More than a Telegram

>> Monday, October 11, 2010

I read Query Shark quite frequently. I've found it invaluable, not only to see what mistakes others are making, but honing my critical skill so I can write my own queries better. I may have mentioned that marketing isn't my strong suit.

Frequently, I often stumble across interesting discussions, not only on what books are effective or interesting or marketable (though that too), but what's appropriate for young adults or what ideas seem, um, twisted. And, every once in a while, there will be a discussion that intrigues me, like the one attached to query #183. There's some technical stuff, and some detailed stuff, some continuity headaches, etc. But what intrigued me is the notion that deeper meanings are taboo. The moderator, Query Shark, said:

I'm also EXTREMELY wary of authors who are trying to make a point or teach a lesson, or illuminate a problem in novels. Story comes first and authors who want to make a point rarely are willing to let the story dominate the points they want to make. Stories with lessons are called parables, not novels.
Others agreed (as I did to a point) and one quoted Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM), "If you've got a message, send a telegram." Now, let's be clear. I agree that the heavy-handed message intended in this query seems clumsy. I agree that people with an axe to grind frequently fill novels and stories (and movies and whatnot) with tons of useless, painful, contrived garbage that turn what might have been a story into an dull flavorless experiences or a mindless miasma of illogical contortions that only appeals to like-minded sanctimonious "intellectuals." Think Oscar winner.

Most people don't pick up a novel to get a sermon. Or, if they do, they're reading different books than I'm reading.

For example, Victor Hugo's great novel (one of 'em anyway), Les Misérables, was interspersed with long tracts on French post-Revolutionary politics and history. Fortunately, he set them apart from the novel and, by just skipping those sections, the novel itself makes a fine read. What's more, every point he's trying to make in those sections (at least in my opinion) is just as clearly elucidated in the story proper - and more effectively.

Why do I say that?

Because it wasn't a dry lesson when it involved Cosette, Valjean and even Javert. Each of the characters grew, living in that history Hugo was trying to portray, changed by it, growing through the hardships and even the successes, learning something. It didn't feel like a sermon, though the lessons were there. It felt like a story and I could appreciate the hardship because I read along with the people, lived alongside them for a while. The problems, issues and history were humanized by making it into an accessible story. That's why it was great.

Make it clunky, subvert the characters or story to press your point, and it because unreal and contrived, undermining the lesson's credibility, precluding it from touching the reader. But make the characters alive, the story all too plausible, believable, real, as say Charles Dickens did, and you send a message that continues to echo generations later. You want to talk about power.

Stories, particularly character stories as I favor, are about growth. Lessons come naturally, fall into place without any browbeating or monologues. Each writer helps shape each character into what they want them to become, provides the world, which can be harsher than today or more enlightened, and uses that circumstance to highlight all kinds of thoughts pertinent to people in today's environment. No matter how far-fetched the notions, it can be accessible, characters can suck people in and make them identify with different viewpoints, aspects, prejudices, cultures. If we, as writers, can't get readers to identify with our characters, the stories wouldn't work anyway.

But it should be natural, unforced, a quiet side effect of telling a compelling story about interesting characters. Even fluff fiction has aspects of this, depending on what direction you want your characters to grow. One reason I read only a couple of romance authors is because I hate the ever prevalent rapist-as-the-hero trend. Harmless tripe, one might say. Well, I think anything you read has the potential to influence you, make you think the world is as it's shown. And, in my view, that's not harmless.

I read and write characters living the way I'd like to think I'd live if I were in that situation. Honest, caring, generous, forgiving, tolerant. Funny. Imperfect. When I write characters with those characteristics I admire, I'm instilling a deeper meaning, even in my least serious work.

I don't think any novel serves a higher purpose by battering the reader with obvious homilies and preaching. A good book, should, at most, makes it an "a-ha" moment as a reader thinks, "I never thought about it that way." Preferably after the fact. And, at best, the reader looks out at the world differently than they did before without even necessarily knowing why.

At least, that's what I think.


  • The Mother

    Okay, BUT...

    Some of the most famous novels in history are the ones that not only had messages, but existed simply to TELL that message. Uncle Tom's Cabin comes to mind. Or The Satanic Verses.

    David Hume made it clear--we don't change people's minds about prejudice by writing essays. We change it by writing fiction.

    Is there a perfect way to write a 'message' novel? Probably not. It's just a question of hitting the right notes at the right time.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I don't think we're at cross purposes here, though it could like it per my next-to-last paragraph. Did Dickens have an axe to grind? Did Hugo? I think they did. They're stories were far more powerful because they sucked readers into seeing things through different eyes, painful and even horrible things.

    What I'm saying is, though, that you have to have the story send the message. Uncle Tom's Cabin changed minds untouched or uninterested in the endless essays and tracts against slavery at the time. Fiction makes those issues real, puts a face on them (just like dehumanizing techniques takes them away).

    But, if I subvert the story, stop the action to deliver sermons, etc. etc., I negate the lesson, undermine it, suck the reality out of what is often a very real thing.

    I believe even fluff has lessons built into it, but I'm also a believer that deeper meaning in a novel is a fine thing, even a great thing - until it becomes large and ungainly that the story is lost and it's value to entertain and entice the reader evaporates.

    People put down Oliver Twist and Uncle Tom's Cabin seeing street urchins and slaves as people when, whether they thought so or not, they really hadn't before. The appreciated what it for a human to live in a society that allowed, even fostered, those oppressions. The readers who were touched by them were changed by them. In my opinion, that's what a book is all about.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I may have strayed from your point, The Mother. If you have an issue that matters, you'll find stories that highlight it. How heavily you contort the story, how cleverly craft that story determines how well the message is received, not the message (and the truth or worth of the message).

    People have written great work to send a message, but, for every one who's done so successfully, there are hundreds who falter on the story and are never heard. It's kind of like people who do fantasy and expect it to be accepted because people just fall in love with the characters, even if it makes no sense. It can and has been done, quite successfully. But it's the exception and not the rule.

    Without the story, though, without it working, I don't think the book is great, no matter how powerful the message behind it.

  • Project Savior

    I love good message writers, Orwell, Huxley, Heinlein ect. However they wrapped their message nicely within the story.
    One writer with a clear message with 2 dimensional characters was Arthur C. Clarke but he wrapped the message in his overall vision of a more positive future.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Project Savior, I often think it comes part and parcel with any science fiction of value.

  • Jeff King

    Great points... (Every one) I like a story that moves well, and tells a good story. Not one that talks about it, or explains everything, to where it slows down the fun---I expect from a book.

    But to some they look for that in a book, that’s why they read… but I sure don’t.

  • Shakespeare

    It's really a question of showing or telling. If the author spends all sorts of pages telling us what to think, it comes across as didactic. If the author shows us the plight of characters caught in something the author is trying to end (child labor, poverty, undeserved condemnation, etc.) then the author can affect our thinking far more effectively and completely.

    I've had students tell me a book changed them--literally changed them. And it wasn't a bossy narrator that did it. It was seeing a nonfictional reality presented in a fictional way.

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