*I have a slightly different take, or at least a better way of explaining the difference — I think — but I’ll use Tom’s as a jumping off point and explain tomorrow.- SAH*
The difference between message fiction and fiction with a message
By Tom Knighton
With this whole Hugo situation, once again we find ourselves embroiled in a discussion of “message fiction”. For better or worse, this discussion will never die, despite the numerous times we have said that having a message is fine, just don’t let it overpower the story. You see, this isn’t clear enough for some people. Either their mental processing abilities are deficient, or they’re simply incapable of understanding that we’re not trying to stamp out their books.
So, let’s start with two different terms to differentiate between the two types. Generally, I use “message fiction” and “fiction with a message”. Yes, there is a difference between the two, and it’s worth serious discussion and, I hope, even people who abhor my own political leanings will see the wisdom of what I will discuss.
First, message fiction. You see, message fiction is where the message is all important. The fiction is nothing but a vehicle to turn the idea into a novel rather than a non-fiction book that even fewer people will read. Some may enjoy it, but doing message fiction and making it enjoyable requires great skill that few people have ever mastered.
On the other hand, fiction with a message is work where the message is there as part of the story, but is not the overpowering factor it is in message fiction. For example, let’s say you wish to convey an anti-sexist message, but don’t want message fiction. You could create a strong, independent woman who faces sexism in her interactions with some folks while maintaining a realistic setting where some of the sexists are fellow women and some of your protagonists are strong, capable men who take no issue with her sex.
Maybe some real world examples could help illustrate this concept.
Atlas Shrugged may well be the most successful piece of message fiction ever written. I’m a fan, and I’ll admit it’s message fiction. The whole story of Dagny Taggert, Hank Reardon, and John Galt is nothing more than a way for Ayn Rand to convey her Objectivist philosophy in a more digestible format than a long non-fiction work would. While the story is good, the message is the driving force throughout.
By contrast, some have recently held up Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as message fiction, with which I disagree. While Heinlein may have felt it had a strong message, there is an important difference. You see, the story isn’t about the message. The story is about Juan Rico and everything he goes through during the war with the Arachnids, including losing his home and family (he thinks, at the time).
The litmus test that will tell you whether you’re dealing with message fiction or fiction with a message is simple. Would maintaining a position completely opposite from the perceived message eliminate the ability to enjoy the book?
Now, there’s a very important word there, and that’s “perceived”. It’s always amused me the number of left leaning individuals who report that they absolutely adore Atlas Shrugged, and that’s because so many of them completely miss the message as Rand intended it. She opposed almost everything some of these people advocate for, but that’s not what they got. They perceived the message to be something else, so they enjoy the book.
However, if these people recognized the message as something the opposite of what they stood for, would they enjoy it? Of course not. They’d argue about the silliness of the message and maybe argue that while Rand was a skilled writer, she was completely bonkers for whatever reason. They wouldn’t like the book though.
Let’s contrast that with Starship Troopers. Is it possible to love the book while absolutely abhorring the message? Yes. In fact, when I read it, I opposed the message about as vehemently as you could, and I absolutely loved the book. That was because acceptance of the message wasn’t necessary to become invested in the characters and what they were going through.
It’s important to note a few things for the sake of completeness. First, it’s entirely possible to agree with a book’s message and still think the book blows. Trust me, I’ve found more than a few in my day. Bad writing is bad writing, for one thing. For another, message fiction is, generally, boring. It’s hard to do well enough to be entertaining, even for people who agree with you.
Also, just because you hate a book with a message you disagree with doesn’t mean its message fiction. Again, bad writing is bad writing, so that could be the issue. For another, if the story just doesn’t appeal to you, then it’s not going to appeal to you. The question is then, could someone else enjoy it?
I’m not saying this litmus test is easy to apply, but I think it’s important to try and be as objective as possible when trying to determine which is which. I do think it’s an important distinction that needs to be made. We will never purge the desire to impart messages in fiction from people, and to some extent, that’s not a bad thing. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, was pivotal is ending slavery. The works of Charles Dickens did wonders in reforming how society dealt with the poor. Messages in fiction have their place from time to time.
Even preachy message fiction has its place from time to time. However, it would be nice if we knew which was which going in.
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If you really like it, check out my Amazon author’s page and spend some of your hard earned money on books that don’t have a message but have some fun action.