Storytelling & Community: There’s Always a Message

(A disclaimer before you begin: This little essay should not be construed as a response to Darlene’s essay, “Coward, or What is Not Art.” I’m not like most of the other bloggers here who can toss off a few hundred words of keen analysis with barely a thought. I’ve spent days–off and on–trying to word this thing just right so that there will be no misunderstanding of my point, but I despair that I’ll ever be clever enough to be that clear. What I’m saying is, my thoughts about propaganda preceded Darlene’s by several days and have nothing to do with what she said.)

Most artists I know–perhaps I should say, artistes–abhor the thought of creating propaganda; they wouldn’t be caught dead using their work to further or perhaps even damage some institutionalized cause. Although I’m not sure where the notion comes from that only institutions use art to further or damage a cause, this seems to be the understood source of all that can be deemed propaganda. Apparently only oppressive monolithic organizations have agendas.

Right.

Oh, and, I used the phrase “wouldn’t be caught dead,” ironically, because in truth, after an artist dies is when the knives are truly sharpened and institutionalized critics are free to dissect an artist’s work and assign all sorts of intent–whether to further or damage–whatever pet cause it is to which the critic happens to adhere. What? The critics aren’t institutionalized?

Right.

Think about it now…just for a minute or two.

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is institutionalized.

Ev. ‘Ry. One.

This is what life does to us. The mere act of living requires us to have a list of things to do. And only someone left completely–absolutely–alone is completely–absolutely–uninfluenced by some kind of society. That individual does not exist. Not alive anyway. We all have agendas, and we all are institutionalized by some society or another (or all actually): our families, our cliques, our schools, our jobs our religions our neighborhoods, our nations. And, those of us who call ourselves artists can’t help but include within the art we create our institutionalized points of view–our agendas. All art is propaganda.

And that’s a good thing. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anything worth saying. What kind of art does that make? Boooooring.

Even with that first little playlet, written at the age of twelve (See previous post: “How it Happens.”), I had an agenda. Apparently, I was sure that the world was suffering a dearth of Farleyesque wild-stallions-that-become-race-horses stories and held it a sacred duty to fill that need. And I have been doing this ever since. Well, not writing about horses, certainly (In fact, I don’t think a single horse has appeared in any of my stories or plays since then), but doing my best to strengthen the moral and cultural fiber of society. Which all of us do to a certain extent. We all perceive various deficiencies in the make up of civilization and we seek to find ways to correct them. “No, no,” I hear some cry. “All I’m doing is telling the truth as I see it.” Exactly. And why are you doing this? To make the world a better place, I’m sure.

This attitude is not limited to artists. I’m fairly certain that every human feels the urge to have influence. Undoubtedly, this urge is born of the most basic of human drives–to create. To have increase. To become a part of something that is bigger than our selves. To become an accepted member of the grand institution we are most drawn to–whatever it is. Ultimately, the human race, I suppose. And so, I don’t believe any artist who claims to be agendaless–it’s just not possible. At the very least, all works of art contain this statement from the artist at its heart: I think and feel this way, I think more of you should think and feel this way too.

I know that there are many who take issue with my point of view. I understand. Some of that disagreement may simply be a matter of semantics. If it is not, let me suggest an experiment. Pick any artist (for me this is easiest done with writers because that’s just the way my brain works) and devote some time to consuming their entire oeuvre, or, quite a bit of it anyway. With careful examination, I’m pretty sure you will find that a pattern of belief will emerge. From one work to the next to the next you will discover a discernable core belief represented in one way or another throughout, sometimes subtly, other times rather blatantly.

I’ve done this a few times myself. With Orson Scott Card’s writings, I could say–flippantly–that all his stories are about how much it sucks to be a child genius, but this observation is only true on a superficial level. In reality, to my mind, Card’s stories always seem to be an examination of the characteristics of a savior. At heart, Card’s purpose is to explicate the idea that the individual who does the most to build and further the cause of a stable community is the one who is willing to suffer the most degradation on behalf of that community.

At the heart of every Tim Slover play (that I’ve seen or read) is the notion that all people fall within the grasp of Christ’s atonement.

Eric Samuelsen’s plays teach us that everyone is a matryoshka doll. That there’s always another us inside the us that people see. And another and another. That we should never assume that we know someone, because it usually takes awhile to get to the inmost matryoshka.

Once my friend, Dave, set out to write a novel that would contain no message. It would be nothing more than a wild ride through space, full of fun and adventure. And he did it. And as far as I can tell, “The Golden Queen” is nothing more than a wild ride through space full of fun and adventure, though I suppose the point is arguable (Parkin and I have discussed it). Its two sequels, however, are loaded with powerful themes and provocative moral dilemmas: messages, as it were. I asked Dave, “What happened to the story with no message?”

“It turns out,” he said, “that it’s really really hard to write a book about nothing.”

There’s always a message.

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5 Responses to Storytelling & Community: There’s Always a Message

  1. Very nicely stated, and I mostly agree, although it seems to me that you’re confounding at least two different things: (a) the underlying worldview of an author which is manifested in his/her work, and (b) the motivating reasons for writing a particular story (or other artistic creation). The two may even pull in different directions, as the underlying worldview revealed in a work may differ from what the author had intended to produce.

    A possible (c) would be the ideology underlying specific aesthetics, which becomes a "message" of a different sort. For example, is there a general message about life that’s implied by the standard romance story plotline? Or by the conventions of high fantasy, which generally present a highly stratified, nondemocratic society? Even stories about wild stallions becoming race horses may buy into some pretty interesting social and intellectual premises–not necessarily as a reflection of the author’s values, but rather as a result of aesthetic imitation: the desire to create a story similar to those that touched the reader-turned-writer in the past, thereby bringing in a lot of (often unexamined) luggage from the past. (I suspect, by the way, that if there’s a "message" to The Golden Queen it may be of this type.)

    The other question I would ask is this: Even when a writer has an agenda, to what extent does that agenda drive the actual writing of the story? During my graduate program at BYU, I was exposed to rhetorical criticism, which looks at works largely from a standpoint of the effect that is created on the audience. And yet interacting on AML-List convinced me that many writers whose works can easily be interpreted in rhetorical ways (such as Eric Samuelsen) don’t necessarily create with one eye on the audience. Rather, the act of creation really does seem to be (for some writers at least) an attempt to express an internally conceived story. The writer checks the audience now and then to see if his/her efforts at communicating are succeeding, but the main focus of the artistic gaze is on the story that exists in the writer’s imagination. Or at least, that’s the way it seems to me. Thoughts?

  2. Good stories are always about something because people–and characters–who are about nothing are dull. The same way if you go to parties just for the food, you’ll end up fat and bored.

    A writer who believes in the philosophy of life that undergirds the standard romance story plotline, to take one example, will write better stories than a writer who injects somebody else’s beliefs into a narrative, that he is incapable of defending as his own.

    The desire to preach that belief—"having an agenda"–can be energizing, which is why (unless you’re a skilled polemicist) you need an editor (internal or external) yelling in your ear: "IT’S THE STORY, STUPID!"

    There is an element of risk involved here, because when evil is depicted the writer must understand and to a certain extent identify with it. That’s why the "bad guy you love to hate" can make the most formulaic action flick work. And hence the criticism of Milton that he gave the devil "all the best lines."

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    I think part of Scott’s point is not that stories don’t contain internal structure, narrative goal, or authorial intent, but rather to question the claim there can be a story that has no social/moral/political agenda of some sort–a claim made fairly regularly by authors of aggressive anti-something literature who claim that because they’re not advocating *for* something (or because they’re advocating a minority view) that somehow they are thus agenda free.

    There’s also a class of author who actually intends no agenda–as in many genre pieces, and a fair amount of literary-academic work that claims only to savor language. Except that those very conventions of genre are themselves the intended agenda of the form.

    It’s essentially a circular argument.

    But I think the more cogent point is that stories with limited or no intended agenda tend to be less interesting, less enduring, less memorable, and ultimately less valuable. Agenda can be handled poorly, but it’s not the presence of agenda that makes a story weak–it’s ineffective handling of that agenda.

    Most of the stories we consider excellent have incredibly clear agendas and work very aggressively to convince us of a worldview. Whether we agree with that agenda is independent of whether the story was powerfully constructed and delivered. In my view it’s a truism that better (aka, more interesting to me) stories deliver a strong agenda–even if that intent is merely to draw me into consideration of something new or different.

    Agenda is the motive force of storytelling. Jettison it at your peril; better yet, know what you’re trying to do and do it as well as you can with clear intent and malice of forethought. The unintended will work its way in there no matter what we do.

  4. J. Scott Bronson says:

    See what I mean? In less than half the space it took me to say it poorly, Scott Parkin says it clearly, consisely, precisely.

    That is in fact exactly what I mean. It’s like you lift the hinge on my brain and straighten out the gooey mess inside.

    Thank you.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Agenda v. Propaganda. I’m not willing to equate these two things. Yes, both agenda and propaganda can be said to argue for a particular worldview, a pet idea, or a desired action. But the bifurcation is evident in how the writer deals with the oppositional view, idea, or action. A writer with an agenda considers fairly–represents fairly–the opposition and uses that fair representation to state his/her case. But a propagandist distorts his/her opposition, or the view, idea and action of the perceived opposition in order to sway (read: manipulate) the audience.

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