First, a disclaimer. Art in general and storytelling in particular lends itself to near-infinite variety of perception. In spite of what highly paid literature critics and professors will tell you, there isn’t One True Way to interpret a piece of art. I am, in fact, fresh of watching Mr. Plinkett’s video explaining why Titanic was both the best and the worst movie ever. And so when we discuss so-called “message fiction,” it’s good to remember that such classification will always be in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, the term has gained popularity lately, and it might be time for some clarity as to the meaning.
The most common usage of the “message fiction” has come from the (loosely defined) right side of the political spectrum when discussing works by authors, largely on the left who place ideological considerations above the quality of their art.
Message fiction can take many forms and exists in every genre, although it seems especially prevalent in science fiction and fantasy. A post-Apocalyptic story that incessantly talks of humans ruining the Earth through environmental neglect. An alien encounter story that demonstrates clear superiority of communal living over individualism and traditional family structure. A dystopia about the horrors of the government run by corporations, or the Church, or whoever the Villain of the Week is supposed to be. You get the idea. Setups, plotlines and even characters who are mere vessels for advancing the author’s agenda, with minimal regard for the basics of storytelling and no attempt at entertainment.
Mind you, there is a market for it. There are people who read and love message fiction. There are organizations handing out accolades and awards to the authors. At this time, anyone who has paid even minimal attention to the happenings in the publishing world will understand the reference, and others can just take my word for it. Or simply look at what happened with the Oscars over the last few years. It’s the same disconnect between the highbrow elites and garden-variety consumers, minus the red carpets and obnoxiously overpriced gowns.
That leaves the rest of us with a dilemma. Sure, we want entertainment in our fiction instead of a lecture. However, does it mean that we are forever doomed to limit ourselves to book equivalents of B-movies? Don’t get me wrong, I love Fast and Furious as much as the next gal (probably more, truth be told), but I also love Lives of Others. There is a place for lowbrow art that exists to give us a burst of adrenaline and take our attention of the next mortgage bill for a few hours. And there is a place for something more subtle, more refined, that will make us ask questions about the human condition and difficult moral choices. There is, in other words, a place, not for message fiction as described above, but for fiction with a message.
This is not mere play on words. The distinction is crucial: does the message come before the story, or the other way around? More to the point, how do consumers know one from the other, and how do authors avoid the dreaded “message fiction” label?
Many writers and bloggers have addressed the subject before, with examples ranging from Pilgrim’s Progress to Atlas Shrugged and everything in between. (Ayn Rand is certainly considered the Grand Dame of message fiction because of the (in)famous John Galt speech, explaining the Objectivist philosophy in painful detail, stuck in the middle of a compelling if flawed novel. Note to new authors: Rand got away with it. You won’t.) I want to use something different for my example, if only to shake up the discussion.
Having grown up in the former Soviet Union, I read plenty of what in today’s terms would be called “message fiction,” 99% of it ranging from forgettable to laughable. But there was a poem we had to read in second grade, Death of a Young Pioneer Girl by Eduard Bagritsky. It was traditional as part of our Russian Language homework to memorize poems, but this one was long and memorizing it was an option for extra credit. Being a stereotypical straight-A nerd, I naturally decided to memorize it. And frankly now, decades later, I wish I hadn’t. I don’t want it in my head. Yet here it still is.
The story revolves, as promised in the title, around a dying girl. She is a member of the Young Pioneers, an organization designed to indoctrinate children aged seven to fourteen into the Soviet ways. (Most Americans, public education notwithstanding, are probably familiar with iconic Soviet posters of happy kids with red scarves around their necks—those are the Young Pioneers.) Surrounded by helpless doctors and grieving family, she is slowly and painfully succumbing to scarlet fever. If you ever wanted to know how it feels to die from a nasty childhood disease, this poem will tell you. Russian children’s literature can be brutal that way. But that’s not the plot, as the death is pre-determined. The conflict comes when the mother attempts to put a baptismal cross around the girl’s neck, presumably to administer the Russian Orthodox version of the Last Rites. And the child, even in her agonized feverish state, refuses. Her last act on this Earth is to swat the cross away and lift her hand in a Young Pioneer salute. Her last words are the Young Pioneer’s pledge of loyalty to the state, not a goodbye to her family. The ending is devastating, sure, but it’s also meant to be inspiring. The poem is both a vile piece of propaganda aimed at eight-year-olds and a haunting piece of art.
And art it is. There can be no question in my mind that this one is not the kind of “message fiction” currently attempting to devastate whole genres of literature as surely as an untreated disease can kill its victim. It’s just fiction, and it has a message that is not at all subtle. Repugnant, yes, at least to my mind, but also highly effective. Why? Because it’s wrapped in a darn good story. This is how propaganda works, and the Soviets had perfected it in their time. The Left in the U.S. has generally done a good job of it as well, except, having become so successful at it over the decades, they have also become complacent. The quality began to slip, and they fell into the message fiction trap. I, for one, will not shed a tear.
There is a danger, though, for us as conservative and libertarian writers. We write for different reasons, but many of us use fiction as an opportunity to express our worldview, at least to some extent. I was a reader and reviewer long before I started to write, as I have always felt that authors should at least attempt to put something of themselves in their work. Otherwise, why bother? With millions of stories out there, why add to the pile if you can’t offer something that is specifically “you”? And it makes perfect sense that “something” will occasionally be political views.
Censoring yourself, filing down every edge so as not to appear too controversial is just as destructive of art as squeezing a political message in a place where it doesn’t belong. We can all agree that message fiction is bad, but hollowed-out, sterile, one-size-fits-all storytelling is worse. I’m not talking about pure lowbrow entertainment—as mentioned at the beginning of the post, there is a place for it, and I enjoy it greatly. But much too often I come across a story that has all elements of greatness, where the author obviously wanted to say something interesting and thought-provoking—and then backed down, whether to sell more copies or to avoid an accusation of making the work too political, I would never know. I do know that such stories break my heart with their obviously wasted potential.
Ayn Rand, of whom I am still a fan, even though I no longer find Objectivism as appealing as it once was, has once written a short story The Simplest Thing in the World. It details a struggle of a desperately poor writer to create a story that would appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, any time he starts a safe, predictable, plot that a potential publisher would accept, his mind wanders into different directions, creating stories that are unique and exciting—but not suitable for a dime store novel. And so, at the end, he gives up and decides to peruse the Classifieds for non-creative work. It’s unlike Rand’s other fiction because the character is not a hero intentionally refusing to compromise; he’s a creator whose mind rebels at the attempt. He simply can’t help it.
Fortunately in our time and place, with the rise of independent and small publishing, we don’t have to compromise. As readers, we don’t have to settle for either obnoxious, low quality message fiction OR for stories that are muted, bland and sometimes outright confusing because of the author’s desire to please or fear to offend. Conversely, as authors, we have the luxury of being ourselves, writing what we want, saying what we believe and most importantly, crafting the best story we can. Anyone even marginally familiar with history will understand what a rare opportunity this is. We dare not waste it.
Marina Fontaine is a Russian by birth, an American by choice, and an unrepentant book addict. She runs Small Government Book Fan Club on Goodreads, Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance group on Facebook, and a cultural commentary/review blog, Marina’s Musings.
Marina is the author of Chasing Freedom (a 2016 Dragon Award finalist for Apocalyptic Novel) and The Product, a dystopian novella. She lives in New Jersey, working as an accountant by day and a writer by night.