Alexander Hellene

All Fiction is Message Fiction

By Alexander Hellene

Postmodernism is nonsense. Here’s the pop version of it: Through the lens of pomo (what the “cool” people call it), a given thing only has the meaning an individual ascribes to it.

That’s it.

You just read a book. What does it mean? What does the author say it means? What do the words on the page mean? Who cares? What do you think it means? What is your lived experience? Your truth?

What is truth?

The postmodernist would say “whatever a given person feels at a given time,” or something stupid like that. I don’t know. Maybe I’m ascribing my own meaning of “postmodernism” to “postmodernism.” How very postmodern of me.

Nothing means anything. None of this matters. Who cares?

Wait, that’s nihilism.

The point is this: are you a postmodernist (pomoist (Gross! That says “po-moist”!)? Does what you do have an intended meaning, or is all just whatever somebody decides it means? If scholars decades after the fact tell J.R.R. Tolkien that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for World War II (I mean, what isn’t these days?) even though J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of The Lord of the Rings, says that it is not an allegory for World War II, who is right? Who is wrong? Who cares? Nothing has any meaning.

Or how about this:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work . . .

J.R.R. Tolkien

LOL no it’s not!

The Internet

Who is right? Who is wrong?

Who cares? It’s all absurd.

Wait, that’s dadaism.

*     *     *

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. You’re a person who writes novels and publishes them. You write blog posts, essays, and short stories. When you sit down to write one of these things, you have a point you are trying to convey, a message you are trying to get across. There are certain things that you want your reader to think about, to feel. “To affect the quality of the day,” said Henry David Thoreau, “that is the highest of arts.” He goes on to say “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

This is no great revelation, but I think Thoreau words it well.

So what does he mean?

Hell if I know. I interpret it to mean that everything we do is imbued with a meaning beyond its ordinary trappings. This could be cooking a meal for someone, doing a menial task, or, I don’t know, writing a book.

I know this comes across very pomo of me, thinking I know exactly what Thoreau meant without researching it further, but there’s a crucial difference: I am interpreting the words on the page. I am not making up my own meaning of them, or doing that lawyer thing where plain language, even the words “it” and “the,” get reinterpreted into meaninglessness dependent on the argument that the lawyer wants to win.

I think that my interpretation is logically sound, but if I encounter anything that Thoreau had written about this sentiment himself that contradicts my interpretation, I would change my opinion about the statement’s meaning.

Back to my example. Let’s say you are, like me, a writer. When you craft your narrative, you obviously have to follow a certain story structure, if you write the kinds of stories I do. There are elements to a compelling novel: tension, conflict, but and therefore instead of and then, a rise, a climax, a resolution, and so on.

In other words, stuff happens.

But then there is all of the stuff inside of the action, the stuff below the surface that some call subtext—oh, how I hated that word in English class, looking for the meaning below the plain language. Now as an adult, I appreciate what my high-school English teachers tried to teach me about symbolism and all of that. It turns out my freshman year teacher was correct about all of that stuff in A Tale of Two Cities, stuff I didn’t appreciate until I read the book decades later.

This is the stuff that an author puts into his work. This is the meaning, the point, the message.

All fiction is message fiction.

I’ll say it again: all fiction is message fiction.

There is a point the author wants the reader to walk away with. This does not have to be contemporary partisan politics, sledgehammer messaging, or anything glaringly offensive. It does not even have to be a singular discrete point like “greed is bad” or “Christianity is good” or “this ideology is what you should follow, and not that ideology.” Something as relatively simple as “good is worth fighting for,” “the hero saves the day and gets the girl” or “sacrificing oneself for one’s friends is a worthy endeavor” is also a message.

Now, how does this make you feel? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you violently opposed to “message fiction” that you would not consider those things messages or points? What would you call them then? Themes?

What’s the difference?

Before I get dozens of pedantic comments, yes, I’m sure there is a technical difference. But practically? If your theme is, say “the hero saves the day and gets the girl,” that’s still the message of your book. If the hero did not save the day and did not get the girl, that would be sending a very different message. That doesn’t make the inverse any less of a message. Get the picture?

I harp on this because, if you don’t think a story has a message or a point, and you don’t write it as such, you’re not much different than a postmodernist. You are, I guess, leaving it up to the reader to decide what the point of your story is. In a medium like writing, where you’re dealing with words on a page, words, which have specific meanings given the context around them, it’s difficult to leave all that much up to interpretation the way you could in purely instrumental music. A book could be intentionally vague, but then you’re left with less narrative and more impressions. But if you’re writing a novel, a form of writing where plot is paramount, there is clearly more at work than just saying “Stuff happened, and then more stuff happened, the end.” And even that has a message.

There is a purpose to your writing. You imbue your writing with a piece of your thought, your worldview, your soul. If you write a “hero beats the bad guy and saves the girl” narrative, and critics think your story means “heroism is futile and love is fake,” would that make you happy?

Would you argue? Or would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Ah, whatever. I don’t write message fiction.”

I think I know the answer. 

– Alexander


My books have meaning. The Final Home, the concluding volume in my trilogy The Swordbringer has all kinds of meaning. Back the Kickstarter campaign here!

4 thoughts on “All Fiction is Message Fiction”

  1. Most music has the same meaning as most literature, and that message is this:
    “I don’t care enough to do a better job of this.”
    I liken all human endeavours to gold mining; one must crush a ton of rocks to uncover a few small nuggets worth keeping.

    1. Scuzza,

      Since you bring up music and literature, I feel compelled to reply with Rush lyrics:

      So much style without substance
      So much stuff without style
      It’s hard to recognize the real thing
      It comes along once in a while
      Like a rare and precious metal beneath a ton of rock
      It takes some time and trouble to separate from the stock
      You sometimes have to listen to a lot of useless talk
      Shapes and forms against the norm

      One must indeed dig deep to find the meaning we seek.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Tolkien had something very interesting to say on the subject in an introduction to “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

    “The Lord of the Rings has been read by many people since it finally appeared in print; and I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.

    As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

    The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûen destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

    Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    The parts of this that I find the most interesting are these:

    “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.”

    And:

    “But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    It seems that he saw stories as a sort of give-and-take between the writer and the reader, and found direct allegory and message fiction to lean too heavily into giving the writer full control. He preferred to let readers have some freedom to gain different “takeaways” from the stories, depending on their experiences and viewpoints. For example, a reader struggling with addiction might see a reflection of his own plight in Gollum’s relationship with the One Ring. Another reader who holds political office may see in the One Ring a semblance of the temptations that political power places before him each day. Yet others may look upon the Ring and see the dangers of greed, which tempts some to hold wealth so precious as to hoard it at all costs (if you squint a bit, you can see a similarity between Gollum and Scrooge, both forsaking warmth and company to hoard shiny objects). None of these are wrong, since Tolkien did not narrowly confine the One Ring, or various other aspects of the story, to any one highly specific meaning after the manner of Aesop’s Fables or his friend C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books.

    Instead, he laid down a “history” of events told in a manner that displays general truths about human nature and divine principles alike without tying these truths down too closely to specific real-life circumstances, making the story shine with a series of proverbial white lights of meaning, each containing a prismatic spectrum. Now, different people have the “prisms” they look at stories and the world in general through aligned a bit differently, so one person might see red, while another sees blue, and yet another sees green. None are wrong, as long as they are all seeing genuine colors of the spectrum. But if someone assures you that he sees brown or gray, you can know that he’s not looking through a prism at all but through a glass, darkly. Such are those who see Orcs as representing a real race of people or Eowyn as representing transgenderism. They are reading something into the story that is not there at all, rather than merely specificalizing a general theme that is genuinely present.

    Tolkien would have undoubtably loathed the way that some of today’s so-called “Tolkien scholars” twist his works and letters to mean things that are contrary to any reasonable interpretation of them. But that is quite a different matter than the aforementioned concept of broad applicability, in which an addict, a politician, and a wealthy gold-hoarder (or anyone else for that matter) may find different meanings within Tolkien’s work that do not contradict the work (and of course without trying to claim that Tolkien meant the story or some part of it as a direct and narrow allegory for any one set of struggles and temptations – or saying that it was only red or green rather than a white light containing all seven colors, so to speak).

    Personally, I’m not sure that I have a “dog in the fight”. I have enjoyed works (like Tolkien’s) that avoid direct allegory, but have also enjoyed works that are very clearly meant to convey a particular message (such as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”). Even the Bible itself contains both much matter-of-fact history (the days and deeds of Moses, David, etc) and parables meant to convey very specific messages. I think that both approaches to storytelling can be valid. Problems tend to arise when the message takes precedence over the enjoyability of a story (such as in the works of Ayn Rand, whose novels are generally as dull as dishwater when taken as stories rather than lectures, regardless of what one thinks of her ideas) or when the message rings uncomfortably false and thus breaks immersion (or worse). Today, many stories feature a double whammy of both, rendering them doubly unpalatable.

    1. Hardwicke,

      Yes! That introduction by Tolkien is not only incredibly based, but hints at the “sledgehammer messaging” trend I have decried elsewhere on this blog. I agree Tolkien did not intend The Lord of the Rings to be an allegory tied to specific historical or cultural events, but I argue that these truths about human nature he has in his work, even though the story also involves elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, and ents, still conveys a message that Tolkien wanted to convey. I could be wrong, and could be contradicting the man’s very words, but I highly doubt he had no slant to his own writing. If he had a different philosophy or world view, the saga would have taken a very different turn.

      I do agree with you that both approaches to storytelling are valid . . . as long as the story itself is gripping and the message doesn’t bludgeon the reader into an annoyed state of mind. A delicate balance indeed.

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