Monday, January 4, 2010

Don't shoot the messenger

Welcome to the first Monday of 2010, everyone! I hope you had a great weekend ringing in the New Year, and that you're already making headway on keeping your resolutions.

Snort. Anyway...

I'm running a little low on inspiration today, what with it being the third roasting 100 degree day in a row here in Western Australia, plus the first day back at work after holidays. So I was looking around for a topic to cover, when I read a passing comment at the Forum about readers choosing to avoid novels with an agenda- a hidden (or not so hidden) message with which the author hopes to influence the reader in favour of some cause or another.

I was kind of curious to read this conversation, because as a former English lit scholar, I can't help but feel that ALL books have an agenda.

Isn't every story about something that the author cares about enough to make their point of view public? I guess, though, that there's a difference between the subtle-as-a-brick, message-wrapped-in-pretty-text agenda, versus a simple projection of authorial values into a story.

Either way, Between the Lines certainly does have an agenda, exactly the same way many other (I'm almost willing to say most) war novels do.

Have you ever read Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks? All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque? Regeneration, by Pat Barker? Name another war novel, no matter the war in which it's set, and you'll probably find the same thing- stories that follow individuals into the mass slaughter and brutality of war; that question the reasoning behind sending men to their wholesale deaths; that paint a vivid picture of both the glory and the horror of battle. These stories use brilliant language and storytelling to hammer the reader senseless with a message: that war is hell, and an avoidable madness.

I hope that my story does the same, because it's the personal message I'm trying to convey. I want my readers to not only see how I feel about war, but to feel it themselves.

And I guess this is where I wonder why if an agenda in a novel is such a bad thing. The three books I've listed above each blew me away with their power- I think all the more so because their authors were passionate about the subject. Their burning desire to express their opinion shone through their prose in a way that reached out and grabbed me as a reader. I wasn't just following those stories; I was living them.

I think you need to care passionately about your subject matter for your story to resonate on the page. And I think it's hard to care passionately about something without having an opinion or a position on it.

Hence, agendas in novels.

Of course, the trick is creating real characters and situations, and writing a compelling and excellent story first and foremost. If it's a thinly disguised essay, it's not going to grab the reader or convince them of anything. If, on the other hand, it sweeps the reader away and immerses them in the life of the characters, it's going to be remembered for a long time to come.

So, agendas in novels- what do you think? Have you read any stories that stick in your mind either for good or bad use of an agenda? And does your own work have an agenda behind it, or a greater intended purpose?


  1. I'm fine with an agenda in a novel as long as it serves the story instead of the other way around. The story has to come first for me--a great big whopping spoonful of sugar to help the "medicine" go down, IOW. But if the story feels like a hollow framework to loosely support whatever flavor-of-the-day views the author is currently espousing...well, not so much. :)

  2. Claire,

    OMG...I just read a book that had SUCH an agenda. I'll just call it nameless YA. :) In this book, the author clearly had a "racism is not cool" -- picking on the "outsider" is not cool agenda. It literally had blatant messages throughout the entire book that made me want to bang my head on the wall.

    Someone is mean to the outsider, says she has no friends:

    MC: Can't they understand that the fact this girl has no friends is an even greater reason to be nice to her?

    Someone makes a racist remark:

    MC: It's hard for me to understand such wickedness--because that's what racism is, wickedness.

    Holy bejesus. Subtle, this book was not. Funny thing is that the message COULD'VE been conveyed in some really cool ways without having to spell it out so blatantly.

    Sorry to say this pretty much reflects the book as a whole.


  3. Linda and Jen- I think you guys are on the exact same page with your objections, and I agree with you. Jen, I would have thrown that book against the wall for bad writing.

    I think this ties into my point that first and foremost, you have to have story and character, and if you can use those tools to convey your agenda without beating people over the head with it in a preachy way, then you'll probably do quite well. And even if not, at least you'll have a respectably good story to show for your efforts.

  4. I agree with you guys. I always liked that line of Tolkien's from the forward to The Lord of the Rings, where he's getting back at people who assumed he was writing an allegory for WWII, and he said that people were already forgetting about WWI - what's the line? here it is: "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

  5. Great post. Hmm... I think all good books have a message in them. But the best ones are subtle about it, letting the reader figure it out for themselves. One thing to consider is if writers of said books set out to put a message into the story, or are they simply such opinionated people that their beliefs about life simply seep into the story? I'm thinking both. :)

  6. I think what really annoys me about books with messages delivered with the nuance of a sledge hammer is that it's like watching a play with the playwright in the wings, yelling stage directions through a megaphone. Bloody annoying, and totally distracting. They dominate the page, rather than their letting characters and their story do so. But writers who fade into the background and let their stories do all the talking ... that's when a message is strongest, and more likely to be listened too, IMO.