I wanted to call that a message in a bottle, but that’s only because if I weren’t on pain pills I’d be drinking heavily.
I’m not going to go on a Hugo-thing, because frankly saying Sad Puppies doesn’t want message is not anything we did, but the same craziness that has the other side dubbing me a white (I’m spun gold, thank you very much. Take it up with Lowes and their paintchips) Mormon Dude. It’s not what we said and answering the craziness just encourages the mad people. Or to quote Grandma “I wouldn’t engage with a mad person even to go to heaven, because he might throw me down from there.”
Yes, there was some grumbling (Brad? Me? Who knows. Us Mormon dudes all look alike) about Message Fiction but that’s not the same as endorsing books without message.
How not, Sarah? You ask.
Well, because I don’t think it’s possible to have a book without any messages. At least not a book worth reading. A message will sneak in even in the under-plots, sub-plots or character development.
Take the Shakespeare books (please? I could use some more sales. Back titles have been sluggish. I don’t want to run a sale until I’m ready to write the final two which at this point looks like next year) – they were self-consciously devoid of political message, since I was so deep in the political closet I could have benefited from the installation of louvers on the door for ventilation.
What I couldn’t empty them of was of Sarah. I mean, I was the one writing it, and my assumptions and ideas leaked into the world building. What we see of Tudor England we see through my eyes. Some other writer might have made Nan a termagant, while I just made her strong and a little exasperated by her husband’s… poetic nature. Some other writer might have had a lot more explicit sex in, given the gender changing elf, while I limited myself to an oblique reference to sex on the kitchen table. More importantly, I think (it’s hard to tell, because it’s my own) that a certain doubt about the rightness of institutions, a certain poking fun at the nature of creativity, and a certain slipperiness of what is reality crept in. Because I’m in. Could those be assembled into a message? I’m sure they did for many people.
Or take my shifter books, also written as apolitical (more on that later): in reading them to get situated for the next book, I can’t avoid the feeling that they have a message about young people settling down to the business of growing up and looking after themselves and others. Not on purpose. It’s just that the people who thrive in the book are people who forge friendship connections and work hard. There is also a message of “police your own, or your enemies will.” I.e. if someone you identify with, someone on your tribe, commits a heinous crime, it’s up to you to stop the criminal, or the police and the normal law will tear your group apart. (Note for the other side who will try to take this out of context: prove “my tribe” and then prove “crime.” I don’t believe in thought-crimes.)
On the something more on that – in Noah’s Boy I’ve seen reviews slamming the book as political. This puzzled me at first, then I remembered I have a character in the beginning talking about illegal immigration as a side effect of the minimum wage and also as pulling it down. Now, for the observant people, the character who says that is Jason Cordova (one of the fun parts of the Shifter books is tuckerizing all my friends, including Professor Squeak and some of my fans from the diner.) and while I agree with his opinion, that opinion was also almost verbatim a conversation we’d had. It was certainly not the ‘message’ of the book, since the rest of it has bloody all to do with immigration (illegal or not – though because of the nature of Shifters a lot of the characters have immigrant parents) or with economics. Unless, of course, we mean immigration from the stars and economics of soul-preservation. Or something.
Now the lines the character says are maybe 30? Interspersed in other stuff, and it’s there mostly to distract the reader from certain clues about the nature of the character.
Is there a message in those lines? Well, I’d like more people to start thinking of economics as a science, like meteorology and understanding that while you can make it rain, do it enough and you cause a distortion in weather patterns, metaphorically speaking. I.e. yeah, sure you can raise the minimum wage (or have a minimum wage at all) but there will be consequences. Are those consequences you’re willing to live with? This is a valid point, and I’d like a lot more people to think about it.
Is that the message of the book? No, I’m fairly sure if that book has a message it’s “don’t marry someone just because some dragon wants you to.”
On the serious side, no, it’s not the message of the book. It’s some lines in a book.
Someone brought up Starship Troopers in yesterday’s comments saying it absolutely was message because of Johnny’s Civics lessons and blah….
Yeah. Okay. Let’s establish it has a message. What is the message? The characters in that world believe in the civics lessons, but they also have some sort of math that applies to politics. So, that’s the characters. What about the author? Was the message that this would be the better way to live?
The discerning reader (eh) might want to consider the other hints given in the books, the signs of resentment between businessmen/productive class and the military and wonder at other things, such as would that restricted a society innovate enough.
I mean, yeah, sure, no crimes against people in parks, but is this the best society evah?
I have read the book a million times, give or take a thousand, and I can’t tell you. I can tell you that the book gave me a lot to think about on the intersection of security and freedom and how you can fall into excess at both ends.
However, the book itself isn’t set up to validate that this future world is ideal. There are, as I said, hints and cracks of resentment and nowhere do we hear utopia has arrived. In fact the very clash with the bugs betrays less than utopia. People are immigrating. People want off Earth. This is never ONLY for economic reasons, as anyone who has read history knows. And Johnny Rico’s arc has more to do with being a very lonely/spoiled little rich kid, who finds a place to belong. His character arc is one of acceptance and blossoming as part of something larger than itself. It could have been done with another family, or a cult. It’s done with the military because that supports the whole security versus freedom arc of questioning. Why Johnny makes that journey is perhaps best understood in his father’s attempt to buy him off enlisting (with a trip/money, not with attention/love) and in his father’s later description of his state of mind before he himself enlists. (I.e. suffering from stress induced by being a business man in challenging times.)
So, is there a message there? I don’t know. “Be careful how much security you wish for” or “Do you want a more regimented society where people are free to walk around unarmed after dark? This is how to do it. Now, is this what you want?” could be it. But MOSTLY (and we have Heinlein’s word for it) after all the important stuff like feeding his family, he wrote to make people think. Tons to think about that, and a good chance you’ll write entire books “refuting” Johnny’s Civic lessons.
With good writers it’s never a good idea to take the beliefs of the characters as the message of the book.
So what is this message fiction we complain about. Well, it’s Piers Plowman. It’s a story written entirely to deliver a message. Not only will the characters harp on it, but every detail of the book (including names) will be distorted to support it. In its worst instances it’s like Novel Ninja’s post on Piers Plowman. It will all draggingly support the message, and the characters will explain how the message was right, and the writer will obvious avoid saner plots in order to demonstrate the message.
Say in the “failed colonization” novel I vaguely remember reading in the seventies, the message was “humans shouldn’t colonize the stars, because there are things out there so strange that it will drive our smart/competent people nuts, and the insane people aren’t strong enough to colonize.” Now, is that the message I took at the time? No. The message I took at the time was “See how I thwart your dreams of space colonization, you stupid little reader and show how much smarter than you I am.”
I don’t remember much of the book. I appalled me. The two things I remember vividly is that the captain died in a stupid and contrived gun (blaster, whatever) accident and that the last surviving member was a rocking hysteric (by which I mean rocking back and forth) who chooses to end it all, because he wasn’t worthy of being in this world. Or something.
But I do remember that along the way characters often took actions that made no sense, just so they could die.
In other words, message fiction is where you see the author’s fingers firmly in control of the wires making the characters dance and ALL of it leads to a pre-ordained conclusion from which there is no escape, usually a conclusion that is announced at the beginning.
It is possible to read any book as message fiction, if you stretch. But as close as I’ve come to it, I lack the single mindedness to drive everything to that end. There will be other threads. There will be questioning of whether the idea is right, and there will be bad consequences to the idea, because there always are.
However, there has been a tendency in trad publishing to “reward the right message” with promotion and push (though the message is often only obvious because they know the writer is the “right sort.”)
I disapprove of that simply because I find message fiction boring, even when I agree with it. It’s like you’re using your characters to prove a syllogism. It might be good math-proof, but it sucks as entertainment, as conveyance of emotion, as the importing of others’ experiences to the space behind your eyes that is what fiction at its best does.
RES in comments yesterday made an analogy between message being either the pill wrapped in a tasty-pocket of fiction with characters and plot, or the pill being naked and shoved down people’s throats. He is roughly right. I can take the message in the tasty pocket, and while I might or might not swallow it, it will be more fun than the naked pill, which often gets – metaphorically speaking – spit out on the rug. However, as someone pointed out, the best message is the ingredient you can’t see with the naked eye, but which still hits the mind. In other words, what I used to do because my kids didn’t eat veggies was puree them and mix them in meatloaf. Which meant they ate veggies without noticing.
But while that is the “best” there is still another level of message. I’d say that’s what I tend to do, simply because I often don’t “see” what I was trying to convey until revision. That is the message that comes from the way you mix the ingredients. For instance my all meat meatloaf is half ground beef and half ground turkey (usually bought on sale and as cheap as bread) two glugs of whatever wine is left from the last time we had a glass with dinner, some Italian herbs, two eggs, and a few crushed cloves of garlic.
The exact proportions are so ingrained (I’ve been doing this for over twenty years) that I ajust for the meat I have, and sometimes add some olive oil if the mix looks too dry. I could give you the exact same ingredients and your meatloaf would come out completely different.
That level of message is the message you can’t avoid. Nor would you want to. After all assembling the meatloaf is what we do. Meatloaf is what you sell. And we can’t make meatloaf without combining ingredients in the proportion that feels right to us.
Now if I even realize what the message (or the theme) of the story is, during revision, I might go back and draw it a little more clearly.
But I have never, not consciously, let message overwhelm the story. And I have never spent time doing things like naming characters Lee Tletuerp or the equivalent.
So message in fiction? Good heavens, yes. Pretty much always. How can you avoid it when you’re projecting the past into the future and building an entire world? Your beliefs will leak in.
Message so obvious your reader feels like you pounded him or her with the message-mallet ™ ? Try to avoid it. It makes for boring fiction, even if we agree with the message.
The best way to distinguish between the two? First readers. Be aware that there is a range of reactions. Some people will think your subtly drawn characters are like message-mallets and weirdly sometimes those will be the ones who agree. Others wouldn’t see message if it bit them in the nose.
But Message Fiction? Consciously sitting down and writing an entire novel to support a message, even if the message is as innocuous as “be kind to our webfooted friends, that duck might be somebody’s mother”?
Why bother? You’re more likely to carry your point with honest non fiction. And the reader will feel less insulted.
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