Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oh, baby give me that message!

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?


Anonymous said...

In addition to those listed above, one author I really like that doesn't preach is David Drake. I don't think I've ever encountered so much as a single "soapbox moment" in any of his books.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Who do you like enough to put up with the preaching, and why?

Tom Kratman. For one thing, his preaching tends to be interesting and well reasoned. Scary, but people like him are a large part of the reason my part of the world is not so scary.

For another, he is an expert teaching something he knows. I have no need for an author to tell me that women should have equal rights, or that Fabian socialism is silly(1). But I do like having an author teach me how something like a military is supposed to run and why.

(1) Dave Freer, I like the Rats, Bats, and Vats series. It's just that in the US Fabian socialism isn't all that popular anyway. Our Socialists tend to be either impotent academics or Eric Flint types.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Do you have children? No? Yes?

If you do, do you read their text books? Do you talk to them about what they hear in school?

Fabian socialists are not "impotent academics" -- they're teachers at every level from elementary on. Unless my kids' school is highly atypical, and from what I hear, it isn't, they are all preached the "it just wasn't done right" and a lot of the kids believe it. And voting age is 18, before life kicks them in the groin and puts sanity in their heads.

Besides in RBV -- in which I didn't detect preaching, and I would have since I read it on vacation and it held my attention in a busy amusement park -- he doesn't preach. He SHOWS it's silly. THAT is allowed. (In fact the only thing he could be accused of in that was being too heavy handed on Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest comedic books of all times.)


Ori Pomerantz said...

Good point Sarah. I have kids, but the kids don't have textbooks. The oldest just graduated kindergarten, and while he has been reading for a year and a half at this point a lot of his classmates are still illiterate.

I hope teachers who choose to live in suburban Texas are less Fabian - but I'll probably need to correct some misconceptions.

Ori Pomerantz said...

You're right about the "show, don't tell" in RBV. But I'm not sure if it would have worked as well if the conclusion was one less obvious than the failings of Fabianism.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I don't live in TX, but the comments I heard aren't encouraging. Stand by and be ready to de-program. Jerry P. and I shared one of my kids' tests the other day. I sent it to him. He couldn't believe "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs" was not only a valid but the RIGHT choice in an history test under "What's the best way of organizing a society." Don't even... Seriously. I've spent thirteen years now teaching the kids history and economics, so they're immunized (Robert was reading at 4 too!) but... I fear for the other kids.

And you realize your next point is silly, right? That's like saying "the method you chose to describe your heroine's hair by comparing it to wheat wouldn't have worked on a brunette." I mean this in the nicest possible way -- I've made that logical error myself and it's human, but it's still silly. Dave had a task to do, he used the implement that worked with it. So far so good. Also, I KNOW -- we kind of talk (G)-- that he aims his boks so they CAN be enjoyed by adults but also enjoyed and understood from middle school on. So... It fits.


Amanda Green said...

Ori, welcome to education in Texas, where we're more worried about standardized test scores than in actually teaching students the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. As much as I wish I were joking, I'm not. I've lived here most of my life and my son graduated from public school here a year ago.

Curriculum is based on what is the politically correct, feel-good idiotology of the day. And, yes, I meant idiotology because we are putting out students who have no sense of self-worth, no idea about how to actually read and interpret data and recognize a skew when they see it. Districts are implementing a no-grade system so students won't feel bad if they don't do as well as their peers. A district near me has actually implemented on a small scale a plan where students caught cheating are NOT failed for that test/paper/whatever but are allowed to do the work again.

But it gets better. Teachers aren't allowed to give homework. If they do give homework, the student can turn it in whenever they want, if ever, and it won't be graded. So, no personal responsibility, no preparing our children for that day when they do fail at something -- and that day will come and, gee, they won't know how to cope.

Long story short, education here and elsewhere is now to the point where those who are capable of excelling are punished. No longer do we try to rise to the highest common denominator. The focus is on the lowest and it gets lower with each year that passes.

Good luck and be prepared to not only teach your children how to be responsible, caring adults but also knowledgeable ones, because the school systems will be working against you.

Ori Pomerantz said...

My point was silly, but let me explain why I made it. I was thinking it terms of "I want to teach X, how do I do it?". Showing the failings of Fabianism worked well for Dave Freer's point. I don't think it would have worked for Tom Kratman's points because we'd love to say "it's only a story, real life isn't that vicious".

I tend to think in terms of packaging information because that's what I do on my day job (when I'm not commenting on blogs instead of working).

Amanda, you know more than I do. So far public education worked great for us, but "so far" is kindergarten with one very good teacher. If that changes, we will fix it.

Da Curly Wolf said...

"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."
But Kate..I blame you for everything anyway. I love you but its all your fault. ;P

Ori..the school system sucks in Texas Trust me.. I went to school here. It wasn't TOO bad when I was in school but by the time my sister hit high school a few years after was on a crash dive run into mass stupidity. The purpose of schools now is not to TEACH, but to INDOCTRINATE. The Libtards, Tranzis and feelgood f***nuts want a controllable population. A population that is basically slaves, and will not think for themselves or question authority. Everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others. Do yourself a favor, either find someone with a working brain to home school them or get whatever papers you need signed and dotted and do it yourself. Just prepare your kids to be ostracized, because they can actually think for themselves.

To everyone else..sorry about that. I'll get off the soapbox now; and go sit quietly and fume in the corner.

Anonymous said...

Ori i am sorry but, i am afraid you are wrong "Ori Pomerantz said...

My point was silly, but let me explain why I made it. I was thinking it terms of "I want to teach X, how do I do it?". Showing the failings of Fabianism worked well for Dave Freer's point. I don't think it would have worked for Tom Kratman's points because we'd love to say "it's only a story, real life isn't that vicious"."

I'm afraid real life is often that vicious, we just hide it well.


Anonymous said...

Authors who preach and I have so much fun anyway? Eric Flint in the Trail of Glory Books. 1824 Arkansas War is just lots of dang fun, and has some preaching, to boot.

Authors who have a message and don't preach and I just love the stuff? Lois McMaster Bujold. Patricia Wrede.
Wowie Kazowie.

As for the school districts, and tests, we must just be really, really lucky. Part of it is that we live neither in Texas nor in California, where book-buying and curriculum decisions are made at the state level in lockstep. Part of it is that we have kids who read widely. And part of it is that we just have good teachers. I read aloud some of the comments to my eldest, who just finished AP World history. "What? Communism breaks down at the village level. Kibbutzim work because people can leave, and because there's a larger society that isn't made up of Kibbutzim. Philosopher King breaks down at the city level. 'From Each...To Each...' doesn't work unless it's an autocracy at a small village level, and then it only works if people can leave. Haven't they ever read the history of the Amana Colonies or of The Farm? The most successful communist experiment in the world voted democratically to go from a communist group of villages to a corporation with shares."


Kate said...

RJ Cruze,

That soapbox is a dangerous thing. It seems to bring out a sense of "Ooh! I have an audience! I must convert them to my Cause!"

I also like authors without the soapboxes. If they can sneak a message in under my radar, good for them, but don't preach. If I wanted that I'd take my money to church instead of the bookstore. :)

Any others anyone would like to suggest?

Anonymous said...

When our oldest learned of the "can't assign homework" and the "can't flunk for cheating," he said, "But that makes no sense! How can you become good at anything if you can't tell high quality from low quality?"


Kate said...

Ori, Ori, Ori, Ori, and Ori,

Okay, I know you didn't comment quite that much, it just flows better that way.

I can't answer to Tom Kratman, because for one reason or another I've never read his books.

I will say that Dave Freer does not preach. He takes the piss. It's a very different technique and a lot more difficult to master than preaching. In RBV Dave wasn't preaching anything about Fabian socialism or anything else. He was too busy taking the piss and metaphorically cocking a snoot at certain self-important types who think the world revolves around their posterior.

I'm not going near the education question, since my not damn well short enough stint as a teacher is nearly twenty years and half the planet away from here and now.

One thing I will point out, because it seems to keep showing up again and again and (well, you get the message):

special effects are not quality.

This applies to every field of endeavor, including writing. If it looks spectacular and difficult, someone's using special effects to cover for a lack of craft. True mastery is when it looks easy and natural. Dave does this. Every book of his that I've read shows it. Pratchett, too (which is why I keep referring to him. Anyone who dismisses Pratchett as 'fluff' hasn't looked past the obvious).

Kate said...

Sarah, Amanda, Wolfie,

I'm not touching the education side of things with a ten foot stake. Not unless I get to put the teachers on top of said... er, sorry. Channeling Vlad the Impaler a little too strongly there.

Anywhosis, I think we all agree Dave doesn't preach in the RBV books or elsewhere. Who else does/doesn't/whatever?

Kate said...


Yes, real life is that vicious. Ask any woman who was in all-girl classes or an all girl school between about 13 and 17 years of age.

Personally, I find that humor works better to portray the viciousness, callousness and sheer ugliness of life - because it also shows that there can be just as much beauty if you know to look.

Dave, PTerry, Sarah... they all show this in various ways without hitting the bully pulpit.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate said: I will say that Dave Freer does not preach. He takes the piss.

Since 'taking the piss' out of anyone or anything that thinks itself important is an Australian national past time, Dave and his family are going to fit right into Australia when they move here.

This raises another really interesting subject. Humour.

Here, in Australia we're happy to make fun of ourselves. I heard an Ozzie stand-up comedian say he had to rework his material, because this kind of humour went over like a lead balloon in New York.

They say Australian humour is more like Canadian or UK humour. But Terry Pratchett seems to be universal, or perhaps there are subversive people everywhere.

Kate said...


Interesting collection of books and authors there :)

I'd agree that Flint preaches but can write a good enough romp that it doesn't send the book flying. 1632 managed that for me, although I will admit that - not being American - what seems to be the biggest appeal factor for it leaves me cold and lets in a whole lot of other thoughts that I really don't need to share right now.

I guess I've just got a more sensitive "you are preaching to me and spoiling my fun" trigger than a lot of people, because I much prefer the strong message that is not preached.

A not-Dave, not-Pratchett, not-Sarah example I'd give would be early Lackey, where her characters still lived their beliefs and didn't stop to deliver rants on whatever the hot button of the time happened to be. (Yes, I'm opinionated).

Kate said...


Dave and family will certainly fit in well in Oz. Dave and I have been known to commiserate together over the inability of those poor 'Merkins to get his best jokes, but the Aussies will love them.

Humor/humour is certainly a very interesting topic (I'm multi-lingual. I speak and type English, Australian and American, although living in the US I've picked up US spelling, mostly). From what I've seen living here for not quite seven years, the northern US, particularly northern big city US tends to be a lot more self-important and less tolerant than the more rural areas and the south - if you ever get a chance to watch any of the Blue Collar Comedy guys in action, especially Jeff Foxworthy, you'll find that they've got a lot of that self-deprecating humor too.

Certainly Aussie humor and Brit humor have a lot in common. I don't know enough about Canadian humor to hazard an opinion there.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I apologize to everybody who thought I said Dave was preachy. He's not. He does have a message, and he delivers it very subtly.

Sanford, you're right - but precisely because things are that vicious and we'd rather pretend they're not, Tom Kratman needs to cite examples and explain. He wouldn't be able to get his point across if we could dismiss it as "just" fiction.

Kate, I doubt many girl schools rise to the Tom Kratman level of viciousness. Very few girls actually die or are crippled while attending those schools. Tom Kratman writes about war.

Kate said...


Believe me, if those girls schools had access to weapons there would be war. At the psychological warfare and emotional torture level it's bad enough - and manifestly does cripple a lot of girls.

I could, if I chose, completely destroy someone - anyone - over a period of time. It's easy, I wouldn't need much effort at all, and what's more, there would be absolutely nothing that could be traced back to me. How do I know this? I've been on the other end of the equation and very nearly didn't come out.

War is horrific, and vicious, and often a reflection of our animal nature unleashed. What brings this home more? A full-blooded guts'n'gore with metaphorical red paint splattered over every square inch of scenery, or a more personal approach where humor skates you over the horrors until something brings it into sharp contrast?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori, Kate,

Went to all girl school 7th through 11th. I'd RATHER go to war. There is NOTHING as vicious as a pre-teen and teen girl. Nothing. We should let them run our psychological warfare.

I cringe when I read all those "feminist" sf about how we're peaceful now because we've eliminated men. What a crock.

Mike said...

Just a thought -- as I dash off to guide 25 students around Kyoto for the weekend -- but given the pattern finding and creation tendency of humans (I call for witness Rorschach tests, Thematic Apperception tests, and all those wonderful visual ambiguities that we enjoy), I'm not sure that something as complex as a story could be written without having hooks that some of us would see message/preaching in? Perhaps the question is whether what we read into the story conforms to our predilections, in which case we say they aren't preaching, while others cause us to raise the banners of cognitive dissonance and resist changing our preferred views? Which is a long-winded way of saying that perhaps they ALL preach, but some of them are less irritating or noticeable than others?

Hum -- this does suggest a great empirical experiment. I can ask the students just what message we gave in our whirlwind tour. That could be very interesting... Thanks! Should I tell the students that you suggested it?

Michelle in Colorado Springs said...

Messages in the stories we read

I will be honest that was the part of English/Literature class I hated. For me the first read though is kind of a what happened look at things. If that caches my attention I will most likely read it again. Maybe at this point I will notice symbolism or message that might be in the story. But to be honest in many cases you would have to hit my over the head fairly hard for me to get it. I read mostly for fun.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Michelle, stories should be fun!

If they are hard work, then why would we read them?

Anonymous said...

Standardized testing exists so the academics can have an equivalent to what the jock-suckers have been using for years -- a means to say at the end of a school year, "We have Succeeded In Our Efforts." Think about it -- with the jocks, at the end of a given sports season, there are Champions at various levels; those Champions can say "We have Succeeded" at whatever sport. On the academic side, conversely, not only is it impossible to tell which teachers and schools have "succeeded" in teaching the subject in question, it may take upwards of *decades* to figure out who did, and who didn't, "succeed" in teaching the material (by which point, of course, the teachers by-and-large have retired and/or died). Enter Standardized Testing -- now, a school, and its teachers, can be li^Habeled "successful" (or not) immediately.

That the final effect of all this is to make the rest of the school as stupid as the mouthbreathers in sports-garb is simply the universe being Ironic.


Dave Freer said...

Koff. Very odd being talked about. I've always held by the philosophy that if you have a message you need to reach as many people as possible or you're not doing it right. And if you don't have a message (and you just do this for money or to entertain) you need to reach as many people as possible or you're not doing it right. Therefore - unless you're writing books for artistic expression or catharsis (in which case why bother to publish?) if you're writing books you need to reach as many people as possible. Which means they'd better be entertaining and fun to read if you're doing it right. There are exceptions of course. Some people like to read book which confirm the predjudices, others like to read about miseries they have no experience of (there was a run of those), Some people like books that make them look smart, or fit in. But most of us just like books that entertain. So that's what I try to write.

I'm principally a satirist, rather than a bloke on a pulpit. And what satirists do is to expose the ridiculous in things which we accept as norms. Or as Kate put it: take the piss. I make people laugh and I tell I hope good entertaining stories. What I don't do is your thinking for you. (I always find funniest books that tell you what to think about the badness of the nanny-state. Hello?)

Anonymous said...

To Kate:

"special effects are not quality."

Very true! If only Hollywood would get that message...

Whether in film or any other entertainment medium, special effects are basically handwaving. It's what you do to distract the audience while you pull the rabbit from a hat, which is quite acceptable, IMO. In fact, some skillful handwaving followed by pulling a really nifty rabbit out is good showmanship. And the audience eats it up.

However, when you put more effort into the handwaving, and finally you pull out this flea-bitten, moth-eaten, varmint that looks -- and smells -- like it just got off a three-day drunk, the audience feels a bit cheated.

Worst of all is when there is no rabbit, and it's all nothing but fancy handwaving. Yes, Matrix Revolutions, I am looking directly at you. There is no spoon? Hell, there's no freakin' point! They're just lucky you can't throw an entire movie theater across a room... (Okay, I'm better now)

Yes, special effects are nice and, if used properly, can really enhance your audience's experience. However, no amount of special effects can hide bad storytelling.

Anonymous said...

Again for Kate: Another one I recommend is the late Eric Frank Russell. Many of his stories made some scathing political commentary without nary a whit of preaching. EFR basically followed the old adage of "show, don't tell." One story of his that perfectly illustrates this, IMO, is the story "I am Nothing." That story is what I call a "meme bomb": You read it and think "Wow, that's a good story." Then, go off, do something else, and at a certain point in time, it detonates in your brain. Then you think, "That wasn't a good story -- that was a great story!"

And that's how you avoid preaching: Don't tell them the perils of Political Philosophy X -- show them the mass graves. Don't tell them the flaws in Economic Philosophy Y -- show them the bread lines. Don't tell them the drawbacks of Social Practice Z -- show them non-stop re-runs of "American Idol." No, scratch that last one. There are certain things that are just not fit to print.

Just my two cents.

Kate said...

RJ Cruze,

You are so right. The special effects in search of a story movies reek. Special effects used to enhance a story and woven in so seamlessly it feels utterly real is the mark of genius, in writing and in film.

I'll have to chase up Eric Frank Russel and that story in particular, and there aren't many authors who can do what you described.

Reruns of American Idol are reserved for the lowest circle of Hell, in which spammers and politicians reside, although the politicians get work release programs (What? You thought politicians were real live human people. Good grief no).

Anonymous said...

Kate, do a search on for "The Best of Eric Frank Russell." That should be what you're looking for. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Just to revisit this because it's been swimming around in my mind. Now, there's quite a few "message" authors that I'll gladly read because, whatever the message, they don't let it get in the way of good storytelling.

What I have trouble with is when an author takes things Way Too Far and has ripped the heart of the Story out on an Aztec-like altar in order to appease the Message -- it's especially annoying when the Story was doing pretty good so far.

It usually happens like this: The author starts off making some pretty valid points, but then keeps working the points over and over with whips and cattle prods until they're now invalid. Next, the author will round up all these little invalid points and beat them to death with their own crutches. After that, because all the crutches were broken while these invalid points were beaten to death, the author will take the corpses of those poor, dead, invalid points and proceed to bludgeon the readers senseless with them. And if there are any points left over, and a horse drops dead nearby... Finally, while those readers are being rushed to hospital for concussions and skull fractures, the author, in a fit of solipsistic disbelief, wonders why book sales keep falling off, then blames some statist / corporate / liberal / conservative / feminist / male chauvinist (insert author's favorite strawman here) conspiracy on the part of the New York publishing establishment to silence The Message.

Kate said...

RJ Cruze,

Congratulations. I believe you have just diagnosed the NYC publishing death spiral.

Although I think you forgot feeding the remains of the poor, dead, invalid points to a dragon or other beastie, collecting what comes out the other end, baking it to a rock hard blunt object and using that to bludgeon innocent readers some more.

The APCECA (Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Existence-Challenged Animals) deplores this practice, but has been unable to stop it.