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?


Anonymous said...

With most readers, a rollicking good tale will be enjoyed once or twice. A rollicking good tale with great characters will be reread, and a rollicking good tale with good characters and a message will be reread or possibly thrown across the room.

The books that manage to change my worldview are my favorites. Certainly not my only favorites, certainly not the only ones I read and reread. Some messages are just too blatant to ever again have the impact of the first read. Others are so subtle that you barely notice how they slipped into your habits of thought until your read for the fourth time and suddenly recognize it.

I think conscious attempts to insert messages often flop.

I think what a writer chooses to write about, and the setting shows their inclinations. The things they consider problems and especially what they consider winning delivers a sufficient message.

Inserting the occasional lecture or conversation on the topic doesn't help at all.

Juniper13 said...

Usually, if I'm looking for an explicit meaning, I'll go to a classic that I know will beat me over the head. Ayn Rand and George Orwell come to mind. When I read those however, it's usually with a mind to having the book serve as a yardstick. How far have we come, how far do we still have to go?

I don't think a meaning is absolutely necessary in a book. Sometimes I enjoy a good bit of "brain candy" or just plain escapism.

Now by brain candy I'm not implying light weight - just...not a textbook. The Philosophical Writings by Descartes, or Five Dialogues by Plato, or Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut all come to mind as things I don't consider brain candy.

Ok, so what is brain candy or escapism for me? Anything by Frank Herbert, Asimov, Arthur Clarke - I still have to think but the message is not the point or reading. Heck, the Mary Janice Davidson is super brain can find meanings and morals in it if you really feel like disecting it thoroughly, but trust me, if you look hard can find meaning and messages in a bowl of Alpha-bits Cereal.

If you want to tell a truth, yes the easiest way is to veil it in fiction - or more than likely, unless it's a popular and as Sarah says "safe" truth, it won't be received well and neither will you.

The more popular you want to be, the more you have to hide your message, and dare I say, trick your reader into reading your book and "getting it" before they realize they've gotten any message. And you better hope you're good at it, because if the reader suspects you're trying to be subtle...then I guarantee you're not and will have your book set aside.

Da Curly Wolf said...

One of the things I enjoyed about The Moon is a harsh Mistress was TANSTAAFL. But then..its something I've always believe my self. Or to quote a song from the new band Cage the Elephant. "ain't No rest for the wicked, money don't grow on trees. I got bills to pay, I got mouths to feed and ain't nothing in this world for free." One of my new fave songs btw.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to write something worth reading without a message. Human storytelling and teaching are too tightly intertwined. To take one example of "brain candy", does Herbert's
"Whipping Star" say nothing about the limits of duty or the proper response to disaster? Is there no hint of over-dependence on technology or placing one's fate in the hands of someone with different priorities? Heck, there are messages about the normal behavior of society in "See Spot run"!

The fundamental story unit of "X makes a decision" is in itself a message. Did X call a committee or take a poll? Did X procrastinate and things got worse/better? Did X act for or against personal short- or long-term goals? Did the choice work? And more importantly, is X someone to emulate or avoid?

How the author answers these questions both creates the character and reveals the message. If after Nasty Incident #1, #2, and #3 the lovers still get back together, it can either be a redeeming tale of unconquerable love or a tragic enabling of sadistic and self-destructive behavior.

But that's not the message. The message is whether, in the world of the story, this result is normal, desirable, or inevitable - and by similarity and contrast to this world, whether the same answers should apply. --Don

Kate said...


I have to admit I find your comment rather confusing. You say that it's tough to write something worth reading without a message, but Sarah's post - which I assume you're replying to - says that messages will happen in novels no matter what. ("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.") In my experience Sarah is right: the things I believe most strongly will 'leak' into my novels even if I'm trying to keep them out. I'm opinionated, and hold some views that aren't terribly popular right now, so I do try to keep them leashed.

The difference is that I am not writing a book about the evils of child abuse, or how terrible racism is, or whatever. I am writing a book about what Vlad the Impaler might have done if he'd survived the 1476 assassination. What he does, how, and why are what illustrates the messages in there. What's more, I can guarantee that people who read the book will find messages I never had any idea were there.

The question to hand is not whether there are messages in any given book, but what the messages are, whether the author meant to put them there, and whether they're still appropriate. Oh, and whether the author stopped the story to hand out the moral before resuming the story.

You say that the fundamental story unit of "X makes a decision" is in itself a message - but then you contradict yourself by widening the scope from the unit of action (make decision) to the process (which could be multiple decisions in their own right), the reasons, and the results. You've expanded from a single unit to an entire story, even an entire book in a couple of lines, without ever clarifying what it is you're actually talking about. Do you mean that each individual piece of a story has its own message in isolation of each other piece? Or are you talking about the way, in the best fiction, the cumulative effect of the multiple actions works to form a synergy of content, message and theme that can leave a reader speechless (Pratchett gets me this way every time. And he'd hit me for describing it that way).


Kate said...

(continued from the last comment)
You say "How the author answers these questions both creates the character and reveals the message." Um. No it doesn't. The good author knows their characters too well to need to answer such facile questions. You missed the single most important question of all of them: "Why?". The interaction of well rounded characters, each with their own motivations and world-view, enacted against an equally well-developed world - whether our own or an imagined one is irrelevant. Real world settings can and frequently are shallow in the hands of lesser authors - illuminate any number of messages, all of them waiting to infect an eager, receptive reader. If the reader isn't receptive, the book is mind candy. If the author lets their personal hobby horses overwhelm their characters, setting and plot, the effect on readers is akin to masochistic necrophilia (flogging a dead horse). No-one rereads masochistic necrophilia unless, as the saying goes, they are one. People do reread mind candy, and maybe on the second, or fifth, or tenth reading something in their life has changed enough for something to 'catch'. Or maybe not.

And no, the message is not whether, in the world of the story, a result is normal, desirable or inevitable. That kind of generalization leaves you with the kind of worthless fluff that says "everything is a message". If everything is a message, then nothing is. Messages only work if there is 'not message' to both stealth and illuminate them. As for "similarity and contrast to this world", I must ask you which "this world" you mean? The version of it that lives inside my skull, the one inside yours, or perhaps the one belonging to the Papuan mountain tribesman who has never seen a book.

This is why forced messages don't work. An author's beliefs create his or her message and integrated it into the story. Depending on his or her level of craft, those beliefs are more or less cunningly disguised in the background. You read it, and see some or none of them. I read the same book, and see something completely different.

So I guess I shouldn't ask if you read the same post I did. I know you didn't. You couldn't, because you aren't me.

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Sarah.

Do I need a message in a book? Not particularly. Don commented that it's tough to write something worth reading without a message. There's a corallary to this. It's touch to read something where the writer hits you over the head with his "message". I would rather the message be masked, something that, after I've read it, I'll lean back and think about it. To paraphrase Matapam, I'm much more apt to go back and reread something time and again if it is a rollicking good read with a message that I can wrap my mind around.

I will disagree with the comment that "X makes a decision" is, in itself, a message. That, to me, is merely an observation. The mental gymnastics that go into the decision, who and what X is and the external forces that play on him and influence him as well as the impact that decision has on X and the world around him -- that might be a message. But the decision by itself is only one part of what comprises the message the author imparts, consciously or not.

And yes, it is extremely difficult to write a book without a message. But the message doesn't have to be the central focus of the book. In fact, in many instances, the message is merely what we read into it. For example, Generic Romance A has professional woman returning to town to care for her ailing parent and runs into former lover. They circle around one another, fight and finally fall back in love while he helps her deal with the parent and/or the parent's death. Lots of messages there: responsiblity, loyalty, duty to parent, forgiveness, etc. Did the author mean to preach about all of those? Probably not. He, or she, was just writing a ripping good tale.

You have the same with Generic Mystery B. The cop tracks down the killer and brings him to justice, despite the fact the killer was acting out and killing those who reminded him of the mother who abandoned him years earlier. Again, lots of messages and, again, probably not the author's intention to preach about them.

As for books where the messages are the plot, for ex: Atlas Shrugged, Dune etc., some of them I can go back and reread. The reason isn't the message but the ripping good yarn. Without a good plot, believable characters and settings, the message cannot save the book.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I brought up Heinlein because I often tell people he brought me up. To a great extent he did. Clifford Simak's ideas and values seemed natural to me when I started reading sf/f (This is perhaps why he's much more popular in Portugal than in the US.) Heinlein seemed strange, bordering on alien. Just his characters complaining about taxes blew my mind. Or the fact they found something wrong and DID something about it. But he DID have a ripping good tale, with a hell of a fast-moving plot, so I continued reading him. It was a good three years before I realized he had changed me at a fundamental level.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Exactly, I find it's the EXPLICIT message that puts me off.

BTW, I'll note that while I read and "enjoyed" for a given value of "enjoy" Animal Farm and 1984, I have not re-read them in twenty years. I do re-read Friday and TMIAHM and Night Watch and Carpe Jugulum and...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I loved so many things about it, including the idea that you only get into politics when it's life or death and his disdain for "shoulder to shoulder" and... um just about everything. I'd run away with Manuel Garcia O'Kelly tomorrow. :D

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The "message" I was talking about was the explicit message that hits you over the head.

This is not -- thank heavens -- any novel I've read, but you know, let's say the message is "men are bad." It starts with the heroine being oppressed by various males. Goes on with her attempting to fight and being squished and ends with her being killed by a guy after her friend tries to convince her to give up men altogether.

That level of message is garanteed to hit the wall at near-terminal velocity.

Are there messages in every choice the author makes in how to set up his world -- yeah, to an extent. But these are not politically motivated or "messages" as a rule -- i.e. something that is what the author wants to impart. More something that is part of WHO the writer is.

Compare the inner life of Heinlein's characters (often complex) with those of Asimov (animated purposes given human form) and you might learn a lot about the men, but it's not a message they're trying to pass on. They're just trying to write a thumping good tale. Go look at Prachett's characters where few of them are evil, but the ones who are are so absolutely and you'll realize he's not a man who wishes to temporize with evil. Read Agatha Christie and you absorb all sorts of notions about how ladies and gentlemen are supposed to behave.

There are writers I don't read because their writing makes my hair go in hackles. Not that there's anything wrong, but that their world setup is so "wrong" as far as my own experiences go. Most "doom and gloom" post apocalliptic; Carr in mystery (can't remember his first names); most Ursula LeGuinn; a lot of Woman In Peril fic.

This doesn't mean they're bad. Clearly not, since most are bestsellers. Just that their ideas of what the world is feel like an itch in a place I can't scratch. So I set it aside. But -- with a couple of exceptions -- they're not even trying to have a message. It's just how they view the world. I get much more annoyed when there is a message.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


By and large you are correct, though I would point out there is an objective reality to the world -- it's that thing that smacks your nose when you go wrong. Or as I answered a literature test that asked me the difference between literature and reality: If I kill you on paper, you might be annoyed; if I kill you in real life, you stop breathing.

Not you personaly, of course (I've never even felt like killing you on paper!)

Part of the problem right now, though, is that our society has reached such a level of sophistication that most of us do NOT have contact with "reality" as such but with reality filtered through someone else's pov. I.e., do you really know what happens across the world, unless it's where your family lives? And they're reliable narrators?

The problem with this is that if a person is predisposed to a rigid ideological or other outlook, it's possible to pick and choose through news to confirm what you already believe. This is called, I think "confirmation bias."

And to an extent or another, almost all the reading public has some confirmation bias in some sense or other -- religion, politics, what a "good person" is. The way to cope with this and maximize your audience is to write a thumping good tale and let the message take care of yourself.

I know you know that, though. I've read the tale. And in one significant case, the tail. (runs.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, I find the idea that one NEEDS a message in a book a little disturbing. It leads to the sort of thinking that leads to the banning of fiction "Either the lesson is in the Koran/Bible/whatever and the book is superfluous or the lesson is not and the book is sacrilegious"

IMHO -- one's milleage clearly does vary -- one reads to BE someone else for a while (something not obtainable from other forms of entertainment which cannot gracefully show thoughts.) Is this to LEARN something? Perhaps, though I tend to do most of my reading when I'm not feeling well or when I'm on vacation and employing my time proffitably is the least of my concerns.

I think the idea that a book must "have a message" to be good is either a survival from puritan ethic "if I'm having fun, I must be working too" or perhaps of a certain hubris that wants everything the person does to be meaningful.

Books have messages -- by default -- but those that feel like work will take wee flying lessons on their little covers. :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I think people are predisposed to look for meaning in life. So whether you write a 'message' into your book or not, they will find one.

Conversely, even if you set out to write a rollicking tale, your world bias will creep in.

I do think Spec Fic readers are most open to not reading for confirmation of world view. After all, we're willing to see the universe from an alien's VP.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, you're right, imo, that people do tend to look for the meaning of things. Still, most people I know don't read a book to look for "messages" any more than they go to movies to do the same thing. They read for entertainment. Now, that's not to say they might not find a message -- right, wrong or indifferent.

As for letting your world bias creep into your work, it can. But you can also work against it. You might not prevent all your "bias" from showing, but you can keep much of it out. It's hard, but not impossible.

Jim McCoy said...

I don't think you have to have a message per se. There is plenty of GOOD fiction out there with no overt message. As far as having a concealed message goes, I think that an author is always going to have one. This will happen whether it's there or not. People in general are just like that.
In some cases, it may be that the author intentionally puts something in and leaves it in the background. In others, the author may be passing something along unintentionally. The real reason I say it's impossible not to is not because of either of those. It's because of certain fans of fiction.
These people seem to be convinced that there is ALWAYS a message. They will state confidently that there is one, and refuse to listen to arguments. I'm not saying that these people are rational, but they do exist.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for being unclear earlier and thank you all for the serious discussion. Our differences seem to be that I see the Big Message (Men are Bad) and the little message (Brown shoes with a tuxedo are bad) as the same message - here are social norms that an individual must follow. Whether a particular point is "preaching" may depend on the audience. When E.E. Smith pointed out at length that Lensman Kinnison was commendable for validating an alien culture with a different moral code than his, it may indeed have been rare among persons of his acquaintance. For those here, I'm sure it's as redundant as rejoicing Kinnison had learned to defecate in designated areas only. (I'm also willing to label much of that series as 'preaching' in all contexts.) --Don

Kate said...

Our differences seem to be that I see the Big Message (Men are Bad) and the little message (Brown shoes with a tuxedo are bad) as the same message - here are social norms that an individual must follow.

Er, Don? You seem to have a problem with perspective here. I did comment about constructed realities earlier, but as Sarah said it's helpful to make occasional contact with the one that involves continuing to breathe.

I can't reconcile the concept that a global, moral message (to use your example, Men are Bad) could possibly be the same message as fashion advice applicable in a portion of one planet in one universe and in all probability only a small fraction of the history of said planet and universe (wearing brown shoes with a tux is bad).

It's quite possible for the same book to contain multiple meanings buried in there, and sometimes they can be contradictory messages. In Pratchett's books involving the Ankh Morpork Night Watch, for instance, you see two very different models of 'admirable men' in Vimes and Vetinari. Those models are mutually incompatible. You can't claim that either is the image of what a good man should be without invalidating the goodness of the other. You certainly can't take a minor aspect of the stories, such as Vetinari's dislike of mimes, and claim this is the same message as is delivered by the story overall. At least, not without the help of some serious drugs.

Dave Freer said...

I shocked and disgusted at the implication that any author would do something as underhand as to stealth their ideas instead of putting them in a nice big infodump sermon on page one. It ought to be stopped. People might be influenced by it or something. The government should step in!
(Dave - who got here on dialup. shudder)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Don't give them ideas, Dave, or they will do something about it.