Why I Prefer to Read Fiction without Lessons or Messages

From Jane Friedman:

In an episode from the second season of The Simpsons in, yes, 1991, Homer hopes that allowing Bart to donate his rare blood type for a transfusion to save Mr. Burns’s life will result in a substantial financial reward. When they receive only a thank-you card, Homer writes an angry letter to his boss, who ultimately does reward them—but with a huge Olmec god’s head carving that of course is of no practical value to the family. A debate ensues about the moral of the story, but Homer concludes there isn’t one: “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened!”

I feel the same way, though not dismissively like Homer. I don’t read fiction to be taught anything. For sure, there may be things in fiction that depict the way things are (or should be) in the world, but if that seems like the author’s main purpose, then for me it’s a hard no, as the kids say.

What I want in fiction is a virtuoso demonstration of the use of our messy, malleable, beautiful language. I want to see clichés avoided and in their place fresh, strong, exuberant images and descriptions and stories. I want the author to pay attention to how they are saying something even more than to what they are saying. One of the characters in the great short novel Lord Nelson Tavern (1974) by Canadian writer Ray Smith dismisses Jane Austen because all she wrote about were “the absurd concerns of silly small-town girls in England around 1800.” Another character disagrees, because regardless of subject matter, the important aesthetic for Austen was that everything was “closely observed and accurately rendered.” Again: it’s not the what that counts but the how.

Perhaps the icon in defending fiction lacking messages is the great American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who chose to push back against ridiculous claims made about his character based on some people’s reading of Lolita (1955). Modern editions of the novel now generally include an afterword, “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita,” in which he states:

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

No morals, no messages. The John Ray whom Nabokov refers to is the fictional writer of the foreword to the novel, who says the exact opposite of what Nabokov believes: “for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson … ‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

A few weeks ago I began re-reading the short stories of another great American writer, Raymond Carver, whose fiction was published mostly in the 1980s and 1990s (the movie Short Cuts is based on his stories). There isn’t much that’s offensive in the subject matter of Carver’s writing, and certainly nothing close to pedophilia, but there’s also not a single lesson to be found in or between the lines of his extremely spare prose. There are scores of examples. “Kindling” (1999) is about Myers, a man “between lives,” who rents a room in a couple’s home. The story presents the interactions of the three of them as well as the daily routine of the couple, which Myers adapts to. He starts writing things in a notebook, and the story ends after he writes an entry, and: “Then he put the pen down and held his head in his hands for a moment. Pretty soon he got up and undressed and turned off the light. He left the window open when he got into bed. It was okay like that.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG is kinda, sorta in the same camp with the author of the OP.

He won’t automatically reject fiction that has a message, (he loved To Kill a Mockingbird ) but he’d rather be transported most of the time.

13 thoughts on “Why I Prefer to Read Fiction without Lessons or Messages”

  1. If the reader can tell there’s a message, you have failed your job as writer (or you are writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it is expected that you be didactic).

    One of the pleasures of writing is to show something so well that there is no need to TELL the reader what they’ve been shown.

    And I say that as a writer with plenty of agendas – all subordinate to: “Don’t bore the reader.” and “Don’t PREACH to the reader.”

    Apart from that, I write from who I am, and I have plenty of opinions, and some of them percolate into my fiction – but I make a point of having characters with opinions I don’t hold, and to serve those opinions as well as I can (no people of straw).

    Because it’s not necessary to flog the horse if you’re sure it’s dead; people WILL notice if your natural consequences sound and feel like it.

  2. Unfortunately modern science fiction published by the big 5 tends to be bad on messaging.

    I suspect i am so far outside the intended audience that i just reject the messages.

    I am a rural schooled white non-american who is technically a boomer

  3. All fiction “has a message.” Some fiction does a much, much better job of integrating that message with the other elements of the work than do others.

    One suspects that much of the hostility to “messages in fiction” — not all, but much — comes from having ill-considered messages forced down one’s throat in the pathetic offerings for “juveniles” of the 50s through 80s, what Ursula Le Guin wisely (in a speech to the American Library Association over half a century ago) called “problem books.” These were books that had as their sole focus a didactic approach to what the Guardians of Culture perceived as problems; among those listed by Le Guin were “the problem of race” and “the problem of drugs.” Needless to say, the real problem with these books is that they were neither particularly fictional nor sensitive to the experiences (let alone desires) of those whose actual lives would not have played in the Peoria of 1962.†

    Ambiguity — it’s what’s for dinner. It’s what makes “literature” and “fiction” worthwhile. It’s apparently not what some gatekeepers want to see, even outside of NYC. Then, too, what constitutes “bad on messaging” is definitely open to interpretation, precisely because what is “bad” is far from an objective inquiry.

    † We’re just not going to get into the overt bigotry in Peoria in 1962. Or, for that matter, 1992. We don’t need to: This is not a didactic assault on far-western Illinois, but an illustration, a symbol (which is precisely what those “problem books” failed at, and its such a foundational device in fiction that it’s almost not worth laughter).

    • Agreed, C.

      Aside from “The media is the message,” there are plenty of novels that deliver a message so subtly that many readers miss it entirely and those who don’t often have to spend time thinking about what they have read before they discover the message.

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