Windmill Variations: In Defense of Message-Driven Fiction

We all have that one friend who sometimes doesn’t get the joke, who takes something personally when you meant it as fun. Who took to heart what you intended as good-natured banter. Who saw obvious hyperbole as serious observation, and got hurt feelings for no good reason.

It’s not that he doesn’t have a sense of humor; sometimes he can trade barbs as well as anyone. It’s that you’re not sure when his humor will activate because the triggers seem random or inconsistent. He’s wrecked a fun moment more than once by being too serious at the wrong time.

Sadly, I’m that guy. I tend to be an inopportune literalist. I get one joke, but miss that the next was also supposed to be funny. It makes for conversations that are just as weird for me as they must be for my friends, because I’m no better at identifying the disconnects than they are. I’ve learned that I often misinterpret, so I’ve built a pause into my response.

This happens to me a lot during discussions of literature and literary intent. Things that are apparently stunningly obvious to others seem odd or confusing to me. For example, as a young writer I remember the strong injunction to “write what you know.” I had relatively limited experience of the world or human relationships, so I retreated into gauzy stories of youthful yearning or confusion, many of which dealt with dead relatives or pets.

It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that I can expand what I know through research that extends my own direct experience with the direct experience of others. Proxy ordinance, as it were.

If I can only write what I know, then I should work on knowing more so I can write more—rather than limiting the type and scope of stories I approach. Not necessarily by sailing the world in a seventeen-foot sloop and visiting all the islands of the south Pacific, but by reading a book (or two) or by speaking with a human (or two) who has. It’s even okay to pick the idea first and then go get the knowledge. In this case, order of operations in irrelevant—as long as you know at some point before you write (or at least before you attempt to publish).

Well duh, you might say. But that obvious bit of wisdom simply didn’t occur to me until I had been writing small, irrelevant personal stories for many years—during that formative time when most people are discovering their unique voice or perspective.

I suspect inopportune literalism is the primary limiting factor in my confusion as to why good fiction must not, dare not, shall not contain a message. I read the books that others tell me are “good” and I see messages aplenty, and more often than not I see aggressive arguments for particular viewpoints. Scout may pretend to be unformed and open-minded, but “To Kill A Mockingbird” leaves no doubts about what the author believes are better (and lesser) moral conclusions through her voice.

(Or today’s installment in the Four Centuries contest—despite an intentionally detached narrator, there remains little doubt as to that narrator’s sense that what happened to little Karl was not good. Though neither maudlin nor overwrought, the message remains clear, with events driving straight at it.)

Ah, but no one said good fiction shouldn’t contain a message, only that it shouldn’t be driven by the message. Yet a story must be tight and focused, eliminating all extraneous noise. Sounds driven to me.

Yes, but it has to be honest; the situations need to arise organically from the characters and context and settings. Except that as an author I determine all of those things. They are, by definition, constructed—aka, artificial. Thus any organic growth from them is still directed (driven?) by authorial artifice and preconception.

But excellent fiction explores complexity rather than illustrating simple, pre-drawn conclusions. Yet navel-gazing and maundering are (rightly) verboten, and a hopeless ending where POV fails can be just as trivial and simplistic as the heroic tale of our plucky protagonist overcoming all obstacles.

And here, at last, I think I start to see the nut of my confusion. It’s not the message itself, or even the aggressiveness with which the author presses toward a predetermined conclusion. It’s more about whether the author addresses the question with at least marginal humility. The conclusion may be inevitable, but the journey must require honest inquiry with a real chance that the character(s) might choose differently—and be justified in doing so.

Not perfect yet, but more sensible to me. It’s not the message, or even the driving, so much as how the characters come to see and understand the ideas that underpin the message. So message-driven fiction is perfectly fine—perhaps even explicitly preferable—as long as the characters get there by reasonable means. Theme and message might well converge in better fiction precisely because there can be more than one justified conclusion.

Not ambiguity, but recognition that reasonable people can come to fundamentally different conclusions with equal peace (or existential irritation). The question of whether that makes the reader happy or sad—and the allowance for either response—is a better metric of literary quality than how aggressively the author prosecutes an argument.

Maybe that was always inherent in the original statement, but I don’t think so. In going for the pithy construction the problem (message?) may have been simplified a little too much and useful material discarded in the effort of driving that core idea home (precisely the sin of didactic, so-called message-driven fiction). Seems like the (mis)application of a broad dictum where a specific criticism would be more useful.

It’s not driving the message that’s a problem, it’s how the message is driven. Important difference. And it’s not just splitting hairs over emphasis for me—it’s a basic definitional issue that determines whether story draws any conclusions or only describes possibilities. That’s basic construction, not decorative nicety.

Maybe I’m just obtuse; I am the guy who fails to get the joke far more often than I like, after all. But in this case I think it’s useful to expand just a tad on the pithy statement, even if that does make me a killjoy for going over very old and very worn ground.

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3 Responses to Windmill Variations: In Defense of Message-Driven Fiction

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    “It’s more about whether the author addresses the question with at least marginal humility.” I like that formulation — though I also think (as I believe you suggest) that many times “didactic” is in the eye of the beholder, and has a lot to do with whether the message that’s being presented is one with which we agree.

    To those who see the world as morally ambiguous and complex, a story that presents the world in binary terms is likely to appear message-driven. Which is one reason, I suspect, why believing Mormon literature will always seem simplistic and didactic to one portion of the potential audience. Fair enough. It’s likely that I would find some of the works they prefer equally didactic and even simplistic, from my own direction — or barren with unmeaning.

    And yet authors whose perspectives disagree with our own do at times succeed in writing stories that deeply move us. I suspect that part of it comes back to humility. The other part, I suppose, comes back to a shared value placed on simple human experience. If you and I both agree on that point, regardless of how else we disagree, it’s likely that we can both come to appreciate stories about those other than ourselves.

    Thanks for your thoughts. From one often-clueless literalist to another…

  2. Mark Penny says:

    Good post, Scott. Good comment Jonathan.

    There’s always a message, intended or not. This is okay. That is not okay. This is cool. That is not cool. What matters for the product is how well it turns out in the audience’s eye.

    I suspect that this Four Centuries contest is going to turn out some interesting messages, some of which will be ambiguous–in authorial intent, if not in every reader’s interpretation.

  3. I am officially adopting the phrase “inopportune literalism” into my lexicon. (If only I’d known such a phrase could exist when I was a kid!)

    I like your basic point: that in most cases a message rises from pandering to literary in direct proportion to the strength lent to the alternative. A good story about hospitality acknowledges the danger and vulnerability that can come with it; a good story about freedom acknowledges the possibilities of anarchy and isolation.

    We ought to be suggesting what people might choose to value, but we ought to also help them “count the cost” of our preferred values set.

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