We all know message fiction when we read it. The easy problems and solutions, the just-so moralizing, the strawmen antagonists. Sometimes the message gets delivered almost halfheartedly, as though the author’s under an obligation, and sometimes it’s presented with passion and through action, but in either case it’s obvious that the story’s just there to support a sermon.
Nobody ever said propaganda can’t be pretty. But if there’s one thing that’s sure to turn off a prospective reader, it’s being made to sit through a predictable exhortation when what’s wanted is the mystery and volatility of undomesticated story. If we know where we’re going before we get there, the only ones who’ll make it are those who didn’t need to make the journey.
The problem with message fiction isn’t that it has a message; it’s that the message protrudes from the narrative like a stone haystack erupting from the shallows. There’s no depth to it, no mediating currents to soften the surf, drawing the reader in with a mesmerizing eddy. What you can descry from a distance is all you’ll ever get.
But where context is sufficient to sink the message deep, beyond our direct observation, it becomes discernible only through its effects—like the invisible bedrock that molds the ocean into waves.
And isn’t that more intriguing?