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?
Some famous writers are only famous for one book, usually an early one. Fanny Burney, for <i>Evelina</i>, many say a heavy influence on Jane Austen. Anthony Hope, <i>Prisoner of Zenda</i>, a romantic swashbuckler full of wit and honor that started the Ruritanian subgenre . . . many don’t know that he wrote quite a number of other books. Hugh Walpole, who Henry James insisted would be remembered at the other end of the twentieth century (he was writing in the early 1900s) while pifflers like P.G. Wodehouse would be forgotten.
What do all these writers have in common? They decided they were going to gift the world with Reel Litrachure, to teach the world some wisdom . . . and they forgot to entertain. Those later novels are so stodgy that not even academics slog through them any more, except as curiosities, while those early ones are still in print a century or two later.
I think memorable books are memorable partly because they entertain so splendidly, but at the same time they teach. The reading experience becomes a learning experience, drawing us back to reread and to think as well as to enjoy. But I also think that the best ones teach obliquely . . . and also, not every book is going to teach every person.
Granny might be so well read throughout her long life experience that there are few surprises left for her, and insights are now rare. Or it could be that she has gently settled into an intellectual rut, and those nuggets of insight to be discovered in your book fly over her head while she searches for facts that she can quote–dates, famous names, information about a well-known site.
Teens looking for answers in the world turn to fiction, in preference to earnest informational essays. (A sidestep, I don’t think it’s an accident that science fiction and fantasy are more popular than ever; I firmly believe that this is the religious impulse seeking truth beyond the banality of every day. But that’s another topic, and I’ve maundered long enough.)
To wrap this up, Granny might have found little to learn in your book, but if she read it, and enjoyed it, she very well could have passed it on to a niece, nephew, grandchild, who will come away shivering with glimmers of truth.
That statement just makes me shiver. Maybe people should learn something from a good story, but if I wanted to learn, I’d focus exclusively on my classes and never borrow fiction. Besides, a story like The Lord of the Rings reveals so much more about friendship and valour, honor and courage, then any textbook ever could. That doesn’t mean our stories should be sugar pulp, but deliberate lessons? Horrors!
That’s why people read big fat Tom Clancy books, because you learn a lot about submarines or nuclear bombs or whatever the topic of the day is. They can justify their entertainment reading as also being educational and therefore worthwhile.
Don’t let it get to you. If you’re writing for entertainment, then do that. You don’t have to be Tom Clancy.
Sounds to me like the dear lady simply prefers nonfiction. I wouldn’t sweat it. Just write what the Lord leads you to write and realize not everyone’s going to like it.
Yes. For the Christian, I’m very sure they should.
But, there’s more than one way to learn. If your grandmother, or anyone else, picks up fiction expected to be taught things propositionally, in a nonfiction way, he or she will very likely not learn anything. How come? They’re not open to learning in a way that only fiction, and not nonfiction, can teach.
The same would be true if a Christian were to read Romans, and then Psalms, while expecting Psalms to be just like Romans. I’m quite sure that is why so many of the Psalms, especially the imprecatory ones, confuse people. They expect systematic theology, more nonfiction like Romans, and get something entirely different (see also figure B: Jesus’ parables, and figure C: Song of Solomon).
Perhaps your grandmother, as Yvonne said, is simply not a “fiction person”? In that case, she would either need to want to learn fiction’s “rules,” how to read fiction — just like someone would need to learn to read or even to listen to music. Otherwise, it may be that she’s simply not able to comprehend or enjoy fiction, and will in the New Earth.
Or, I must ask with some bias, I wonder if she’d like a novel with an older protagonist …
Really? My first thought is “What lets non-Christians off the hook?” And my second is, why can’t some things just be for fun? I got nothing out of Finding Nemo and Nancy Drew but a good time. I’ve read more than one good book that, honestly, was below my reading level and just fun. Most YA, for me, is like that (and the exceptions are truly cross-overs, as far as the age break goes).
To quote the Joker, “Why so serious?”
C’mon, Kaci, they were entertaining and highly educational:
Finding Nemo: “Fish are friends, not food.”
Nancy Drew: Smart girls are cool, and 1ND = 2HB.
The students over here are going to start wondering what I’m snickering at. 0=)
Then, they all think I’m clinically insane anyway. Bwahaha.
*snicker* I have good friends who have told me they can’t stand science-fiction, ergo, my books are similarly trash. One niece who critiqued a book said it was her version of hell. LOL. And I can’t dance or sing either. Even one of my babies told me to not sing when I would sing lullabies to him. Sheesh. Nope, we’ll not please everybody.
I don’t think fiction is necessarily there to teach people facts and figures. But I do think that for fiction to really strike home with a person they should learn something about themselves while they are being entertained. Stories should present questions for the readers to ponder and mull over, but not necessarily give them the author’s answer to that question. Instead I would hope the reader would take those questions and search out answers on their own, thus learning about themselves in the process.
While you won’t get every reader who catches onto the questions, I think it’s the best way to “teach” without “preaching”.
You know, I’m not sure that you always do have to “learn something” when you read. Sometimes the journey through the story, whatever and wherever it may be, is the point and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
While I wasn’t fishing for a pat on the back and a cookie, thanks for the supportive comments. I think it’s good for me to get a reality check once in a while–it keeps me from getting complacent and stirs me to thinking a little more deeply about what exactly I’m putting on the page, and why.
I agree that stories should on some level leave the reader knowing or at least pondering something they hadn’t before, and it’s not mutually exclusive of entertainment. There’s obviously a balance point somewhere between meaningless fluff and Afterschool Special.