He had submitted a set of lyrics to the committee for a song that he hoped the chorus might sing in an upcoming Pride concert. In order for us to have performed the song, the chorus would have had to hire a composer to come up with music to accompany the lyrics, and an arranger to convert that melody into four-part harmony and some sort of accompaniment. As it happened, two years previously when those lyrics had been submitted, I had also been on the committee, serving as the secretary of the committee, and I remembered the meeting where we had evaluated music suggestions that had been submitted for consideration. And I remember reading the lyrics and being underwhelmed—it wasn’t just that it was rather trite poetry of the kind you might expect someone’s grandparent to stick up on the wall somewhere, but it had ended on a defeatist note about staying in the closet rather than being out.
So it had been one of the pieces eliminated early by the committee. We had a very limited budget to hire composers/arrangers, and we all agreed this thing wasn’t worth it.
I was a bit stunned to be sitting there, listening to this guy who had decided to use my recent bereavement as an excuse to bring out this ax to grind, and was trying to figure out how I could possibly respond, when he made the comment that crystalized the real problem. He said, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like when you just really, deeply, sincerely wish to have had your music published, but you never got to go to school to learn music theory or how to arrange music because your family couldn’t afford it. I don’t know if you know how much it hurts that someone who knows how to do that won’t turn the words you’ve written into a song for you.”
He didn’t say that he sincerely wished to make music. No, what he said was that he sincerely wished to have music that someone else made but that he could take credit for produced.
I understand the frustration of not being able to do the whole package. I’m not very good at the art side of things, so if I go the indy publishing route, I’m going to have a difficult (and expensive) time getting good cover art for my books. While arranging is a different skill set than writing music or creating lyrics, it’s something you can learn without having majored in music in university. And particularly when one is in their fifties (as this guy was) and had supposedly been trying to become a songwriter for decades, how can he think it’s okay not to have ever even learned how to read music (yes, he was the kind of chorus member who could only learn the part if someone who could read music sang the melody in his ear).
Some would say I don’t have proper sympathy because I took band and orchestra and various vocal classes in high school, and for one year my major in college was music education (I changed majors a lot: math ed, music ed, communications, journalism, then back to math without the ed part…). But the reason I was in so many different musical groups playing so many different instruments back in the day wasn’t because my family paid for lessons for each of those instruments. Public school teachers taught me to read music and how to almost play the viola and later to play the trumpet. But I taught myself how to play bassoon, ephonium, trombone, french horn, flute, bass clarinet and a bunch of others. And while I’ve only finished full arrangements of a few songs over the years, no one taught me arranging, I taught myself.
I’m not saying that finding teachers isn’t worth it, but I am saying that if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to work for it. Yes, it is harder for those of us who come from working class families. There are many social, financial, and other systemic barriers to many opportunities in this world.
But there is a point where you need to realize that before you can be a star, you have to learn how to make music (or how to write a story, or how to draw a picture…).
Some people never get that.
And some of them are people who seem to have successful careers in the arena which they aren’t really very good at. These folks have enough privilege to fail their way into middling success. Because of connections and so forth, these guys (it is most often a white guy from an upper middle-class or better background) get jobs where they have some responsibility to create (or direct the creation of) something, and they screw up in various ways, they make promises they can’t keep, but they have an assistant (almost always a woman) who cleans up for them. Anyone who has worked in a large office knows this woman: she may have a title like Executive Assistant or even rarely Office Manager, but the upper management people she reports to clearly think of her as a secretary; but she’s the one that actually makes everything happen. She knows how to work projects through finance. She “cleans up” the boss’s presentations. She smooths things over when morale is down or people are angered by things the boss said or did. She finds solutions to the contradictory instructions.
It doesn’t just happen in boring corporate locations. Lots of people in creative positions are just like those bosses. They make decisions that contradict other things they’ve said. They order people to do things that won’t actually work. They write scripts full of clunky dialog, if that’s part of their project. And other people “clean things up.”
That’s how you get someone who can’t direct an interesting movie to save his life being paid to make one loser after another. It’s how you get best-selling authors who throw temper tantrums when someone writes a critique of their work who are flabbergasted when someone holds the page in front of them and shows them that yes, that passage did come out of their work. That’s how you get senior partners at law firms who had an extensive and impressive record as a prosecutor, when deprived of their phalanx of assistants making blatantly incorrect declarations of the law and actually further incriminating their client in television interviews.
And sometimes, apparently, it’s how you get someone clueless enough to use a supposed condolence call to whine about why other people won’t compose and arrange music to accompany their mediocre poetry.
If you really want to be a rock star, you have to learn to rock and roll. Otherwise, you’re no different than a lip-synching puppet.
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
For another take on some of the topics covered here, but not from the viewpoint of a sci fi fan, you might find this informative: The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall
Over dinner last night, my husband pointed out2 that C.S. Lewis, even when writing stories that were meant to be Biblical allegory, remembered that the stories had to be stories first: fully-rounded characters that you care about facing obstacles that seem insurmountable which they overcome through their own actions. And that made me realize that even Lewis’s Christian apologetic novel, The Screwtape Letters was less preachy than some of the other stories we were discussing—because even while discoursing on the nature of human imperfection in the form of letters from a senior demon to his nephew (who is a Junior Tempter), Lewis created a demon who was, as a character, sympathetic and relatable.
I’ve written about this before, during which I quoted (and disagreed with) a Christian filmmaker’s argument that all fiction has a message. The same argument has been being repeated by a lot of people in the discussions specifically about sci fi/fantasy writing, with a new variant: maybe none of us (of any political opinion) notice the messages we agree with because we are so passionate about the things we believe.
I think this is just as wrong as the earlier version. All fiction tells stories, yes, and those stories will embody the values of the author in many ways. I’ve given the example that part of my fundamental temperament is a refusal to accept a no-win situation4, and therefore even when I write grim stories with unhappy endings5, there winds up being at least some hint of a glimmer of hope somewhere in the tone of the story.
But the C.S. Lewis example belies that notion that all fiction is message fic. Yes, some people find the allegory of the Narnia books not to their liking, but I haven’t met anyone who’s read them who can’t explain the plot. Yet, I read scores of reviews of “Parliament of Beast and Birds” earlier this summer (by some very smart people) who couldn’t find a plot6.
So I remain firm in believing that if your story is a message, you’re dong it wrong. That isn’t how you make good art.
I agree that messages are to be found in stories. But they ought to be more like that one alluded to in the Neal Gaiman quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” They are meanings that can be inferred by the reader. They are meanings that different readers will interpret in different ways. The interpretations of some readers can contradict the interpretations of other readers and can contradict the interpretation of the author.
Some readers will come away from the story knowing that dragons can be beaten. Others will come away convinced that wizards always find loopholes. Others will say that kings always find ways to take credit for other people’s work. Others may say the message is never to underestimate the damsel. And some, of course, will say the message is humans would rather kill an endangered species than learn how to live with them.
If the story is art, if the storyteller has done their job, the world of the story should be vivid enough and rich enough for readers to find and see all of those sorts of things in the tale. Which is what you want. You want the reader to be transported into a world that they will experience and interpret themselves. You want the reader to share your vision, yes, but you want that vision to take on a life of its own and for the reader to find visions of their own.
That is the opposite of a sermon, whose goal is to bring a person around to thinking the “right” way. To adhere to the truth as defined by the speaker.
I want my readers to run through the imaginary world and find new things that I never dreamed of.
1. Which is why many of us reviewing those stories commented along these lines: “Oh, Puppies, just because you agree with the message, it does not make the work any less message fiction.”
2. We were on the subject because he had been reading one of his favorite sci fi zine sites and had gotten pulled into the comments section of a book review, if I recall correctly3.
3. I was into my second glass of my favorite wine at my favorite restaurant, so I am probably getting the details wrong.
4. Intellectually, I know that lots of situations are no-win, but there’s always that one voice in the back of my head arguing that we should just spend a little more time and try something else…
5. And despite the fact that more than one reader has accused me of being a hopeless optimist who writes everything through rose-colored glasses, I actually have written more than a few tragedies.
6. Or figure out what the story was supposed to be about7.
7. Quick sum-up: imagine an idiot savant has read some Aesop’s Fables and then binge-read the entire Christian apocalyptic snuff-porn series, Left Behind8, and then attempts to write fanfic of it.
8. To be fair, much of the New Testament’s Book of Revelations is treated as snuff-porn by a lot of Xtians I knew growing up. One of them was me. It was my grandfather who pointed out to me that I was spending all my time and energy focusing on the end of the word, when god put us here to build each other up and make the world a better place.
It must be the truth, because so many people are saying it, right?
Well, not really…
When I was in my teens, Agathe Christie’s Curtain, Poirot’s final case, was published. A friend read it before I did, and told me there was no way I’d figure out the ending. We had had discussions before about mysteries. I had been a big mystery fan as long as I could remember—not surprising, since my mother had read Heinlein and Christie novels aloud to me as a baby and toddler.
We ended up in a bet about whether I would figure it out. He bought a second copy of the paperback and rigged it up with a seal covering the last fifty or so pages. I would read it to that point, stop, and then not read further until I had told him my guess.
I did it. He was carefully examining his seal when I told him who the killers were and what had happened. He stared at me, open mouthed. “You swore you wouldn’t read another copy or ask anyone how it ended!”
I insisted that I had done neither, and asked him if I was correct.
He threw the book at me and stomped out.
I tore the seal off and finished the book. I had gotten it right, not quite down to every detail, but I had definitely solved it.
For at least a year afterward he would occasionally accuse me of cheating. Other times he would bring it up, say he believed me that I hadn’t cheated, but still couldn’t understand how I did it. He would tease me that I should become a cop instead of pursuing my writing dreams.
I want to be clear here that I did not cheat. I didn’t peek. I didn’t overhear anyone talking about it. I didn’t find another copy. I didn’t ask anyone about it in any way.
But, it could be argued that I had a some possibly unfair advantages:
1. I literally had been listening to and reading mystery stories for longer than I could remember.
2. I had been intentionally studying the art of crafting mystery stories: reading countless articles in magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest, getting books on writing fiction in general and mystery in particular through interlibrary loan, writing mystery stories of my own. I was exceptionally well-versed in the tricks of the trade.
3. I was familiar with Christie’s writing in particular.
Those probably weren’t unfair, really, however:
4. I knew that Agathe Christie had written this book 30 years earlier intending it to be the fitting end to Poirot and Hastings’s careers. She’d originally stuck it in a vault to be published after her death. She agreed to the publication in ’75 because she knew she was dying and would never write again. That narrowed the possibilities of how the story would end.
5. I knew that the ending was something which this friend, who was no dummy, had thought was completely unforeseeable. Again, that made it easier to pick from the possibilities that occured to me as I contemplated the clues. Another way to look at it: that prompted me to at least contemplate possibilities which might otherwise seem too outlandish to consider.
This friend once asked me how could I enjoy mysteries at all if I often figured them out before the end. He is hardly the only person to ask that.
For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.
Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.
Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.
And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the same puzzle.