Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Flag Flying

Three examples pictured: Good old stars and stripes, Soviet flag, and (comes in many guises), the ever-popular FREAK FLAG.

I just finished reading a long novel. I’m not going to mention the author, or the name the book, because I don’t want to get involved in critiquing.

Here’s the thing; the writing was so good,
really good. But, and this is a big but, the author saw fit to politicize and lecture, as the book progressed the politicizing intensified to such a degree I found myself growing weary, very weary. I longed to connect to the protagonist emotionally, but never did. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the communist party was the main character.

Injecting political affairs into a work of fiction is a tricky business. I was taught never to openly lecture the reader. If an author ventures into this territory, they ought to tread lightly. Most of us don’t choose fiction to be harangued into holding a particular opinion or view. If we’re looking for information and opinion we buy nonfiction.

There exist oodles of great novels involving heavy subject matter, to be sure. Charles Dickens had a way of showcasing the inequities between the classes in not-so-Merry-old-England. Ernest Hemingway wrote about the brutality of war in For Whom the Bell Tolls. James Jones set us in Pearl Harbor during WWII in From Here to Eternity. Margaret Mitchell tackled the Civil War with her epic Gone With the Wind. What each of these authors managed to do with great skill was to pen interesting stories with full-blown characters, constructing authentic characters, believable narrative, and a lively plot to keep readers engaged.

Too much lecturing bogs the reader down. The heavy-handed author’s agenda, (especially if the reader does not share their particular world view), may alienate, as opposed to absorb. I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in having my novel tossed aside because I stepped on the reader’s head too hard.

Currently I am grappling with these issues as I work on my own historical piece. No easy feat, this delicate balancing act! I’m pleased that I chose to read the above-mentioned novel. The author did so much right, but in the end, I put the book down feeling cheated. And I am extremely motivated, not to go down that same road. Oh sure, there are many positive reviews of her book posted on Amazon. Some people love being lectured to, especially if they agree with the subject matter. I for one, do not. So I do what most authors do, I write what I enjoy reading.

Do you grapple with these issues? Do you think I’m making too big a deal about this subject? Can you name a novel that put you off in such a manner? Or, better yet, can you name a novel that waved a particular flag in such a manner as to inspire and influence you in a meaningful way?

I will choose the runaway bestseller, The Help, to illustrate my point. Kathryn Stockett writes about race relations during the civil rights era, but I never once felt as if I were being preached at. The Help is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.

All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

"The Help" is one of the books I've got on my nightstand. I'll be reading it soon!

I really, really dislike sermons when I read. Really. I feel like I've been cheated out of my entertainment!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Fireblossom said...

I'm with you all the way on this. Even great writers like Tolstoy and Hugo meander off into long discussions of once-burning issues that don't further the story a jot. It's maddening.

ellen abbott said...

No, I don't care to be lectured in a work of fiction. I also hate repetition, you know, when the author makes the same point over and over and over.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Writing historical fiction can be tricky because every writer chose whatever historical time for a reason. Something about that particular era fascinates them; if it didn't then the necessary research would never get done.

However, just because the writer is fascinated with it, doesn't necessarily mean the reader is fascinated with it. I don't want to read the writer's political manifesto, I want to read the characters'.


Helen Ginger said...

I haven't read the Help, but it sounds like that's the way it should be done. You get your message across without preaching. If someone is screaming at me, I'm probably going to put down the book.

Straight From Hel

L.T. Elliot said...

I hate being lectured so I know just how you feel! There are certain movies that do this too and I can't stand to watch them--even little kid ones.
What a great way to fuel your own drive as a storyteller. Wise, Elizabeth. Very wise.

The Things We Carried said...

I have The Help and am planning to read it.

Yes, I always grapple with lecturing the reader! Yet, I want to entice them down the road I am on... Not an easy mix!

Movies seem to have a far greater problem with political agendas for me. It has ruined movie after movie for me to realize there is an intention to spoon feed me/the viewer into buying into a political agenda.

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

I think lecturing (even if political) is still voilateing Writing 101's rule of "show don't tell".

I thought The Kite Runner did an excellent job of letting you in on the politics of Afghanstan without lecturing. It's all about an engaging plot and believable characters the reader can identify with.

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm with you on this one too. I tend to give up on the book once lecture mode kicks in. Life is too short! :)

The Victorian Parlor said...


I agree with you completely. I read for pleasure not to be lectured. I tend to lean toward the classics like GWTW and works by Dickens or Austen. However, when I read newer fiction I do so to escape the ugly realities of today and to venture into a different place. I'm not saying that the novels I read are without trajedy but they are a way for me to escape to another world. I am currently (for several years now) working on my historic novel but I have not preached on the political problems of the day. I do feel that I have been able to address some of the problems through the character's experiences without preaching. You are very right when you say that it is a delicate and sometimes difficult task:). I really enjoyed this post!

I hope you have a wonderful New Year!!!



Journaling Woman said...

I think in a fiction the cause shouldn't out shine the story. But that's just my opinion. Nonfiction takes care of platforms. Do it there, I say.

I believe you can include something you are passionate about in your story and not preach.

Cloudia said...

Aloha, Friend!
Hauoli Makahiki Hou (Happy New Year)

Comfort Spiral

Alix said...

Do you grapple with these issues?

Oh Elizabeth, honey... I grapple with issues signing my name! But regarding your post - HATE being lectured and forced to swallow somebody else's opinions, especially when they collide with my own. That's the fastest way to turn me off. I thought fiction was supposed to be an escape, not a prison.

Anne Spollen said...

I know that with YA readers, the minute teens sense a "lesson" about to be shown in any way at all, the book is put down and never opened again.

It's really tough not to kind of interject a little of that as a parent and a teacher, and it's something I have to revise out of the ms.

It's all about the story.

Tom Bailey said...

This reminds me of Twain and how he portrayed slaves in his book Huckelberry Finn. He was way of his time making a polical statment about racisim and he was criticized and now it is a classic.

I can not get out of my mind Metallica "for whom the bells toll" when I think about that. I really think it can come down to how well the book is marketed and who your target audience is for your book... or the artistic path of damn the torpedoes who cares what other people think.

Thank you very much for sharing these ideas.

Best regards,
Tom Bailey