Manifesto fiction

From Nathan Bransford:

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a substantial uptick in novels crossing my desk that have an extremely overt political message. Their pitches will often cite that the world needs their new book. The authors will treat the message, and the world’s supposed need for it, as the thing that’s going to sell the book.

I call this manifesto fiction. And authors can go very, very far astray if they focus too much on the politics and not enough on the storytelling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of times I agree with the substance of the political message that’s being espoused! And, at the end of the day, everyone has to write the book they want to write.

But particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publication and if you have writing goals beyond just finishing the novel, here’s the thing you must remember: people will only buy your book if it’s a compelling story.

Focus on the storytelling and make it messy

There is a long and proud history of novels that shift culture and politics through sheer force of story, whether that’s Uncle Tom’s CabinThe JungleThe Handmaid’s Tale, or, more recently, The Hate U Give. There’s also a darker history here, including influential novels that advance racist narratives that I don’t really want to give a further platform by naming.

Knowing this, authors set about writing the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of, say climate change, sometimes with the zeal of converts.

What they forget is that the classic novels that have shifted the culture aren’t didactic diatribes about their chosen topic. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a treatise on reproductive justice, it’s an immersive alternate future that gains power through its plausibility. The Jungle is perhaps the most manifesto-y of these novels, but it’s still a gripping read focused on specific characters who Sinclair goes to great lengths to help the reader sympathize with.

The great danger of manifesto fiction is that the author will put the thumb on the scale as they craft their protagonists and villains, resulting in caricatures and stultifying plot lines. The protagonists are unduly heroic, and the villains unduly villainous. It’s blindingly obvious how things will turn out. The author’s politics are like a decoder ring that spoils what’s to come.

Authors writing didactic fiction will often fail to empathize with their villains and see the appealing traits that give them power. They fail to make it a fair fight.

If you’re going to write manifesto fiction, it’s got to be compellingly messy. We shouldn’t know who’s going to win, and both the protagonists and the villains need to represent a full spectrum of humanity.

Pitch the story, not the message

Publishing employees as a whole tend to be a disproportionately idealistic bunch, but they can only acquire what they think they can sell. And “please read this political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction” is not really a selling point.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

7 thoughts on “Manifesto fiction”

  1. I need to get out more; I didn’t notice that the Handmaid’s Tale had shifted the culture. I remember the movie with Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway, but I never got around to reading the book or watching the Hulu series. No one mentioned either at the women’s shooting event I went to, and it seems like it would have come up there if anywhere: “We better learn to shoot, in case someone wants us to be brood mares. You know, if somehow fertility is only restricted to a few select women.”

    Only vaguely heard of “The Hate You Give,” and I never felt compelled to find out what the title means. I am declining the offer of giving or receiving hate.

    But yes, the larger point: I once suggested to another writer that she take a page from Tolkien. Specifically, the observation the hobbits made about Strider, that he “looked foul but felt fair.” They suspected a minion of Sauron would be the opposite. The writer’s protagonist was being drawn into certain machinations, and I thought it would make much more sense if he was being tempted by an attractive offer that looked like a dream come true on a silver platter. As opposed to the obvious crap sandwich offered to him on a lead plate. She agreed, but that’s probably because she was trying to tell a story rather than toss anvils at her readers’ heads.

    And the OP is right about the decoder ring. I binged on “Elementary” a while back, and I was pleasantly surprised that I could not peg whodunit based on whether a rich white guy was a suspect. He might be innocent! And non-evil, even! Last year or so ex-filmmaker Kevin Smith turned into a Scooby-Doo villain, constantly thwarted when the husband and wife team at Clownfish TV accurately predicted every stupid thing his Netflix He-Man re-boot was going to do (sideline He-Man, weaken the other male characters, turn Teela into an insufferable Mary Sue, etc). The couple didn’t need any special prophetic powers, they simply knew the storytelling rules of the particular ideology Netflix subscribes to.

    If you have ideological villains in your Western Union (message story), go with Tolkien and not Scooby Doo. That is all.

    • Youtube’s “CRITICAL DRINKER” makes a point to highlight the points where movies and shows destroy their own plots and characters in service to (all capitals) “THE MESSAGE”. Being a top selling author himself (Will Jordan) he goes for the jugular every time. Quite droll.

      But it’s not just NETFLIX nor are they particularly bad at it. They do have some bad examples–THE WITCHER and the joke that is CLEOPATRA–but they also have a lot of balanced, well-written shows that don’t self destruct in service to ideology. For one, THE NIGHT AGENT pleasantly surprised me by presenting a smart conspiracy thriller about a competent, dedidated male protagonist that gave good treatment to the women without Mary Sue-ing them or marginalizing the protagonist as is now standard over at Disney, where every single production of recent vintage (minus GUARDIANS 3) has thudded in service to “the message”.

      PETER PAN AND WENDY being the most obvious (total dreck) but even the previously good THE MANDALORIAN went off the rails in season three by (yet again) turning the titular male protagonist into a secondary character prop to the “awesomeness” of the female “guest star”. (Indeed,in the pre-season hype interviews, the actress expressed surprise at how big her role had grown for the season. What she didn’t mention was how small a role was left for the protagonist .)
      Disney’s foibles are easy to pin down to two ideologue senior execs who openly bragged of their agenda-driven missions (one already fired) and their cheapskate reliance on untested unqualified writers and directors, most equally ideology focused, wasting quality actors and “can’t miss” stories that do miss when mishandled. (MOON KNIGHT being the most obvious).

      Their next embarrassment is due in a couple of weeks with THE LITTLE MERMID remake nobody asked for where they actually forced Alan Mencken to rewrite most of the classic songs to conform to the ideology of the day.

      SONY must’ve smelled blood in the water on that one because they’re releasing the second animated Spider-man movie the very next week and WB is releasing THE FLASH two weeks after that. Both of which are story- rather than ideology-driven productions.

      Should be interresting to watch June play out.

      • I love the Critical Drinker’s reviews; they’re hilarious. When he’s reviewing something I’ve already seen, he’s in agreement with me about why it was good, e.g., “The Last Kiss Goodnight,” “Boss Level,” “The Crow.” So I trust him when he recommends something I haven’t seen, e.g., “RRR,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Squid Game,” etc.

        I’ll look into Night Agent — the thing is, Netflix taught me to be wary of their reboots of my childhood favorites. I’m not going to trust them when it comes to reboots, but I’m more willing to trust shows they’re distributing. They roped me in with “Stranger Things” back in the day, so I know they are capable of putting out interesting stories.

        Disney has fallen off the rails and into a deep canyon at this point. I introduced my father to the Mandalorian, but when I spotted Kathleen Kennedy’s name in the credits I warned him not to get too attached to the series. I had hoped the creators could keep her paws off of it, but then Carano was fired. I still suspect it’s because her character discredited the narrative that Star Wars fans hate “strong female characters,” which Kennedy pushed to explain Rey’s unpopularity. I was initially excited when Bo-Katan appeared in the last season, partly because it vindicated my hunch about why Katee Sackhoff was the character’s voice actress in the Clone Wars cartoon. But from what I hear, Bo-Katan has been Rey-ified. Sigh.

        I am not even surprised by the changes in the Little Mermaid song; it’s obvious that a certain faction of modern people do not grasp fairy tales or their themes. They’ve become dull-witted and literal-minded, and one cannot tell a good story if those lackwits are the principal audience.

        Personally, I am hoping the writer’s strike culls the herd of manifesto-driven writers. I note they feel particularly threatened by AI, and Kneon at Clownfish TV twisted the knife a bit when he asked ChatGPT to come up with a blockbuster re-do of the Sequel Trilogy of Star Wars. He specified that it had to please fans, and the AI surprisingly came up with something workable.

        In that video, he also mentions the writers getting angry at actress Jenny Ortega, because she refused to allow them to nerf Wednesday Addams to fit their manifesto-driven paradigm. She re-wrote episodes to be faithful to the character, and the writers got salty because not only did Tim Burton back her up, but the audience loved her version of Wednesday. I may have to check that one out; I always liked the movies with Raul Julia and Christina Ricci.

        For the sake of good storytelling, I hope Disney is soundly trounced next month as well. Somehow, some way they need to undergo a “dark night of the soul” that prompts them to turn the ship around. Unless of course they’re committed to “failing to realize” the lessons their audience keeps teaching them, and they complete their “fall into darkness arc,” which will see them destroyed by better competitors. So let’s see, indeed.

        • Whoa!
          Yes, do watch WEDNESDAY.
          It is a perfect blend of the original cartoons with the Juliá movies with a good bit of fantasy spice added. (Yes, the Addams lineage has…gifts…)
          Surely the trailer would’ve sold it.

          Oh, and Ricci has a role. More than a cameo.
          Burton was *exactly* the right producer for this project.
          Second season authorized right away. Can’t wait on it.

          As for NIGHT AGENT, it has a lot of 24 dna in it.
          (I pointed it out to my sister and she binged it one evening. It’s not like she needed sleep, after all. 😀 )

          BTW, I assume you caught REACHER, right? Again, a show that didn’t let diversity get in the way of the story. Plus pinpoint perfect casting. Ditto for PERRY MASON and PEACEMAKER.

          Not all creators bow before Zod…er…THE MESSAGE.
          There’s still good stuff to be found if you cast a critical eye.
          (For example I’ve got THE TERMINAL LIST in line for the near future but I’m giving CITADEL a hard pass even though both are by PRIME. The trailers are good guides.)

          If anything, it is SG&F that is most suffering.
          (As for Cleopatra, its early but 11% critical tomatoes and 1% audience say it all.)

          Disney? I’m not bothering any time soon. Not even for GUARDIANS. Let them ride their manifestos down the marianas trench.

          • Reacher is still in my to-watch queue. I saw a scene while visiting my parents, and it sold me on watching it, so it’s a definite yes for me.

            As for Cleopatra, it didn’t occur to me Velma would receive such stiff competition so soon for “Most Hated Show on Streaming.” And the year is not quite at the halfway point … I’d like to think people cared that she “rejected reality and substituted her own,” but I have a sneaking suspicion part of the hate has to do with Jada as a person, on account of Will Smith. Either way, results are fine 🙂 And she lost her Facebook show, too.

            It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Christina Ricci in anything, so my curiosity is officially piqued.

        • I think the problem with Disney is that their target audience, at this point, isn’t families with kids, it’s the childless “Disney adults” who are coming to the parks and buying the merch and are filled with nostalgia for their childhoods. Why do you think most of the recent live-action remakes have been for movies they made in the ’90s?

          And, frankly, most “Disney adults” are all about THE MESSAGE.

          • The remakes are a sign of creative bankruptcy.
            So are the Marvel and StarWars shows where the formula is growing old and dated. Mandalorian is down 40% since the second season. And that’s the best show in two years.
            Marvel attendance is starting to look like STAR TREK: big opening, massive decline afterwards because the fans are in no rush to revisit efore it hits streaming, no matter how they delay.

            And the only movie doing well if the one they didn’t want to do too well. For competitive reasons.

            As for theparks, attendance is still down vs 2018 and yes, the audience has changed but it is the mix of domestic vs foreign tourism. the loals may be driven by nostalgia (the new Ip sure isn’t) but nostalgia only goes so far. Ad it doesn’t make up for the kids who aren’t growing up with STRANGE WORLD or LIGHTYEAR. They’re eating their seed corn.

            They didn’t kick out the CEO ’cause things were hunky dory.
            Try this (year old) list from Oregon:


            Things have not gotten better since. 15% layoffs are not a sign of a healthy operation.

            They may pretend their problems are political but the reality is product quality and audience suitability. As evidenced by the success of Guardians vs the other recent releases. The layoffs might help but only if they kick out the low performers.

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