book ON WRITING, which has several of Lewis’ essays about what he enjoys in fiction and his thoughts on why fiction is written.

        February 21, 2019
    • What makes something “message fiction” is when the author derails the plot, or characters, or both in order to get the Very Inportant Moral across.

      February 21, 2019
      • Dorothy Grant #

        Or derails both. I’m most likely to label something as message fiction and dump it when the message is so important it a.) breaks the story, or b) the author never put the effort into making a good story, because the message was important. But even if the series is good, if the author(s) keep pounding the same talking points over and over, I’ll drop it.

        I challenge you, if you watch Disney Kid’s Channel, to find an example of a competent, wise, and kind father. (If you don’t watch it, I don’t recommend it.)

        Worse, writers get lazy, and start using the message as the stereotype. When it’s not “villain who happens to be rich” but “rich = evil”, “certain skin colour = evil” or “male=evil”, and no further characterization is used, then the story is broken in service to the message.

        February 23, 2019
  17. Animal Farm, 1984, and Brave New World are all heavy handed message fic. I did not object to any of them. I saw each as a warning against letting the state take over. The fact that I agree with the message made the said message more palatable. (Animal Farm was read in HS as part of English class in 80’s when the Russian Bear was still a major concern). I suspect that there in lies the issue – if we agree with the message, we are more willing to tolerate it but if we don’t agree with the message, we wall the book.

    I have a friend who does fanfiction, she believes that it is her *duty* to lead by her stories. I have had the worst time trying to get her to accept the idea of “make it relevant to the story”; that slapping in a scene that does not move the story forward, just to show your socio/political position is a bad thing.

    For myself, I try to avoid letting my socio/political position intrude on my stories. It can be hard at times, like when the character and I agree on the issue. A few times I have done little snippets that explore those views, but those are usually for my eyes only. I have, thus far, resisted writing a story for public consumption solely to shout my socio/political position.

    February 21, 2019
    • John R. Ellis #

      Animal Farm works in part because the likable characters truly are likable, so it’s genuinely tragic when the inevitable happens and the “Revolution” ends up biting the decent ones HARD.

      February 21, 2019
      • I still get upset over Boxer, years after I last read the book.

        February 21, 2019
    • Evenstar #

      Not to mention George Orwell writing message fiction is one thing. Most writers aren’t George Orwell.

      February 21, 2019
    • Some schools still teach Animal Farm. And coordinate it with the history class, so the history department times the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise with the book.

      February 21, 2019
      • I wish my HS did something like that. But I do not recall much Russian history being mentioned, but then it was the 80’s. Our “World History” centered around England and France, central Europe. Little to nothing on Eastern Europe and the East. Mores the pity, the bits and pieced that I have picked up as an adult are very rich. (Heck, I learned more on Japanese history doing research on Geiko for a story then I ever heard in school.)

        February 22, 2019
        • My school taught “Ancient History,” which went from Ancient Egypt up to about 1500. Our “American History” class was so focused on America that we never learned who Napoleon was (that dude who sold us Louisiana) or Queen Victoria. But we knew all about the Greeks and Romans.

          February 22, 2019
          • Granting that it has been a few … years since HS – I recall getting more Greek and Roman in English class under mythology. Now, to be fair, it could be that I simply forgot it 10 minutes after the test, but you’d think something beyond the mythology and Homer would have stuck.

            Egypt … good question, I have no memories involving Egypt beyond Geography class. But, as my dear grandmother was known to say, I’ve slept since then. 😉

            February 22, 2019
  18. John R. Ellis #

    I was reading SF and Fantasy my whole childhood long. While it usually wasn’t too hard to discern the good guys from the bad guys, it wasn’t until I entered my late teens during the mid-90s that I noticed a character’s personal morality less often was tied to their actions but to their -traits-.

    (As a child, I understood Jadis was evil not because she had salt-white skin but because she murdered every last living thing on her home planet because of a fight with her sister. Yup, that’s pretty darn evil.)

    As a 17 year old, one author tried to get me to believe a member of a colony star ship who peacefully distributed religious literature only to those who were genuinely interested in it was the bad guy and deserved to be executed because….um…he was religious? And was the only character on the ship who believed in marriage and close families and stuf.

    (The protag, the ship’s captain, proudly boasted that she had no idea what her family were up to or even which of them were her birth parents. She also had this odd fixation with making her two boyfriends make out with each other instead of her.)

    It was the start of a distinct shift I noticed. The “bad” characters no longer did bad things, per se, they just WERE bad because of who they were. :/

    February 21, 2019
  19. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since I sometimes give stories two stars for being “a message thinly disguised as a story.” I find I’m just as ticked if I agree with the message as if I don’t.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that a big part of it is that once I think I see the message, all the suspense drops out of the story. It’s like having Mary Sue as the protagonist. The story holds no real surprises. Such stories usually can’t resist reminding you of the message every few paragraphs, so if you disagree with the message, it’ll keep popping you out of the story until you abandon the story.

    That’s why a story like “Three Points Masculine”(Lightspeed 72; May 2016) was cool. The protagonist was born female but wants to be consider a man and allowed to fight in the war. The military in this future has a masculinity test, though, and he failed it by just three points. Stuck in the Women’s Volunteer Corps, he’s furious to see another trans person, someone born male, because he’s sure “she” is faking it to get out of having to fight.

    The story certainly carries the message that trans people are just people and that one should take them seriously, but that’s not the central conflict of the story at all. It’s about how those two interact with each other and what happens when their team unexpectedly finds itself in harm’s way after all, and they have to depend on each other just to survive. The message doesn’t impact the plot, so it doesn’t poison the story.

    That assumes, of course, that you can suspend disbelief even for a message you disagree with. If you really, really don’t believe in climate change, for example, then a climate-related disaster story probably won’t work for you.

    February 21, 2019
    • Synova #

      Makes sense. I sometimes find myself rolling my eyes and skimming parts, even when I agree with the message in a novel, when the tone of the prose changes, as it often seems to do when the author indulges in a bit of moralizing.

      For the climate-change example it depends on who you are. My husband can’t/won’t read some of my favorite books because he feels that the set-up is ridiculous and that he wouldn’t enjoy the story as a consequence of that. For climate related disasters it probably makes the most difference to me if it just *is* or if there’s some “explaining” done that emphasizes the stupid.

      Oh, and I thought Aquaman was great (and Momoa particularly… Momoa) but when they went with the humans polluting the oceans bit I couldn’t help but wonder where the Atlantians shit if not in the water?

      February 21, 2019
      • “I couldn’t help but wonder where the Atlantians shit if not in the water?”

        I recommend against studying the origin of the feces.

        February 22, 2019
        • Mike Houst #

          “Bombardier to Pilot, Releasing Carp-pet bombs!”

          February 22, 2019
        • Grooooaaaannnn. Well done, sir, well done. That was horrible.

          February 22, 2019
  20. Mike Houst #

    Was not much of what Kipling wrote, “message fiction”? And was so very much of it very good?

    February 22, 2019
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      IIRC Most of Kipling’s “message fiction” was his poems which is one of the things poetry does well.

      February 22, 2019
    • Mary #

      Chesterton’s Heretics is a book of literary criticism. It consists of unpacking the ideas that the writers were teaching, and then attacking them. Great book.

      Kipling was one.

      February 22, 2019

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