I got “owned” by a grandmother this weekend.
Let me put that sentence into context.
My lovely wife and I were participating in a flash mob at Kansas City’s Union Station this weekend, part of a surprise birthday party for one of our local mayors, who happens to be a favorite cousin of my lovely wife.
This isn’t helping, is it?
Anyhow, we’d finished practicing our songs and dance moves (as if), and were attempting to loiter unobtrusively around the train station until the guest of honor arrived, when we bumped into Hizzoner’s mother-in-law, a dear lady somewhere on the far side of her 70s. She knows I’m a writer, and she mentioned she’d read a couple of my books recently while visiting the grandkids.
“How nice,” I said, steeling myself for the inevitable compliment. “Did you enjoy them?”
“Well, I enjoyed them…”
My chest and head began to expand.
“… but I didn’t understand them. Not my cup of tea, really. I prefer reading books where I’ve learned something when I’m finished. I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything. I read a nice history of Eastern Kansas recently…learned a lot from that.”
BOO-YAA! OWNED! My beautifully-arched three-pointer had returned as a faceful of basketball. Ouch.
I managed to keep smiling, I think. My lovely wife said something full of grace and diplomacy, and the discussion turned to other topics. Now, I understand that speculative fiction isn’t, as the dear lady said, everyone’s “cup of tea,” and she’s not exactly my target demographic, and there was no malice in her critique—it was simply a classic, unvarnished, Midwestern statement of fact. It still stung, and later, it got me thinking. Should this be one of my objectives as a writer? Should my stories teach something? If so, what?
We talk a lot here at Speculative Faith about whether or not it’s a good idea to write with an agenda, to preach, or to attempt to convince as the driving motivation for a story. This seems a bit different, though. It’s writing fiction as a form of education, implying a duty to make my readers somehow smarter or better-informed.
Sometimes I see it in hard science fiction, where the story may be framed by the workings of a neutron star, or the physics of solar sailing, or the practical problems of long-endurance spaceflight. Isaac Asimov did a lot of this. Many of his stories turned on a character understanding, or misunderstanding, a single principle of science or logic. Even fantasies that employ magic or a physics-not-as-we-know-it may teach moral lessons or inform us about classic myths and literature.
This weekend convinced me I can’t sing or dance. I can write, but am I also teaching?
And if not, can I truthfully say I’ve written well?