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?