Academia and popular genre fiction seem to be polar opposites. And yet, I often find complementary facets when studying one or the other. This past week, I finally got off my behind and started working on my master's thesis in earnest. Part of the process was to refresh myself with the literature I'd been reading for the past year. I picked up Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Much of VW's writing is dense and takes time to digest, it's true. But Room manages to go by rather quickly. There is much between the pages to recommend the book, however I want to concentrate on a particular passage.
[…] It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
And this susceptibility of theirs is doubly unfortunate, I thought, returning again to my original enquiry into what state of mind is most propitious for creative work, because the mind of the artist in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent. […] There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.
In other words, a writer must not browbeat the reader with an agenda, or even break into the narrative to allow strong personal feelings to intrude. For example, Woolf uses Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Bronte puts her own feelings about a woman's role in society into Jane's head at one point, and Woolf argues that this breaks the genius of the book.
Not sure I entirely agree with that, but I do see the point. Writers should be careful to bury agendas deep. I read a romance recently by an author I love who failed to bury the agenda. While I agree with her, I got tired of being beat over the head by all the characters talking about and being consumed by this agenda. What must readers who don't agree with the author have thought?
I think we should use our fiction to further our worldview if that's what we want to do. After all, our fiction comes from within us and our worldview colors what we write. But, we must take care to bury it deeply, to not allow it to overcome the characters and their story in the pursuit of bashing the reader over the head with an idea. Let the idea evolve naturally, feed it in small spoonfuls, and you may just win over more people than you irritate. Woolf would disagree entirely, I am sure.
What do you think? Do agendas have a purpose in the story you write? Is it bad to include them or worse to leave them out (assuming any of us can really do so)? Where is the line between preaching a view and merely having a character espouse a view?
Great post. You’ve really got me thinking.
This reminds me very much of John Grisham. Often, “The Cause” is the protagonist rather than a character in the book. Example, Runaway Jury. I’ve been guilty of that myself, I know.
On the other hand, I’m annoyed by writers who won’t let any of their beliefs filter through. They bend over backwards to portray both sides of an issue and never come down on either.
Thanks, Terry! Hmm, maybe it’s a matter of characterization then. (You can tell I’m still thinking it through myself!) If one character feels something strongly and behaves consistently in that view, is it more believable than when all the characters talk about the same thing and all come to the same view (or levels of the same view)? When does it become too much?
I’m trying to think of an issue book I really liked but, jeez, my mind is blank today.
I agree that someone trying to balance everything without giving an opinion is annoying too. But again, is that a function of character? People believe things strongly, so shouldn’t characters as well? If an author fails to show that, maybe they’ve diluted too much.
On the other hand, I can see a possible argument against burying the agenda: Voice. Sometimes, Voice is imbued with the author’s issues. To take away the issue is to dilute Voice.
Still, I’m going to have to believe for now that it comes down to character. If Jane Eyre’s outburst was out of character, VW is right. If not, she’s too harsh in her analysis (which I suspect is the case anyway). But I have read books where the character bursts out in something simply for the sake, I assume, of getting the author’s view out there. Or, like the book I mentioned before, where all the characters do it. Annoying as heck.
Doggone it, this talking about writing and stuff is fun. 🙂 I’m always learning something and always challenging my own conclusions on the subject. Thanks for commenting!