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What’s on your agenda?

I’ve been reading a discussion that’s been going on over the last few days in my friend’s journal.  I’m not going to name the friend, or link to the journal, because it’s an absolute minefield of a topic and I don’t want to get into it here.  But it has got me thinking about something else along a similar line.

When I read, I like to read stories about people who are courageous and smart and funny, who have short-comings and inner demons, who solve mysteries and do brave things and keep going even when it looks like everything is lost.  (Those are the kinds of stories that I try to write, too.)  I do not like to read stories about people who get up on their soap-box and sermonize at the other characters, and by extension, the reader.  I do not want to read expo dumps meant to further someone’s pet cause.  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in a person’s right to their own beliefs, and the right to try to persuade others to their way of thinking.  But I also believe there is a time and a place for it.  When I read fiction I do not want to be educated, I want to be entertained.  If I want to learn something I’ll go check out the non-fiction section of the book store – that’s what it’s there for, after all.

Now I know that characters, just like real people, need to have their own beliefs.  And, also just like real people, not all of those beliefs will be the same.  It would make for a pretty boring story if everyone agreed with everyone else all of the time.  In the story that I’m working on right now I have a character who’s a priest and a character who is technically an atheist, although he believes in other things.  Both are very firm in their convictions and they butt heads a lot, which I think is great, because it adds tension to the story.  But there’s a big difference between a character who has his own beliefs and a character who has the author’s beliefs, and, it seems to me, it’s pretty easy to tell which is which.  I find the latter extremely off-putting, and actually, even a little bit insulting.  I mean, it ‘s bad enough to have someone thumping on you in person where you can tell them to take a hike, but it’s another entirely to get into what looks like a good book, only to find out that you paid for the privilege.

But maybe this is all just me.  I’ve read enough of these kinds of stories to know that a good number of people like writing them.  Is there anyone out there who likes reading them?  As readers, do you think it’s okay for an author to use their writing to support a cause?  As writers, do you bring an agenda to your stories?  I know that this could be a bit of a touchy subject, but I really am curious to hear what you think, so if you’re willing to discuss it here, by all means, hit me with your best shot.

4 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. Tiffany

    As readers, do you think it’s okay for an author to use their writing to support a cause?

    I’m of the mind that anyone can write anything out of whatever motivation. Write to support a cause, write to impress a chick and get laid à la T.S. Garp. Write because your angry, write because you think you’re going to change the world, write to entertain, it’s cool. Just don’t have any preconceived expectations that anyone will want to read it, or understand the higher motivation behind your work, if there is any, or to care, if they do.

    Is there anyone out there who likes reading them?

    This maybe isn’t quite the same as what you’re talking about, but I think a lot of dystopian fiction (not all, but a lot) is written with a kind of agenda in mind. It serves as a warning. A lot of Margaret Atwood’s novels come to mind. Those, I don’t mind reading. Largely, they don’t pretend to be solely for entertainment, they are obvious satires. That’s fine, that can be enjoyable, however, when a book appears to be a fairly typical novel, written for entertainment, and then suddenly whacks you over the head with a cause-of-the-week sermon, that pisses me off.

    Furthermore, readers often impose an agenda on a work that might or might not actually be there. People love a good conspiracy. One of the forwards to Lord of the Rings written by Tolkien says, essentially, “Lots of people have discussed the symbolism in the story relating to the Second World War. Before I go into discussing that any further, let me start off by saying that there isn’t any. Quit making shit up.” Not a direct quote, obviously, but that was the gist.

    As writers, do you bring an agenda to your stories?

    No, but that’s because I write to entertain myself and hopefully other people. I am not going out of my way to make social commentary, discuss gender politics, family politics, politics of any kind, or vaguely allude to the fact that war is bad. That said, very few people can live totally outside of the influence of the news or pop culture, so a turn of phrase or an image here or there that is put into the story innocently enough can easily be misconstrued as an attempt at some kind of grander message.

    And there are my disorganized thoughts on the subject.

    Feb 03, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Tiffany

    Yeah, quite a few typos in that.

    Feb 03, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  3. Shayne

    That was kind of a stupid question on my part, wasn’t it? Of course people have the right to write whatever they please, and I shouldn’t have made it seem like I thought otherwise. I guess what I should have said was, can they reasonably expect anyone to want to read it?

    I know what you’re talking about with the dystopian fiction, and no, that’s not exactly what I meant. I’m not talking about a cautionary tale – the kind with a basic message running through it as a sort of background theme – that tries to show the horrors of war, or that revenge is a bad idea, or things like that. Nor am I talking about stories for kids that teach them how to deal with problems like bullying and such. I’m not even talking about stories that are up front about the fact that they’re making a social commentary. What I’m talking about are the stories that masquerade as regular old genre fiction, like a thriller or a mystery, and then once you get into it you realize that the entire plot is just an excuse for the author to get up on their soap box and preach about their pet cause, whatever it may be.

    I guess, for me, the whole thing can be boiled down to the concept of show vs tell. An author can write a book that fairly screams War is Bad, but if they do that by showing the horror and atrocity of war, I’m fine with it. But if they spend half of the book telling me that war is bad, either through the mouth of one of the characters, or by narrative dumps, that drives me totally around the bend. Not because I don’t agree that war is bad – I do, wholeheartedly – but because I just don’t like being preached at. And of course, if it happens to be someone who’s thumping a cause that I come down on the opposite side of – the pro-choice/pro-life debate would be an example of an issue that really gets me hopping, although I can’t think of an actual book in which this one came up – that makes it ten times worse.

    Feb 03, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  4. Ehch

    I can’t think of a work of fiction, off the top of my head, that has preached at me. I suppose if I was still reading Anne Rice’s work, I’d have plenty to say on the subject. But the thing that first jumped to mind when I read your entry was this: Many (most?) people read fiction for the purpose of entertainment. Now, of course, there are different levels of entertainment; there are the books we read to escape, while there are others that we read to enlighten or to show us a side of life/the world that we might not have otherwise seen.

    This is kind of a stretch, but work with me here. I don’t think I would enjoy reading something wherein the author’s agenda clearly shows through, whether or not I agreed with the message. I think I’d find that…annoying. And it would certainly impede my ability to find entertainment in the story. Not being able to come up with a literary example, the only thing to which I can compare what you’re saying is that infamous U2 concert, which cost me $200 to attend, and which consisted of hours of Bono NOT singing and NOT entertaining us, but rather telling us how we would’ve been best to spend our money saving Darfur. Three years later, I’m still bitching about it. So if you can draw the line between fiction as entertainment and concerts as entertainment, you see what I mean.

    There’s a time and a place for everything. If you know what you’re getting into – as in, if the blurb on the dust jacket tells you that you’ll be reading all about What The Author Believes thinly veiled as What The Character Thinks, or if the concert ticket says that 60% of the show will be taken up by having the Human Rights code read aloud to you in six different languages – then we have no right to complain. It’s the sneaky bastards who use window dressing to get you through the metaphorical door and then slam it behind you after your money’s been snatched… THAT makes me batshit.

    I suspect that comment was a whole lotta nuthin’. But it’s the best I could do at nearly 5 a.m. with no decent examples of books coming to mind. Music will have to suffice.

    Feb 04, 2009 @ 5:38 am