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Do Novels Need A Theme or Message To Have Value?

What is the purpose of a good book? Is it solely to provide entertainment, or to entertain with a deeper purpose?
| Jan 17, 2017 | 1 comment |

What is the purpose of a good book? Is it solely to provide entertainment, or to entertain with a deeper purpose?

Can a book that doesn’t include any obvious messages or themes still be a good story? Does it have value, or is its value based on what truths it displays?

Good and Bad Are Opinions

When it comes to reading books, everything is subjective. It’s not like plumbing, where there’s a clear right and wrong way to hook up the pipes. The value people assign to books is based on their personal preferences, not on a single guiding principle about what makes a book good or bad. (Foregoing a complicated discussion about the ins and outs of writing rules and story structure. I’m talking about different types of stories.)

Some readers love a historical romance.

Others prefer a swashbuckling adventure or a stimulating science fiction tale.

Some want a story that weaves meaningful themes into the narrative, while others only care about the thrill of the story itself.

Does that make one inherently better than another?

Of course not.

Books That Entertain

Some books are nothing more than fun, adventurous stories without any apparent themes or messages hidden in the story.

That’s fine. Not every book needs to say something profound about life or offer a look at a challenging issue.

Some people might think these books lack value because they’re shallow or they don’t deal with important issues.

Not true. That’s like saying a tootsie roll isn’t food. It is, but we give it a different value than, say, a mouth-watering plate of turkey and mashed “po-tay-toes.”

We don’t expect candy to have the same benefits as a healthy meal, but that doesn’t discount your tootsie rolls. (There’s always a place for chocolate, right?)

Same with books.

Books That Entertain with a Deeper Purpose

Stormlight Archive

If you dig deep enough, I think most books fall into this category. Even if it’s not obvious on the surface, they strive to reveal some deeper truth or tackle a specific topic.

  • Mercy and law contrasted (Les Miserables)
  • Half a million things, from storytelling purposes to religion to truth to convictions to loyalty (Stormlight Archive series)

Returning to the candy and food analogy, books that merely entertain us are like tootsie rolls—enjoyable while they last, but fleeting and lacking any long-term benefit.

Books that weave a compelling theme into an exciting story are like a slice of filet mignon—delicious and nourishing at the same time. Those are the books we enjoy in the moment but that stay with us long after we’ve read the last page.

I’m not discounting the “candy” books. They have their place. But the “steak” books are the ones truly worth reading.

What About Preachy Books?

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8997910

Sometimes, people think that when a book deals with a specific topic in a pointed way, it becomes preachy. Nay-nay, I say. Consider a couple examples.

THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE

On the surface, this is a fun children’s fantasy story. Talking animals, a world found inside a wardrobe, a quest to save the enchanted world from the evil witch.

That’s all great, but the story doesn’t stop there. It goes much deeper, dealing with themes of love, redemption, and sacrifice.

THE HUNGER GAMES

This wildly popular series is one of the best examples of combining a gripping story with profound themes. The stories revolve around the Games, the rebellion of the districts, and the love triangle among Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.

But beneath the action, the themes flow like a strong undercurrent, refusing to be ignored:

  • What are the effects of violence?
  • Where do we draw lines of morality?
  • What are the consequences of tyrannical rule?

Would you call those books preachy? I don’t think so. If a book stresses a key theme in an overbearing way, instead of in a way that naturally flows from the story, that’s preaching—and a recipe for irritated readers.

But a strong message doesn’t make a book preachy by default.

All Books Have Value

In this case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has different tastes, and that’s fine. Personally, I think all books have value to some extent, but the ones that probe the deep questions have more meat on the bone, so to speak.

What do you think gives a book value? Which type of book do you prefer to read?

*This post appeared in original form on zacharytotah.com, March 25, 2015.*

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1 Comment on "Do Novels Need A Theme or Message To Have Value?"

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R. J. Anderson
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Every story, even the most seemingly fluffy or superficial, contains a message. It may be as simple and even clichéd as “love conquers all” or “follow your heart” or “there’s nothing more important than family,” but the message is there.

If we assume that only serious, weighty-seeming stories contain a message and are only on the lookout for (or defensive against) those, we can easily find ourselves swayed by stories we thought were “just good fun”. Someone who consumes a steady diet of violent action movies, for instance, may* find themselves desensitized to or even tempted to justify real-world violence as a result; a reader who buries themselves in romance novels may* find their definition of love subtly rewritten in a way that makes them more susceptible to temptation. Even the frothiest “beach read” with no overt violence or sexuality still says something about the way the author views the world, and the way they want you (if only for the sake of the story) to see it too.

That’s clearly not the point of what you were trying to say, though! So on a more positive note, I’ve just finished reading Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS, which claims that what actually distinguishes Story from a mere string of plot incidents or character reactions is what she calls the “third rail” of the MC’s inner life and most deeply held beliefs. Regardless of genre, it’s how the protagonist sees him or herself, what they want from life and how they think they’re going to get it that determines what external conflicts and challenges will go into the plot, and which gives a well-written story its emotional and spiritual resonance for the reader.

In other words, even a fast-paced thriller, a Jane Austen-style novel of manners or a child’s picture book is sparked off and driven forward by the MC’s personal investment in what happens next, and how the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions change them for better or worse. That principle applies from everything to the simplest fairy tale to the most complex literary novel, and if you don’t have that element you don’t have a story in any real sense at all, no matter how many explosions or kisses or plot twists you try to pack in.

Once that key element of story is in place, though, certain kinds of books are naturally going to appeal more to certain kinds of people, and each reader will bring something different to their understanding of those novels. I happen to love books with emotionally repressed characters who seldom say what they feel; to me that makes the rare glimpses and hints of their true feelings ten times more powerful. But other readers find that approach frustrating and dismiss those same characters as not having any real feelings at all. Sometimes that’s because the story really isn’t as well written as it could be on a character level, and I’m filling in the blanks for the author because I really love the premise and am willing to give him/her the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes it really is just a matter of taste.


* I am careful to say may here, because every reader (or viewer) is different, and has different reasons for watching or reading the things they do. Some are more naturally discerning and cautious than others, and less vulnerable to manipulation. But even if we consider ourselves to have a perceptive mind and strong convictions, we can still be influenced without realizing it just by the sheer repetition of the same message over and over.