Sarah's post yesterday got me thinking about messages in prose. Yes, I know this is a scary place for me to be going, because if anyone's golden gun or glittery hooha starts sending messages you'll all blame me.
That said... Probably the one truly outstanding feature of the human mind that no machine or computer has been able to match is our ability to find patterns in seemingly random information - and in real random data where no pattern exists. Elvis in a slice of unevenly cooked toast? Yep, that's the human pattern matching at work.
Of course it overflows into our writing and our reading. The novel awaiting a publisher's decision right now started life as a total romp with no message whatsoever. I can guarantee there will be people who find meaning in it - I found that meaning had crept in there without me being aware of it.
I should probably mention at this point that I write on autopilot. I put on the headphones, the right music (each book demands something different - although thankfully unlike some of my writing friends I haven't been infested with a book insisting on ABBA), and relax. The subconscious does the work for me, and I read over the results the next day and agree with my friends that yes, I am a scary person. There are things buried down there that find their way into the most lighthearted piece of piss-taking and give it extra layers of chocolatey goodness... Um. Sorry. That was Tim-Tam envy.
In short, where conspiracy theorists see the hand of the hidden manipulator in everything, literature analysts (I'm sure there's a reason that word starts with 'anal') see themes and messages in everything, regardless of whether the author put them there.
We're all primed to see messages in stories, whether it's that the prince on his white horse will find you and carry you off for a happily ever after hinted at only by the clouds of rosy pink - but only if you're a good girl and never complain about anything - or that white people have oppressed and murdered their way through history, even in places where no-one has ever seen anyone with skin lighter than dark tan (yes, there are a few of them even now). Depending on our upbringing, we might be primed to see messages from the Devil in anything remotely unfamiliar, or possibly messages from any other supernatural being up to and including the Big Guy Himself (Yes, I do mean Elvis).
Where a lot of authors drop the ball (no, not the golden gun, and not that kind of ball either) is in thinking that their story is about whatever the message ends up being. That's when they stop the action to beat their readers about the head with some great Message or other. This is a summary defenestration offense in my opinion. If that book can't learn to fly between the window and the ground, too bad. And no, bouncing doesn't count.
Some of the authors I read who have strong messages in their books and don't preach are (of course) Pratchett (drat. Another goat. The landlord is going to be so pissed about the state of this carpet), our very own Dave Freer (don't worry, Dave, I'm not sacrificing coconuts. Yet.) and another of our Mad Geniuses, Sarah Hoyt (And no, nor am I sacrificing Officers Hotstuff. Not unless the sacrifice involves their golden gun and a willing... ahem).
Who else do you like that doesn't preach? Who do you like enough to put up with the preaching, and why?