On Message Fiction

Friday , 10, April 2015 7 Comments

In light of the controversy swirling around the Hugo Nominations, I thought it would be worthwhile to define one of the leading causes of puppy related sadness:  boring message fiction.

The modifier ‘boring’ is an important one.  Message fiction does not have to be boring, pretentious literary dreck; nor is boring, pretentious literary dreck necessarily message fiction.

What distinguishes message fiction from other kinds of fiction is that it is primarily agenda-driven.  That is to say, message fiction is created first and foremost for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.  Since authorial intention is often unclear, we tend to only notice the blatant cases — the ones with long-winded preachy sermons by one-dimensional characters who are only heroic by virtue of their cause.  Nevertheless, message fiction is propaganda within a narrative wrapper, where the story, whether well crafted or not, is merely the delivery mechanism for the message.  This definition applies to message fiction that is conservative or liberal, Christian or pagan.  A good story, i.e. one with a compelling plot, theme, characters, and style, can still be message fiction if and only if the author wrote it to deliver a message.

Please note that message here is not theme, although a theme is a kind of message.  Themes are universal, and can have philosophical, political, and moral associations.  They can be general subjects, like the themes of Power and Domination in Lord of the Rings, or more pointed, like “you are a special little snowflake”, the theme of every commercial ever made.  Most good writing allows the reader to synthesize the meaning of the theme for themselves.

Let’s briefly consider the original Star Wars, and imagine that George Lucas wanted to revamp it once again, but this time wanted it to be message fiction.  Suppose also that he wanted to change as little as possible, since the film is considered good by most people, and he wants this to be good message fiction.  All he would have to do is demythologize the labels and change the names of The Rebel Alliance and The Empire to whatever cause he wanted to support.   So instead of The Empire, it could be The Patriarchy.  Or instead of the Rebel Alliance, it could be the Macho Conservative Alliance.  Or the Jedi could be the Social Justice Warriors.

Undoubtedly, those changes would be considered unnecessary, and stupid.  But it certainly would not make Star Wars boring.  For that, you’d need to make Luke Skywalker mope about Tattoine forever and, you know, never go on the adventure.

Sad Puppies opposes the boring message fiction.  An important distinction.

7 Comments
  • WroughtFe says:

    An example of good message fiction, Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkin. Very strong message about socialism and one of my favorite books.

  • Tony Breeden says:

    While I understand the point you’re trying to make, your Star Wars analogy sucks. While changing the names of organizations wouldn’t make it boring per se [though it WOULD make it unbearably pretentious, putting it more on the level of a Mel Brooks movie or the SW prequels], you can’t just swap out titles. People catch onto that pretty quickly and they don’t appreciate being patronized. Rather you have to make it an integral part of the story and its theme, something I managed to do [if reviews are any indication] with my action-packed superhero sci-fi novel.

    It cannot be window dressing. It can’t be slapped on after the fact. It must be critical to the story, not just a sermon superimposed upon it. As Christians, we should have a message of some sort. Given our Great Commission, given the fact that we believe in eternal life and eternal damnation for the choices we make during our brief sojourn here, entertaining stories for their own sake can never, in all good conscience, be our goal.

    Neither should we expect to receive a pass for poor storytelling. You consider it a sin to make our message fiction boring. I consider it a sin to make the living breathing Word of God boring! And I say that as a preacher. We need to write what interests us rather than writing what someone else expects a Christian to write on account of some man-made set of rules and prohibitions.

    Interesting storytelling [the art of writing, if you will] and theme/message [the soul, if you will] are important. The last leg of our 3-legged stool is no less important: craftsmanship [the science, if you will]. Too much of Christian fiction seems to come from an attitude that the Holy Ghost is a substitute for an editor, or that the message needs to come before the entertainment factor, or [worse still] that a message consistent with a Christian worldview is somehow optional or may be superficially applied ad hoc.

    Perhaps it’s time we reminded ourselves that writing is something of a trinitarian endeavor. ;]

    • Scooter says:

      “You can’t just swap out titles.”

      I agree — the relabeled Star Wars would not be effective and artful propaganda. It would be patronizing, stupid, intrusive, and distracting. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that even if the message is overt, in-your-face propaganda slapped on after the fact without any consideration for craft…there can still be an entertaining story underneath it all.

      “…entertaining stories for their own sake can never, in all good conscience, be our goal.”

      Stories are not only good if you can use it to share the Gospel or if you can use it to make money to give away to missionaries…although those are good things. Crafting an entertaining story has intrinsic value, not just instrumental value, because it is work, and all work is a God-given means for developing and caring for His Creation (which by definition precludes sinful work). I always think of my grandfather dying in hospice care, watching some sitcom, and laughing for the first time in weeks as a good example of the value of entertainment. Now, if you can also make an entertaining story that is beautiful, true, well-crafted and brings people to Christ — more power to you Tony!

      “As Christians, we should have a message of some sort.”

      Again, I’d like to make a distinction between message fiction and theme. It’s very difficult to write something that doesn’t have a “message” in the general sense of the word. The way I see it Message Fiction needs to advance a specific institution, cause or person — not just a moral, or a particular way to see the world — and that agenda needs to be the primary concern and motivation of the author. So if you as a preacher set out to write a story that would advance the Gospel, and that was your goal, then according to my definition your story would qualify as Message Fiction. If you just wanted to write a story whose theme was “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy.” that would not qualify. Whether either of them are good or bad depends on many other factors, some of which you listed above.

  • C.S. Lewis wrote pure and unabashed message fiction. And it was absolutely brilliant.

    Like you said, BORING message fiction is the problem here.

  • Laz says:

    “Or the Jedi could be the Social Justice Warriors.”

    Are you trying to give me nightmares?

  • S. Schwartz says:

    “A good story, i.e. one with a compelling plot, theme, characters, and style, can still be message fiction if and only if the author wrote it to deliver a message.”

    The problem is, this requires us to know the author’s intent — which we can’t do.

    To pick an example totally at non-random, some people find “Die Glasperlenspiel” to have Messages — and to be boring. Does that make it boring message fiction? I don’t think so.

    This definition of “message fiction”, then, relies upon the judgment of the reader to read the mind of the author — and “boring” message fiction is *entirely* within the realm of the reader’s judgment.

    (We shan’t even go into the fact that “messages” are often easy to gloss over if they’re the ones you’re expecting — the discussion about afterlives in Iain Banks’ “Surface Detail”, for example, causes some people to nod, and others to grind to a complete halt.)

    “Sad Puppies opposes the boring message fiction. An important distinction.” But one which, I submit, only exists in their own minds; not as some objective distinction. They’re allowed to oppose it all they want — just not to claim they’re opposing some thing everyone else can recognize.

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