Around about twenty years back, I had the privilege of being at a convention where Judith Merril was appearing, and I made sure to go to every panel she was on. There weren’t a lot (she wasn’t in the best of health at the time), but when she was there, she was amazing to watch and hear. The panel I remember best was the one in which one of the (much younger) panelists, in response to a question from the audience, spouted that old, well-known line about “if you want to send a message, use Western Union” and finished up with the assertion that “fiction isn’t the place to preach.”
Judith straightened up, fixed the panelist with a gimlet glare, and said, “Why not? What better place is there?”
There was a moment of stunned silence as both the audience and the panelists tried to absorb the fact that a major SF writer known for promoting higher literary standards in the field had just contradicted something that the rest of us had assumed was a fundamental writing principle that everybody agreed on. Everyone except Judith. She gave us a minute or so to recover, then proceeded to list a number of well-known novels that had obvious agendas of various sorts and that were either better for having them or that wouldn’t have existed without them. I wish I’d written the list down, but I was too busy grappling with her confident writing heresy to grab a pen.
That moment of silence when everyone tried – and failed – to come up with a solid, logical answer for the obvious question that no one else had asked made a big impression on me. What it did not do was instantly convince me of the rightness of Ms. Merril’s position. (Nor the wrongness of it, either.)
I’ve thought about that experience, off and on, for years since. The result of all that thinking has brought me around to the same position I’m in on a lot of writing (and other sorts of) issues: It Depends.
The interesting thing about the whole to-preach-or-not-to-preach question (aside from the fact that pretty much all the writing advice I see still takes the position that having an overt agenda is inherently a Bad Thing, full stop) is that it depends more on the writer and the writer’s attitude than on the story. Taking an overt moral, religious, or political stand in one’s fiction is something authors choose to do, or not do. It’s rarely something dictated by the necessities of storytelling.
Once you start actually looking at novels, you can find rather a lot of them that clearly have some moral, ethical, or political ax to grind…and that work, or don’t, on a variety of different levels. Some seem to work in spite of the author’s agenda; others seem to work because of it. Some make the agenda subservient to the story; others make the story obviously serve the agenda…and manage to work anyway.
There are, I think, two basic dangers in starting with an agenda. The first is a writing problem: does the author have the skill to pull this off? It’s trickier than it sounds, because the writer has to strike a readable and appealing balance between the needs of the point he/she wants to make and the requirements of storytelling. Passionate conviction is seldom an adequate substitute for writing skill. Yet the balancing act is possible; we still read Aesop’s fables, in spite of the blatantly obvious fact that every one of them is constructed to make a very specific point.
The second danger is that if the writer’s agenda is too obvious, most of the readers who disagree with it will dislike the book (or, more probably, never pick it up in the first place). There really isn’t much the writer can do about this except realize that it’s going to happen and brace for it. One can try to bury one’s moral, ethical, or political point so deeply that it won’t offend anyone, but that gets right back to the don’t-preach-in-fiction argument…and quite frequently allows readers to miss the whole point. And if you feel strongly enough about a moral, ethical, or political stance to want to write about it, you aren’t going to be happy with what you do if you try to pretend that you’re not really doing it.