Thoughts on Preaching in Fiction: A Response to Patricia Wrede’s “To preach or not to preach”

May 28, 2012 writing 0

Fantasy author Patricia Wrede recently posted a piece on her blog in which she recalls hearing Judith Merrill, the noted SF author, challenging another panelist’s assertion that a fiction author shouldn’t try to send a message – shouldn’t preach.  “Why not?” responded Ms. Merrill.  “What better place is there?” A stunned silence followed.
Ms. Wrede goes on to explain that her own conclusion is, It Depends… a reasonable and fair conclusion, to be sure.  Her post is well worth reading, and I hope you will do so.  At the close, Ms. Wrede invites comments (also worth reading.)  My attempt to grapple with this question became so long that I decided not to post it in the comments section on her blog, but to publish it here instead.
Ms. Wrede defines “preaching” as “taking an overt moral, religious, or political stand in one’s fiction.”  So let’s start with that as a working definition.  She then says that doing this is a conscious choice on a writer’s part.  I can agree with that statement, as long as we’re still talking “overt.”  If the moral, religious, or political stand is really overt, the writer is probably aware of it and has chosen to put it there. Plenty of authors have done this, some extremely well.
On the other hand, most books contain and convey some sort of “moral, religious, or political stand,” even when it’s not overt.  I’m not sure it’s even possible to write well without expressing a world-view or moral/ethical position… usually your own, unless you consciously suppress it.  Certainly, when I look at books and authors I’ve loved, I can usually identify the beliefs and/or values the authors hold, whether in the power of love, the need for justice, the equality of all people, the tolerance (or celebration) of diversity, the need to protect the environment, or some other idea or concept.
If you think about it, whole fiction genres are dedicated to certain moral, ethical, or philosophical propositions (or stands.) Mystery novels assert the need for justice and the sheer wrongness of criminal acts, particularly those which deprive another human being of life.  Romances express the desire for love and promote an ideal of romantic, life-long love between two people.  Much fantasy deals with the struggle between good and evil, and clearly sides with the former — as do both space opera SF and Westerns.  
Isn’t this (somewhat) more subtle expression of moral, religious, philosophical, or political principles and positions also “preaching” in its way?  The principles are still expressed, still encountered by the reader.  In fact, they may be more easily absorbed or assimilated simply because they’re less overt. 
So where does this modern “rule” about not preaching [overtly or otherwise] come from?  Perhaps it’s a reaction against eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century writing, which was sometimes, even often, overtly moralistic.  Authors even broke away from the story on occasion, addressing the reader directly in order to make a clear moral, religious, or political statement – an approach that can certainly come across as uncomfortably preachy to modern readers.   
With or without this form of direct address, many of the best authors and works of earlier centuries did unquestionably preach by our first definition, and did so consciously and deliberately: Swift, Dickens, Hugo, and Hawthorne, among many others.  Readers today may or may not agree with these authors’ moral principles or their philosophy; we may not be facing the same societal ills to which they sought to draw their readers’ attention; but we are rarely in any doubt as to their position(s). Yet these and similar works are considered classics; we teach them in our schools and hold them up as great examples of the literary art. 
Clearly, therefore, even overt preaching isn’t a universally bad idea. The real issue seems to be how well the author pulls it off – Patricia Wrede’s “it depends.”  Done poorly, overt preaching can be indeed be annoying and even detract from the story.*  Done well, it’s Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol, or Les Miserables.  
Move into more modern times, and writers are still preaching, in a sense; they’re simply less overt about it – usually.  In other words, most modern authors preach in the second sense I defined above: not overtly, perhaps not consciously, but by allowing their values, their philosophy, the things they feel strongly about to come through in their writing. 
Many modern authors and critics tend to shy away from overt preaching. J. R. R. Tolkien objected to the allegorical nature of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books; he felt the allegories were too obvious, the moral messages too didactic.  In other words, he didn’t like the way Lewis used the stories to preach.
But although Tolkien’s own works are far from allegorical, he too clearly expresses a set of moral and philosophical principles, particularly in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  First and foremost, Tolkien stresses the need to fight against evil, to refuse to give up or give in, even when the forces of evil appear overwhelmingly powerful and the situation appears hopeless.  His characters face overwhelming odds over and over again; for the most part, the “good” characters – the members of the Fellowship, the Elves, Theoden and Eomer and the Rohirrim, Faramir and the soldiers of Gondor – live up to the ideal: they fight on; they do not give in.  Though Boromir briefly gives in to the temptation of the Ring, he redeems himself by fighting large numbers of Orcs single-handedly in his attempt to protect Merry and Pippin.  The characters who do give in to evil, on the other hand, are weak-minded at best (Denethor) and traitorous opportunists, turned wholly to evil, at worst (Saruman.) 
When sympathetic characters are loyal, steadfast, tenacious, honest, and brave, when those characteristics help them to accomplish their goals, it’s clear they are characteristics the author admires.  When antipathetic characters are opportunistic, selfish, greedy, treacherous, and/or sneaky, it’s clear those are characteristics Tolkien disdains.  Preaching? Not overtly, but definitely by example.  Tolkien takes a distinctly pro-environment, pro-stewardship, anti-industrialization position in the trilogy as well, expressed through his descriptions of Isengard preparing for war, Saruman’s exploitation of the Fangorn Forest, and the industrialization of the Shire under Saruman.  
In short, we can get a very good idea of Tolkien’s own values and moral precepts through reading his works, whether or not he’s consciously and deliberately taking a moral, philosophical, or political stand.  The same is true for most authors, whether of great literature or of popular children’s books.  Think of the Harry Potter books, if you want another example.  The series abounds with moral choices faced by the major and even some minor characters.  It doesn’t come across as “preachy,” but there are powerful messages in the series nonetheless.
Do the principles and philosophies preached (in the second, less overt way) by authors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries weaken their books?  I believe that the opposite is true: the best, the strongest, the longest-lasting books are written only when an author writes from his or her deepest beliefs. 

What do you think?  Should writers preach consciously and overtly?  Are there books you’ve liked or disliked because of, or in spite of, an obvious message?  Are there fiction books that have changed your thinking, your position, or even your values? 

*With apologies to those who love it, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress falls into the “done poorly” category in my opinion. 

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