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.