Why does allegory seem to get a lot of negative press?
Last week the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy (CSFF) Blog Tour featured The God Hater by Bill Myers. Some reviewers indicated that the allegorical aspects of the story lowered their estimation. That’s not a surprise to me. I’ve run across more and more prejudice against allegory, and I have to ask, Why?
Less than a hundred years ago, the allegory was a somewhat “in” form of literature, and not by Christians. Existentialists like Albert Camus and Franz Kafka wrote allegorical novels as did political satirist George Orwell.
Then along came C. S. Lewis.
Granted, he maintained that he did not write allegory, but his method of “supposal” (suppose God showed up in a world peopled by talking animals and dwarfs and other such mythical creatures, what form would He take?) lent itself to allegorical elements — though that’s not quite the same thing as an allegory like Animal Farm or The Stranger.
Nevertheless, Lewis, and to a lesser extent J. R. R. Tolkien inspired a number of writers (myself included) to create stories that contain at least the suggestion of allegory. Karen Hancock’s debut novel, Arena, was an especially clear science-fantasy allegory. Her Guardian King series contained allegorical elements — the God figure, Eidon being the most obvious.
Our Friday guest blogger, Donita Paul, incorporates allegorical elements in her fantasy series as does Sharon Hinck (The Sword of Lyric series, soon to be re-released by Marcher Lord Press), Christopher and Allan Miller (the Hunter Brown series, Warner Press), Chuck Black (the Knights of Arrethtrea series, Multnomah Books), and a number of others.
Yet rather than being viewed as an “in” genre, allegory often gets an eye roll and a yawn. It appears in the list of weaknesses, not strengths. I know because I’ve put them in the negative column in a review or two myself.
But why should allegory be considered the ugly step-sister of speculative fiction? More so, why should allegorical elements be frowned upon?
I suspect there are a couple reasons.
One, readers may feel as though they have wised up. They can see through allegory easily and therefore think the story will be predictable.
The ironic thing is, other genres are just as predictable, yet that fact doesn’t seem to be held against them. In murder mysteries, there is little doubt that the detective will, in the end, solve the crime. In romances, there is no doubt that the love interests will conquer the obstacles and come together in the end. The story intrigue does not lie in what happens in the end, but in how it comes about.
I suggest the same thing is true for a speculative story with allegorical elements. Yet too often potential readers are turning up their noses at the very idea of allegory.
A second possibility is that “preachiness” in Christian fiction has become equated with actually having something to say, as if stories should exist for no other purpose than to entertain. Hence allegories or stories with transparent allegorical elements may end up in the preachiness pile because their “message” is apparent.
I’ve heard conference speakers declare that true art has no utilitarian purpose (which is actually another way of saying that it is useless, but I don’t think anyone has spelled that out before). I have long argued that much art, down through time, has served utilitarian purposes (ask any architect if this isn’t so); that fiction is a form of communication and therefore, by its definition, has something to say, writer to reader.
Which means that all fiction is, to a varying degree, “preachy.” Shrek, Tangled, Avatar, The Shack, all these stories made clear thematic statements, some even utilizing allegorical elements, yet without receiving the prejudicial shun: Oh, I don’t read/watch message-driven fiction, and I especially don’t care for allegory!
My third idea, then, as to why allegory has fallen out of fashion, is that it has fallen out of fashion. Since predictable ends aren’t the real problem and all fiction communicates something, the only explanation that makes sense to me is this: notable people began to say how they did not like allegory.
J. R. R. Tolkien was one. He protested that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory (the popular view at the time was that he was allegorizing World War II). From the introduction to the second edition of the Lord of the Rings: “It is neither allegorical nor topical….I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” (from Wikipedia, allegory).
How hard it is for me to hold a differing view from the master, but I do. Detecting the presence of allegory is no different than detecting the presence of a simile, or a character arc, or story conflict. That you see it does not make it bad. The real question ought to be, what does this writer do with it?
Now it’s your turn. What do you think of allegory? And be sure to include the title of the last allegory you’ve read. 😉