A Message In A Book

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.

127 thoughts on “A Message In A Book

          1. Wait! You guys missed the Rockauto magnet down in the corner. Did we get something cool this time?

          1. Might be the other box, but definitely not this box:


            Knox in box.
            Fox in socks.

            Knox on fox in socks in box.

            Socks on Knox and Knox in box.

            Fox in socks on box on Knox.

            Chicks with bricks come.
            Chicks with blocks come.
            Chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.

            Look, sir. Look, sir. Mr. Knox, sir.
            Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks, sir.
            Let’s do tricks with chicks and clocks, sir.

            First, I’ll make a quick trick brick stack.
            Then I’ll make a quick trick block stack.

            You can make a quick trick chick stack.
            You can make a quick trick clock stack.

            And here’s a new trick, Mr. Knox….
            Socks on chicks and chicks on fox.
            Fox on clocks on bricks and blocks.
            Bricks and blocks on Knox on box.

            [MORE: Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss ]

      1. Procedure is procedure. You have to check the box yourself. It’s like relying on someone else telling you the gun is not loaded.

          1. Unless it’s a Flash player or Java update, then the checkbox for “yes install some app I don’t want” is always checked.

    1. What would be the point of having posts if we could figure out how they would go in advance?

      1. Because if the posts don’t line up neatly and evenly it is a royal b’tch to string the fencing? How you gonna contain the sheep wit’ no fencing? Some ram is likely to take Le grand Jeté offa cliff.

          1. Tell that to the eldritch horrors confined in the lower levels.
            Just cause we let them out occasionally does not make them “free range”.

            1. Sure, because “let them out occasionally” includes “Damn, I didn’t know that one could reach through there to get at the lock. Bob, do me a favor and hit that alarm button to call out the alert remediation team while I start up the root beer deluge fogger” events, we can’t label anything “Cage Free.”

              1. Er, should somebody ask if any MHI team is free to visit, or do you really think you can handle that all by yourselves? (I’ll be in the bunker reading, thanks, ask me again in a couple of months, have to do this before the WTBR pile gets out of control)

            2. They sent me a message earlier, saying they are offended by your use of the term ‘eldritch horror’. They say they prefer the term ‘differently dimensioned’.

  1. Honestly, I think the best way to avoid Message Fiction is to have a really good grasp of characterization, and write your characters as fully-fleshed people. If you know who they are, as people, you know there are ways that they will do things, and you won’t have them acting in ways that only service The Message.

    Of course, that means you have to spend time observing people, and how they act, and why. If you can’t see other people as anything other than cardboard cutouts, you’ve got bigger problems than just Message fiction.

  2. One of the most annoying components of Message Fic (hereafter, MF for short) is that the characters act and react in the way the message requires rather than in ways that seem inherent in who they are. Their reality is thus undermined in ways that cause the reader to (upon seeing a character act in a way that seems out of character) to mutter “MF.”

    If you are invested in a story and its characters are three/four dimensional you may occasionally notice the strings as they are pulled, but usually not — because the author has manipulated the situation rather than the characters. The gun-hating character doesn’t simply pick up a pistol and start shooting, circumstances force him into using that pistol.

    Ideally, this has been set up early on in the story, enhancing the reader’s sense of a pay-off.

    1. Hmm … looks rather like an 1850s Colt dragoon … oh, dear – bad habit. I ghost-wrote a book about Colt, for which the employer supplied me with a ton of reference books.
      I take very good care in setting up the characters and circumstances early on, in my own books. There was an early writing teacher who advised to always put some kind of hint of an answer/solution to any question that might be raised by the reader upon reading the final. As in “Why does ….?” Well, build in some tiny hint early on, so the reader can go back and say, “Ah-ha! THAT’S why!”
      You know, one of the most tightly plotted movies that I ever saw, and one that I have cited to others as a perfect example – was “Adventures in Baby Sitting” – every little element had a reason for being there, from the kidlet with the Thor fixation, the Playboy look-alike centerfold, the story about the hook-handed man that the baby-sitter told the kids – it all fitted together. It was a beautifully intricate bit of writing.

      1. Oh lord, I haven’t thought of that movie in years. At the time it was there with the Goonies in my list of fun movies.

      2. SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE PROMETHEUS (Just in case, but it’s several years old already, hasn’t everybody who wanted to see it already see it?)

        Plot which moves the character puppets instead of characters who drive the plot is always a problem, whether there is a message or not.

        That was one of the movies that disappointed me when I finally got to watch it, and the big issue I had was that the characters, almost all of them – mostly seemed to be given the idiot ball in order for the plot to proceed. I don’t know if that movie had a message or not, unless it was something along the lines ‘science bad’ or ‘humanity in general bad, and there is no god, or if there is it’s evil aliens, bwahahaha’ but all those presumably trained and supposedly smart people acted mostly like idiots the whole time. Let’s rush to investigate the structure right away in person instead of sending robots or drones first (and they had those). Let’s gets out of the suits the second we notice the air is breathable, and screw stuff like biological contamination. Let’s stay until the last second even when there is a deadly storm brewing. Lets get lost here (how the hell could they even get lost, with those damn robots and everything else they had?). Let’s touch this weird and rather disgusting looking life form just because. Screw ALL precautions because we want instant gratification ( and the rest is then somebody help, we are being killed!).

        And so on. After half an hour I started to hope they would just all die already, especially since none showed any signs of starting to smarten up. The only sort of sane ones seemed to be the ship’s crew, and they were mostly well in the sidelines, and then ended up dead while doing about the only heroic deed in the movie.

        I’m still slightly curious if the sequel ever gets made. Mostly whether it will a similar wreck – gorgeous to look at, yes, but a complete mess otherwise – or if the surviving main character would have grown up a bit, and maybe even gotten responsible (probably not).

          1. Heh. But there is a bit of a story left untold between those two. And I am curious. Mostly about those big blue guys who were perhaps intending to destroy humans, didn’t the survivor intend to find if they still existed? (And that whole plot thread was left so damn muddy, what WAS the whole purpose by the blue giants anyways, had they created the monsters so that they would be used to wipe out those of their experiments they didn’t like, were there move than one group of the giants, whatthehell…)

            1. And yes, also whether the director would allow the woman character to wise up a bit or not. I like the first movie, at least it made sense. Has he become senile since that or what, or was that first movie a case where the influence of the studio suits was beneficial and they forced the auteur to make a movie which could be liked by an audience? Presumably that happens sometimes too…

              1. Only movie 1 and 2 exist as far as I’m concerned.
                Though there were some really good novels/comic books.

      3. Sigh. Another one to put on the list to check for Netflix streaming availability…

        Probably a good thing it isn’t. I keep telling people I come here to get motivated to write, not find more excuses for not writing.

    2. Ah, Ye Auld Idiot Ball*. The thing the writer hands a character to make them into an idiot, so that the message will work.

      *I won’t link to the trope page. I’m a nice person.

      1. Yes, it is rather astounding how often these days, in SJW-Approved stories, balls render guys idiots.

        That might be part of why, to so many fans of SF/F, the yugo Award has come to represent an encircling band meaning “sanitized for your protection.”

    3. grin that scene and the look of shock on the bad guys face. I remember Quigley saying something along the lines of ‘I said I didn’t have a use for pistols…never said I didn’t know how to use one’

    4. This has been set up beautifully all through the movie. Quigley (Selleck) NEVER says anything but exactly what he means to say, plain-spoken, and all the “smarter” people around him insist on hearing what they THOUGHT he said.

  3. This was Tolkien’s difference with C.S. Lewis.
    Lewis wrote his SF and fantasy as allegory and Christian messaging, and hits you over the head with it. He was at his best writing nonfiction Christian apologetics. The Screwtape Letters are fiction, but they work, because they are explicitly Christian in the first place. I find Narnia a bit too heavy handed, and his Space series (Perelandra et al.) is unbearable.
    Tolkien consciously avoided allegory and attempted to write history. There is a powerfully Christian message (or two or three) in his, too, but it appears in the kinds of choices his characters make and what they say about the situations they find themselves it. It is all the more powerful for being understated.

    1. IIRC, I read Out Of The Silent Planet and Perelandra many years ago, but couldn’t get thru That Hideous Strength.

        1. I would disagree.
          On the other hand, I am also a C.S. Lewis fanboy, and find that the ending is a wonderful answer to a lot of the carping about Susan’s status at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia.
          That aside, the Space Trilogy, particularly That Hideous Strength, is basically a summarization of the thought behind nearly all, or at least most, of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction work.
          Also, the destruction of the NICE headquarters is utterly terrifying, IMO.

          1. I thought “Out of the Silent Planet” was good, and “Peralandra” was excellent. It took me pretending “That Hideous Strength” was written by someone I’d never heard of to appreciate it. But once I did, I really liked it.

            I have heard the theory that he was trying to imitate his friend Charles Williams style when he wrote it. I don’t know if it’s true or not. (I haven’t read Charles Williams since college, but at the time I really liked his weird stuff.) It might explain why that book is less “Lewisy” though. Even his scholarly stuff is more “Lewisy” than that. Not to mention his apologetic writings.

            1. Yep, it’s true. I like Charles Williams’ completely bizarre stuff (IIRC he called his books ‘spiritual thrillers’ or something like that, but what that makes you and me think of is completely different than what he was writing). I also like That Hideous Strength, but I will admit that I am weird.

      1. I kinda liked them, but I was in an odd place at the time, and I appreciated what Lewis was trying to accomplish.

        1. I loved all the CS Lewis I could get my hands on. I was 22 years old in 1975, and about to be discharged from the US Army, when I found Screwtape. Immediately upon return to civvie street, I checked out Narnia. Had to read it sitting in the kiddie section of the library, because they were stamped juveniles. Didn’t like the third of the Space Trilogy because it’s so gritty, written so much from the perspective of the nahsty nahsty characters; and then, once you cure the world, where do you go?

    2. Still, Lewis himself preferred stories where the message came through because of the author’s beliefs permeating the book, not because the author set out to write a promotion of a message. I can’t find the quotation right now, but he said something about how he didn’t want to see more Christian Writers, he wanted more writers who happened to be Christian.

      For me, a good example of Message Fiction is in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy. I loved the first two books. Although I knew perfectly well that Pullman is a vocal socialist and atheist with a special hatred for CSL, I liked his writing despite disagreeing with him on all 3 points and had read just about everything he’d written, even his pretty bad first (realistic) YA novel, and I was really looking forward to The Amber Spyglass to see how he finished the story. I was hugely disappointed when he let the whole story get warped out of shape by his Message Hammer. It was ridiculous, and it was ruined. The three books sat on my shelf for years like a toothache until I finally donated them. I never read any of them again.

      1. That was the Daughtorial Unit’s view of Pullman as well. She really liked the first two but opined that if Pullman didn’t care enough about his characters to not kill their souls and insert evil doppelgangers, she wasn’t going to care about them either — nor anything else he ever put his name to.

        Bait & Switch is a very ill-advised strategy for writers.

  4. Thanks for the Piers Plowman link. Even though I dislike white font on black background (does that make me racist?) it was worth the trouble required to read it.

    Really, what more does a person want from reading matter?

  5. I can’t take it anymore!!! Let me click over to Baen and buy a Correia with a Hoyt on the side.
    Hugs and Prayers Sarah.

  6. Yes, this is what I’ve been thinking the whole time.
    After multiple English classes requiring the students to analyze a piece of literature from multiple critical viewpoints, it becomes clear that anything can be interpreted however you want.
    A message will exist simply because it is written from the authors perspective. It may not be intentional, but it will be there.
    How we, as readers, interpret there perspective determines our understanding of the message.
    If an author sees a message in everything, (which SJW’s seem to) then they will write a message in everything.
    For those of us that just see a good story, (or a bad story) in life, then that is what we write.
    I’m not saying that a message cannot be deliberately written, just that any message is not necessarily intentional.
    Some of us are just trying to write good stories, which is why I salute the SP’s.

    1. This brings to mind an Asimov anecdote about a time he happened to be in the audience when some eruditer-than-thou professor was giving a lecture on the “meaning” of one of Asimov’s tales. As the lecture proceeded Isaac became more and more puzzled at what the professor was declaiming and finally stood up, identified himself and repudiated one of the lecturer’s claims.

      Without a moment’s pause, the professor rejoined: What do you know; you’re only the author.

      1. You know, I’ve only ever seen that attitude from “Intellectuals”. Your common man on the street has the brains to know he’s just been rebutted and will shut up.
        It’s almost like there is a threshold of intelligence for people.
        For instance, I know enough to realize how much I don’t know. Some “Educated” people learn a little, or just on one subject, and they suddenly think they know everything. (Which proves to the rest of us how little they actually know.)

    2. I remember the only college lit class I had to take at UT had a professor who insisted everything be analyzed by the “Freudian method,” which meant everything in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the one play we did, Julius Caesar, was to have sexual connotations. Everything.

      He also detested engineering students.

      1. “He also detested engineering students.”

        Of course he did.

        The head of the physics department at my alma mater hated engineering students. I know at least one of my class mates stuck through the program simply to spite him.

        1. Why would a physics Prof hate engineering students? Did their departments get all the funding there? At UT, the physics dept thought they were better and more pure than us heathen practical applications guys, but they were well funded, so the huge amounts of money that private companies gave the various engineering departments did not excite their envy.

      2. That’s pretty obnoxious. We took a class in textual analysis that gave us ALL the major styles, and then we went through The Lord of the Rings using the various styles of interpretation. The groups generally picked something they disliked, too, so the Freudian analysis was done by a group of women, for example. It was fun.

        1. I picked up a copy of the Sonnets in college because I thought it would help get laid. Turns out, most of the girls just want to have a conversation and beer rather than poetry. Maybe it was the crowd I was hanging with?

        2. I have real trouble listening to Keith Urban’s Making Memories of Us without snickering when the line “I want to die in your arms” comes round. I do wonder if Mr. Urban knew the Renaissance connotations of that phrase when he was writing that song.

        3. Interesting. Learn something new every day.

          I just thought he was a pudgy, sex-obsessed, lazy jackass. Maybe he was right like a broken clock.

  7. Message fiction is harder to write, too, at least for me. I’ve tried it two and a half times. Once the satire worked because of the character involved, once I think it flopped (it reads forced to me), and once I gave up part-way through and just let the story flow.

  8. The Victorians wrote a lot of “Message Fiction”, most of which we (thankfully) don’t read anymore. People think that BEN HUR or UNCLE TOM’S CABIN are message fiction, and to a degree they are, but there was much MUCH worse. Those of you who have read Kipling’s STALKY AND COMPANY may remember mention of a book called ERIC, OR LITTLE BY LITTLE which the boys mock. There was a great deal of such swill. You run into references to it in books we still read. ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s “Father William” is a parody of a mawkish original called “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them”. Saki frequently writes derisively of “Improving Stories”.

    The children who were brought up with them actively loathed them.

    The Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressives are loudly disapproving of OTHER GROUPS promoting any messages in fiction, and would deride the Victorian examples if they were aware of anything that happened before the election of FDR. But naturally when THEY do it, it’s just fine.

    If an man preaches a sermon in a crowd and nobody listens because he’s a crashing bore, has he, in fact, said anything?

    So, if you don’t want to be relegated to he footnotes of literary history, make sure you are telling a story that people will want to read again. Put in your point of view; nothing without one is worth reading anyway. But if you preach, remember that even back in the Regency Period, when Novels were considered a little shocking, people considered bound volumes of sermons to be largely useful as soporifics.

    1. And now maybe I’ll remember to actually click the frippen box.

      You see that dog right there?
      Yes Papa
      That is a hangdog.
      Why is he called a hangdog Papa?
      He’s called a hangdog because something didn’t quite right for him and he’s ashamed of it.
      Why are telling me this Papa?
      I just wanted you to know the reason he keeps looking down at me. Now help me out of this hole.

  9. Re: Volunteers Needed

    At the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane (Sasquan), we are preparing for possible discussions of where to go with plans for the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, AKA the Hugos.

    These discussions and presentations will take place at the WSFS Business Meeting, the Hugos Unacceptable Activities Committee (HUAC), and possibly at the Hugo Awards Presentation itself.

    Due to certain…elements possibly attending the convention and these meetings/discussions, the notion has been brought up of having a group of volunteers to make sure there aren’t any disruptions to the orderly progress we hope to bring.

    Therefore, we are asking for people willing to be on the Idealogical Purity Brigade (note to T.W., see if we can find a better name for this).

    Primary signs of trouble to look out for are people advocating for “classic” style science fiction, “story oriented” panel ideas, mentions of “puppies” and I believe I heard something about a sea manatee?

    Volunteers for the IPB will receive a special break room, special privileges, and a sash.

    Hope to see you there, and glad to have your help.

    (Dictated but not read)
    S. J. Woreeahr
    President, Socialist Fiction Writers of America

    1. It has come to my attention that an early, unedited draft of a letter from S. J. Woreeahr, the President of the Socialist Fiction Writers of America, had been released.

      In it, S. J. referred to an “Ideological Purity Brigade”. This was, of course, a joke, part of the President’s famous sense of humor.

      However, in a perfect example of Poe’s Law, without notification of parody or sarcasm, some people took this seriously.

      I can assure you that we would never refer to a group organized by our people using language most commonly found in totalitarian societies.

      We are still seeking volunteers, of course, for Ideas Presented Beneficently.

      I am aware of the similarity of the naming patterns, but this name was chosen because it presents the core desire of the group and not, as some scurrilous rumors might have you believe, because we already ordered the sashes.

      Sincerely yours,

      T. Wharneeng
      Recording Secretary, Socialist Fiction Writers of America

      1. The solitary manatees can be land goers.

        But it’s always two if by sea.

        Or so I’ve heard.

  10. My husband said you were requesting “guest posts”. You’re welcome to this one. I’ll take it down if you decide to use it. I’ve also got a “napkin post” on intellectual freedom. I’m at kirstedw AT kcsl and then after the dog it’s org.

      1. The one in the link above that I botched in the first message because Apple tablets and I hate each other. Sorry about that

  11. I just finished Darkship Thieves and immediately ordered Darkship Renegades and A few Good Men for the Kindles so I can keep reading. Great books, thanks Sarah they are exactly the type of stuff I’ve been craving to read.

  12. One of the things about art is that different people get different things out of it, probably because we come from different backgrounds and see things through a lens distorted by our surroundings. I know I’ve had conversations with some people over the years about various books or movies and it’s like we are talking about two completely different stories.

  13. It does seem to me that whatever null hypothesis people might bring to a book it can never be refuted. I’ll never know how Liz Bourke, with a classical European education, could write

    David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, where the only role for a woman was in the rear echelons as support staff, or an unrecognised irregular.

    Followed after much prodding by this

    …..I do regret, though, that my use of hyperbole for effect regarding your work from the ’70s and ’80s caused you personal offence. I was hoping to start a conversation about where the genre is now, while acknowledging there should perhaps be room for more than there was then. It is entirely possible I’ve overgeneralised, since it’s been several years since I reread your Hammer’s Slammers books. If that’s the case – and I trust you when you say it is – I apologise.

    What I don’t do is retract my point about the genre as a whole.

    I feel pretty good about being able to tease out messages where I’ve been hit with a cluebat and equally then to be annoyed by others who subsequently disagree with me. Maybe I’m framing the story by what I bring to it and folks without my particular experiences can see more clearly. There’s a Canadian I’d label with a technical term from Larry Niven for his reading of a distinctively American writer too – we can’t both be right in a binary choice but often the message is not a binary distribution. For a good or great writer the work cannot properly be reduced to a simple message. Oxford and Cambridge Universities each published an edition of Shakespeare. One following WWI read Shakespeare as a pacifist; one closer to WWII read Shakespeare as closer to a warmongering chauvinist. Each in a sense a propagandist for the then current popular view or perhaps just angling for sales by catering to popular opinion? There’s room for each notion in the writings.

    Speaking of Starship Troopers and looking at the costumes as used in Firefly reminds me others often find or at least emphasize a different message than I do. Makes it pretty hard to go beyond a conclusion that message in a story is a chaotic system – that is depending on initial conditions message can go anywhere.

    For instance the message I took from The Turner Diaries was not I think the intended message at all but a strong message just the same.

    (a book I suggest more people should look at in the same spirit as an antebellum plantation owner might have suggested his peers should look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin more people might have read Mein Kampf sooner or any of several things out of the Middle East more recently)

    I vowed to keep my powder dry and however hard the times might be for me personally to keep a war reserve against the possibility of meeting Nehemiah Scudder or his like. I’m pretty sure that’s easy because the message – be with us has the subtext of or against us to offer a sort of a binary choice there too but I didn’t pick the card that was being forced.

      1. Exactly what I was thinking. It’s been a while, and even I recall a lot more women on (or just a meter behind) the front lines.

        1. And as for the genre as a whole, I’m pretty sure that it’s a numeric fact that most military sf and space opera in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was written by women. (Okay, heavily Star Trek-influenced women, but still.)

  14. OK, this whole ‘message’ thing is a strawman.
    I do not actively seek out ‘message’ fiction in my reading. I like science fiction and fantasy books. Notice the word ‘message’ is not in there. Now, Wikipedia defines: A message is a discrete unit of communication intended by the source for consumption by some recipient or group of recipients. So yes, all of your stories are message fiction.

    Expressing a ‘literary’ judgement for the value or worthlessness of a message is a task the SJWs have set upon themselves; however, I totally reject their right to judge. They have been doing that to the Hugo’s for 5+ years now, and the results show.

    1. I look at it another way. I do look for a message in fiction. The message I look for is that problems can be fixed, that it may be after the fight, but things will be okay. Maybe not for the main character, but for the people he/she/it is trying to help. If things can’t be made better, that’s entirely too much like the real world, and getting away from the real world is the whole reason I’m reading fiction in the first place.

    1. Verification of sources and vetting of people is old fashioned and will not be tolerated.

      And funny. 🙂

  15. Sarah,
    Speaking from the world of social science research, I suggest that if you replace message fiction with polemic and characterize empirical research as not polemics, you end up at the same place. In my field, ham-handed theorists often brush aside inconvenient facts, disdain to treat their competitor’s ideas fairly, and repeatedly and often reassert their own ideas. Drove me to avoid theory as one of my concentrations. In a way, I mourn that our doctorate program was skewed toward the ham-handed theorists. But, the point is that you know the risks going in that the theorist may be repetitive in their claims, boring, support their own theory, and often unfairly characterize competing ideas. Polemics do have some value in that instead of fuzzifying the issues, they produce clarity. Good books transcend that and generally these good books have ideas that have a demonstrable relationship with the real world. Think perhaps of the Wealth of Nations as an example. It is centered around the idea of capitalism and its moral value–thus everything in the book focuses on amplifying Adam Smith’s theory. At times, it is dull and sometimes requires knowing Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments; however, the central idea’s strength and Smith’s description of the Pin Factory provides a ready test between Smith’s ideas and reality.

    On the other hand, empirical research often has theory masquerading as empirical facts. Data is massaged, the research is not replicable and often requires “secret knowledge”, methodology is cherry picked, and the social scientist ends up “proving” what they set out to prove in the first place which is the accepted version of reality by the field. This sort of thing has some place in theory but not in empirical research. A lot of it is also me-too research or cargo-cult type research that seeks to emulate successful research with the form of actually conducting research but instead demonstrating that the author has simply tried to create research that matches the findings of a seminal study without considering that a researcher should be skeptical and looking for anomalies. Thus, things like Margaret Mead’s assertions about Polynesian societies was accepted as gospel until much later.

    I have noted from perusing your blog and others that the SJW types in literature often come from academia, particularly English departments, while the non-politically correct authors (not sure how to characterize such a diversity) do not. Since in most fields, the grand theorists have the most prestige in departments as thinking great ideas, while the ordinary empirical researchers grubbing about with inconvenient facts and such do not have such, I am suspecting that academia steeped writers may simply be predisposed to write and value polemics aka message type fiction. At our university, at least, there has been a long standing feud between the literature folks and those who focus on teaching basic English skills. Literature folks often disdain mucking about teaching these core courses in basic writing while those focusing on teaching writing as a craft resent the lordly attitudes and active avoidance of Lit faculty from teaching general education curriculum which emphasizes real world applicability.

    Anyway, as one of the grubby empiricists of my department (not English), I prefer for the most part to have my fiction resemble realistic dialogue, character development, and authenticity in interpersonal relations. My suspension of disbelief simply does not work with polemic type fiction which is why I have read less and less science fiction/fantasy and instead read biographies, political theory, fiction by masters such as Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and O. Henry, and history. I have the old Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Ideas of the Western World series that I need to revisit as well. Have Blackstone’s Commentaries on my reading list for this summer.

    But, given that RAH is not writing at present, I will probably pick up some of your books for reading this summer (how do you pick up an ebook btw) as one of the closest substitutes that I can find in present day.

    Sorry for the long post on a stranger’s website, but as a sometimes lurker and also a lover of past science fiction/fantasy, I thought perhaps that my hypothesis might have utility in understanding the SJW type output.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment. A few quick reax:

      Polemics is a term insufficiently used and is the distinguishing characteristic of Message Fic. It has a semblance of The Enlightened preaching to the Benighted Masses. Its primary purpose is the distinction provided The Enlightened who have encouraged the benighted to become more like them; any collateral damage experienced by the benighted is irrelevant.

      [E]mpirical research often has theory masquerading as empirical facts.

      Ah, you’ve been following the arguments of the Advocates of AGW, then? Their refusal (inability) to comprehend that objections are based on their methodology as much as their conclusions is evidence of the syndrome you’ve described.

      One factor in the disdain the grand theorists hold for the pragmatic practitioner is the undeniable point that the grand theorists are often utterly crappy at such mundane tasks as teaching correct grammar and word usage. This is, of course, the fault of the students, never the teacher. Such people (as explored in depth by Thomas Sowell) prefer an elegant theory over a practical reality. See elsewhere this blog for discussion of antipathy felt toward engineering students by physics professors.

      Picking up a book on Kindle is very simple. First, catch a Kindle (or other similar instrument.) Second, go to vendor (such as Amazon) and purchase the Kindle version/edition of desired work. Read.

      There are alternatives, of course. Works which are DRM-Free can be read on almost any e-reader or equivalent (in this regard, Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) is your friend (“One format to rule them all and in the ebook bind them.“) Amazon offers a free PC version of its Kindle reader which, while not as convenient as a Kindle will serve and is handy for ebrary management. Others will have to attest to whether Apple’s i-ubiquitous products allow ebooking.

    2. ” Data is massaged, the research is not replicable and often requires “secret knowledge”, methodology is cherry picked, and the social scientist ends up “proving” what they set out to prove in the first place which is the accepted version of reality by the field.”

      It is not a coincidence that these are all characteristics of AGW proponents and their so-called climate science. They are practicing social control disguised as science. The problem is that they are doing so much damage to science that it is rapidly losing its’ ability to provide facts that anyone can trust.

  16. I have to agree with Donald. I read fiction for the story, NOT the message… We are all skewed in our perceptions by our personal histories anyway. I would bet if you gave 10 people from 10 diverse backgrounds the same story, you would get 10 different takes on the ‘message’ of the story.

    1. Yes. Exactly. Closest to message fiction I’ve written is AFGM and I DID NOT write it for the message. I wrote it because the characters wouldn’t leave me alone and anyone who reads it knows it’s heart-stuff for me. Because the declaration of independence is heart-stuff for me. Not because I was really preaching.

  17. I agree that “message” must be (at best) secondary. My book, The Man Who Was A Santa Claus, has an underlying message about being Christian. Most of the characters are obviously Christian, and shows how God works in ways that we can’t anticipate. Primarily, the “message” is that you never know when you might “meet” a person acting as a real Santa Claus (that part is for children). They need to believe in what SC actually stood for.

  18. AFGM, Sarah,”…not really preaching…”; that’s all fine and good, who cares about preaching if the damn story rolls; but when the heck are we going to see the sequel?!!?!?!??
    heh, heh, heh

    1. I swear almost finished. Delayed by pills and working at the other house, so my writing time is an hour or so a day. Which means I should stop having battles on FB too.

  19. Maybe the issue is kind of like the difference between “preaching” and “philosophy”? Subtlies of meaning, included– there’s several different types of “preaching,” some of which are objectionable from the start.

    If you really hold a philosophy, then you’re going to do stuff that’s related, and some folks are going to find that “preachy.” Has to do with what they think your motives are, more than what you do.

    On the other hand, there’s also folks who never do anything but talk, and not very persuasively; that’s what I think of for “message fiction.” High rate of not following their claimed philosophy/having exceptions to the rules for those who are “helping.”

    In the middle, there’s folks who aren’t shy about telling you why they’re doing what they’re doing, but they also do something.

    Examples from philosophy to “preachy” would be Tolkien to Lewis to Chick Tracks.

  20. You’re “spun gold”?! OMG! Thanks for the opportunity to spread this around just as little, seeing as nobody but me seems ever to have heard it:

    I refuse to live in a world that doesn’t contain that song.

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