Saturday, June 14, 2008

Message stories




I recently came across an amusing dissection of a message fantasy, and that inspired this post.

A “message novel” is one where the author’s political or social or religious stance takes precedence over the story. At worst, the characters can become mere mouthpieces for the author’s views, with the good guys preaching whatever ideology the author favors. The antagonists are therefore saddled with the opposing viewpoints, and are further handicapped by being foolish, ugly or cruel, so that the readers know that the opposing viewpoint is wrong wrong wrong. This is seldom pleasant to read, and even more seldom does it convert anyone to the author’s cause.

In some cases, writing a message story is expected. If a writer decides to submit to publishers of Christian inspirational fiction, for instance, the story would have to feature Christian themes and protagonists who uphold Christian ideals. There is most likely going to be a message here, and as long as the story is labelled accordingly, that’s fine. It will appeal to a certain audience, and readers who want something different will look elsewhere.

What I’m not so keen on are works of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy or horror – which are not so labelled but which are still message stories. If a novel is supposedly set in another world, but the good characters all talk about the equality of women while the villains are all misogynists, I’m not going to buy it. It’s going to be too evident that this world was constructed primarily to make an ideological point. And I’m a staunch feminist, which goes to show that even message stories which preach to the choir may end up losing choirgirls who want an interesting plot rather than a thinly disguised polemic. Many writers who try to send such a message often pick issues that readers are well aware of, and where the readers have usually made their minds up already.

Readers who don’t already start off with the same views as the author may be even less interested. That’s one reason I gave up on Dean Koontz’s newer books. I love his earlier work, but I lost interest when the villains became atheists and nihilists while the good guys were believers in the spiritual. Writers often have good intentions when they write message stories – they want to introduce readers to what they see as an admirable position or ideology – but readers rarely pick up novels in the hopes of being educated. They want to be entertained instead.

It’s possible to slip messages in under the radar, if an author is skilful and subtle and puts the story first, but the more removed from current reality the story is, the more difficult it is to insert a message. If a story is set fifty thousand years into the past, but the good people respect the environment and believe in marrying for love, it’s going to come off as a Disney film rather than a believable story. Modern issues don’t have much of a place in a fantasy land.

If an author absolutely wants to discuss these in a fantasy context, while not turning the readers off, the issues have to be geared to the context. No modern terms and no long speeches about equality or tolerance. The people on both sides need to be fully developed and to have good reasons for holding the views they do. Readers can tell when the author is trying to manipulate them (trying, because there’s rarely success in these situations).

One reason why authors might not want to present both sides of the issue equally is because this might lead to sympathy for the other side. I saw this for myself when I was writing Dracolytes. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, the story is set in a land where fanatical religious fundamentalists worship dragons – but since the heroine was a Dracolyte, I had to treat her religion as fairly and attractively as I could. There had to be a good reason for her to uphold this religion when the hero (an atheist) took a crack at it.

It wasn’t easy, but it was surprisingly fun. The religion turned out to be appealing in some ways, and I enjoyed writing scenes where the heroine prayed when she needed guidance or where she defended her beliefs. There’s no pleasure in constructing a straw man and then knocking it down. But there’s a lot to be said for presenting both sides of the issue and showing how each side just might have something to learn from the other.

My next post will deal with some books which were blatant message novels - but which I enjoyed a great deal.

To be continued…

5 comments:

kiwi said...

"Modern issues don’t have much of a place in a fantasy land."

Oliver swift, anyone? Or CS Lewis, or Tolkien, for that matter. I think a case could be made that fantasy has been a vehicle for social satire in one form or another for as long as the genre has been around. The new wave of 'realism' in fantasy is, in a way, the voice of a 'darker/wiser liberalism' in a post 911 world.

kiwi said...

... back again, because this post just doesn't ring true to me.

Take this passage:

"It wasn’t easy, but it was surprisingly fun. The religion turned out to be appealing in some ways, and I enjoyed writing scenes where the heroine prayed when she needed guidance or where she defended her beliefs. There’s no pleasure in constructing a straw man and then knocking it down. But there’s a lot to be said for presenting both sides of the issue and showing how each side just might have something to learn from the other."

This is as much a 'message story' as those politically driven narratives you identify (and the many that you don't.) The political polemics are just a little more 'complex', a little more your own. In short, this (your analysis above) is (imho) a liberal thematic, albeit a complex one that incorporates elements of social liberalism; tolerance and understanding, with the reprivatisation of identity central to neo-liberalism. You may not spell it out as other do, but the ontology, the state of being, the value judgement embued in your story/passage/analysis is still contains a clear 'message'.

Frankly, I can't see how it's possible to escape 'message stories' without escaping language use. And even to talk about complexity verses blantant ideology is to privilege ethnocentricity. I'm all for reducing language to thematics, ideology and technique. In other words, acknowledge the politics in language (all language use), and identify its architecture of power.

Marian said...

Or CS Lewis, or Tolkien, for that matter. I think a case could be made that fantasy has been a vehicle for social satire in one form or another for as long as the genre has been around.

That made me think of Animal Farm, which I read as a small kid. I didn't understand that Orwell was writing about Communism, so I just felt really sad for the animals and upset at the non-happy ending. I wonder if a reader who's never heard of Christianity would also be puzzled by The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle, or if the story would be good enough to carry the books without any help from the religious message (which is my main criterion for whether a message novel works or not).

But those books were all written in the past. Maybe these days, unless one is writing specifically for a sub-genre like Christian inspirational fiction (or unless one is an established author like... urp... Goodkind), it would be difficult to get away with writing too blatant a social satire/message fantasy. I think a lot of writers slip their ideals and ideologies in as carefully as they can; the ones we notice are the ones who don't succeed re: subtlety.

Interesting point about the "darker, wiser liberalism" as a consequence of 9/11. Did you have any specific fantasies in mind about this? China Mieville's books are the only ones which came to mind for me.

Marian said...

I had to read your second post a few times over, and I'm still not sure if I understood it completely, but I'll try to respond.

This is as much a 'message story' as those politically driven narratives you identify (and the many that you don't.)

You're right. If a novel sends the message "both sides are to be equally treated" (and sends this by the author, well, treating both sides equally), then that's as much of a message as "only one side is right". I do think, though, that the former is more palatable a read than the latter, simply because most readers would prefer to make their own minds up about such things - rather than be pushed in one direction by the author. I should have been more clear about this in my post.

The political polemics are just a little more 'complex', a little more your own.

But doesn't every author who writes a message fantasy put their own views into it? :)

In short, this (your analysis above) is (imho) a liberal thematic, albeit a complex one that incorporates elements of social liberalism; tolerance and understanding, with the reprivatisation of identity central to neo-liberalism.

I don't understand what "reprivatisation" means, and I tried looking it up online, but only got this definition (http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Reprivatization) which melted my brain still further. I feel like I need to read Pat the Bunny or some other book with fuzzy pictures now. :)

But you have a point. I should have made a distinction between books where everything is set up to make a certain point (eg. the Left Behind novels) and stories where the author tries to present both sides of an issue fairly (even if there's a take-home message there as well).

It's all the difference between fantasies which feature a Dark Lord and those like GRRM's, where there's good and bad people on both sides.

And even to talk about complexity verses blantant ideology is to privilege ethnocentricity.

"Hi, my name's Forrest, Forrest Gump."

Seriously, though, thanks for your posts. They gave me a different perspective and made some excellent points.

kiwi said...

... sorry, Marian, it was just a rant. In the hierachy of thought, you were talking about methodology, and I wanted to kick down a little deeper to epistomology (ways of knowing) and ontology (state of being).


Goodkind, ... chuckles. Grrm and David B Coe are too writers I identify with post-911 liberalism. It isn't in the story, per sa, as much as in the 'liberal' design. I think one of the markers of this narrative form is the multiple POV plot structure, and a shift from traditional eye-of god to limited third. This might make sense if we think of first-person as a reflection of 'classical liberalism' with its fixation with consciousness and the individual.

... Okay, I'll stop now.