Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Doing The Stealth Chicken
When Samuel Goldwyn was head of MGM studios, he’s supposed to have said “If you want to send a message, use western union.” But things changed rather a lot since his time, and it is almost obligatory to have a “message” to your books or movies these days or risk being considered lightweight or, who knows, perhaps worse, guilty of thought crimes or double-plus-ungood thinking.
So, having just read that, you’re thinking of the one house in the field which supposedly has a political bend. Don’t. All the houses in the field have a political bend, admitted or not. People of similar thought band together and reinforce each other. Complaining about it is about as much use as complaining that the sun rises in the east. Also the one house with a supposed political bend – perhaps to compensate for its reputation – tends to be a rather broader church than it’s painted.
But what I’m talking about here isn’t politics. Or any politics that anyone considers controversial. I learned how strange things had gotten when someone thought “the point” of my third book in the Shakespeare series Any Man So Daring was to strike a blow against racism.
Now I’m not saying I don’t approve of striking a blow against racism. Sure. Of course I do. ALMOST EVERYONE DOES. That’s rather the point. Writing an entire book with that message would be unforgivable because it would be boring, expected and safe.
Other messages I’ve heard myself and sometimes other writers being praised for delivering and “speaking truth to power” included: the equality of women – unless being published in Iran, yawn –; anti exploitation – to counter al those pro-exploitation clubs, one imagines–; anti child abuse – a difficult thing to do when the child-abusers run most newspapers and praise child abuse... oh, wait – ; anti organized religion – again, unless it’s in the middle east, yawn.
Of course there’s a reason for this. If you write something that goes against what most of the public knows as “true” unless it’s pushed to almost insanity, people will recoil from it. (Trust me, I have a novel about how world population is truly already falling and where it will lead. I won’t even write it. There’s no point. Even though I can back my opinions.)
So what happens if you want to “just” write a thumping good tale? Worse, what happens if you’re possessed of the type of personality that can’t see a freshly painted wall without making a scratch to see what’s underneath and therefore feels like putting forth unpopular theories to make people squirm? Not even YOUR ideas necessarily, but ideas you want to explore? You can’t go in through the front door at publisher or reader, so what do you do?
Well, chances are your thumping good tale will have a message or two in it, anyway. It is almost impossible to reach the level of maturity necessary to write a novel without having acquired a few opinions about how the world works. And chances are if you want to send a message and puncture the popular theories you’ll meet with rejection after rejection...
Unless you stealth it. How do you stealth it, you ask? Well, you make the message part of your world building or background; part of the assumptions built into the book. Chances are you will anyway. And chances are you’ll have a better chance of changing someone’s mind that way if you hide it.
Among the books that changed my view of the world forever if The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and before you say “well, but... it has an explicit message.” Yes, sure it does. “Servitude is bad.” Exciting, uh? It’s all the little messages around it, that are exciting and it’s the story that kept me turning pages long enough for them to hit me. Ditto for Nightwatch by Terry Pratchett. Actually Terry Pratchett is a master at this hiding any opinions behind a heavy veil of story, which of course makes it easier to read.
Oh, and if you must have an explicit message, go ahead and pick a bland one, so the reviewers will be happy. Hide the exciting stuff behind it.
I’ve read and enjoyed any number of books despite the author’s politics or – often – grasp of history givin me heart burn. What’s wrong about explicit-message books is not that they’re (just) wrong from my pov, but that they’re boring. There’s for instance, this mystery series where every culprit is either an entrepeneur or wealthy. It goes on for upteen books and they’re all like that. So, I stopped reading once the pattern became obvious. There’s usually only one character like that. He’s the culprit. YAWN.
On the other hand sometimes people find “messages” in books and stories that puzzle me greatly. I’d love to come up with someone else’s, but I was up late feeding an orphan kitten (not your fault) and the only thing I can think of is my own short story After The Sabines, which I considered a “what if” started by the gender imbalance in China. A reviewer – in Portugal – saw it was the “ultimate put down of the cowboy” – okay then. Considering there isn’t a single cowboy in the story this rather surprised me, but if it makes them happy...
So, message. Do you need it in a book? And if so, do you prefer it to reinforce or challenge your beliefs? Do you think an explicit message is mandatory to make the book non-light-weight?