Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Message =/= Meaning

Message Fiction has been a debate for a while, as early as 2011, with a range of perspectives on the concept. Tor wrote about it in 2015, as well as terribleminds, and of course, Castalia House.

Guess which one.
Salon accidentally beat them all to it in 2012 by publishing an article called "Stories don't need morals or messages" with a broader focus than SFF and thus, a different conclusion.

Most of the SFF blogs writing about Message Fiction conflate "messages" with "meaning"
...Remember when I mentioned earlier on this blog that I have some dangerous opinions of my own? This might be one of them.

I have yet to be convinced that the messages of Message Fiction should be considered the same as "meaning" or include subconscious or cultural biases of an author's mind.

Some people weasel around the Message Fic. premise of what a "message" is by creating further definitions on types of messages. Others skip the attempt entirely and go right into talking about Message Fic regardless of how others might define the framework.

In the terribleminds guest post, Leicht defines it broadly as "story with a theme" to claim everything is message fic. This quickly follows that definition:
All writers of fiction use these concepts whether they’re noticed by readers or not. Sometimes, they’re even used unconsciously by the writer.
So here we have an argument that a message can be engraved into a story without a writer's awareness or readers even noticing. Theoretically, this means a message could exist within a story unknown by all involved. The writer could be unaware, the readers unaware, and yet.... a message exists regardless.
"I know there's a message here somewhere"
Who will finally be able to see that message? Who will be able to tell others about the majestic message that everyone else was unable to notice prior to discovery? Stay tuned to find out!
(hint: it's the people who claim everything has a message and are unable/unwilling to distinguish between meaning and message).

Message Fiction is obviously not thematic writing, nor meant to encompass the literary technique of "theme". Props to CH for actually mentioning this in their own article.

The blogger of the Tor article goes a different route to the same destination, dividing political messaging between Explicit and Implicit. Hmm... Why does that seem familiar?
All books contain implicit political messages; only a select few contain the explicit ones.
And then there are, of course, questions of: (a) quality, i.e. “is this message being conveyed effectively”; and (b) alignment, i.e. “do I like or agree with the message conveyed.” Unfortunately, readers often confuse (b) for (a). 
Here, once again, Message Fiction is said to be ALL and EVERYTHING. It's another spin on the Conscious and Unconscious. Using "pre-existing biases" as the reason why readers see quality in works that align with their values, the post is mostly a hit towards certain groups.
Within that article;
So, really, when you hear talk about “crappy message fiction,” it’s really code for “the wrong kind of message fiction,” however defined.

Well, this isn't 2015 anymore and it ain't even code.

Tomas Diaz isn't afraid to straight-up say there's a "wrong kind of message fiction".
"And its problem isn’t that it portrays a message, but that it portrays the wrong message."
While I respect the thought he's given the subject, I fundamentally disagree with the framework he is using - just as I disagree with the framework from all the other SFF articles I've linked so far.

I reject the notion that EVERYTHING and ALL STORIES EVER are Message Fic. It's disingenuous. It's reminiscent of academic theories forcing their disciplines on anything they happen upon, regardless of how suitable that framework actually is.

Meaning is disassociated from the "message" in Message Fic. Even Wiktionary agrees, albeit passive-aggressively. (Nixon Maxy brings this up as well).

It's not directly a philosophical topic about noumena and phenomena for me. Noumenon seems a lot closer to the terribleminds' blog about the idea that a theme/message can exist completely unknowable to those involved regardless of intention of author or reader. It is an attempt to define the physical (or otherwise) as objective, which is a different discussion than what I am talking about when it comes to Message Fiction and meaning being separate.

There's probably a few different philosophical frameworks that could be used to describe this, but I'm going to discuss it plainly in my own vocabulary instead of adopting terms from a greater theory.

What I am discussing is the difference between perception and essence.

Art has an essence. Stories have an essence. Intangible, but real and possible to know given understanding through perceptual manipulation, but impossible to quantify.

Meaning is the interaction between perception and essence.

Messages within Message Fic are values, beliefs, and opinions purposefully woven into a story. It is an attempt to dictate meaning in a way that forces consensus from those who partake in consuming the story. Message Fic depends on the author/creator being consciously aware of these opinions, aware of the influence on their work enough that they can talk about it with others.

Political messaging fits into that, as does cultural and religious messaging.

While meaning can exist within Message Fic, meaning also exists outside of Message Fic.

Now, literature has always expressed messages and were called things like fables and mythos and allegories and all that jazz. Much of what we know about ancient writings were probably due to the messages they held. Some of the most powerful literature in current existence was brought about by the messages written into the work. Messages are great in non-fiction books, metaphysical treatises, and documentaries, in places where discourse is openly and freely discussed by consenting adults.

However, fiction (especially SFF) is a magical place where messages don't have to exist. Entertainment becomes the priority. The story refuses to hold the reader's hand to lead them down a path to a specific conclusion. Stories without messages allow readers to wander and meander about, to imagine and freely contemplate at their own pace and interest. It can be as challenging or easy as the consumer wishes it to be.

It is up to individuals to decide for themselves what they want to take from a work. Critics love to confuse this process by telling other people what they've taken from a work and why others should as well. Critics and theorists are cousins of "Everything-is-message-fic" proponents, if not overlapping to be the same people.

However, simply because a framework can be applied does not mean that it should be. Like I mentioned in my last blog, it is arrogant to derive meaning from another's work and then go around claiming that the meaning found is an objective message and should be accepted as truth into the hearts of all others.

In stories that aren't Message Fic, instead of prescribing reality as it should be or as it is, they offer up consideration for people to figure out their own truth. After all, it is impossible for the human mind to view something and not eventually find meaning from any creative endeavor.

There is always meaning for one who seeks it, but not always a constructed narrative of a politically-aligned agenda.

The latter of which is how I define contemporary Message Fic; fictional stories purposefully built to display a constructed narrative of a politically-aligned agenda.

Using the other frameworks, this also means I only accept the Explicit or Conscious as Message Fiction. Implicit, unconscious, unknown, or likewise are false caricatures in an attempt to create a sense of objective understanding over something inherently subjective (art/stories).

Since I'm writing this post to give a response of sorts to Diaz, I'll directly respond to some viewpoints that he felt relevant to share;

- I am not skeptical of free-speech as I strongly believe that free-speech is a necessary foundation for a free society.

- I don't easily believe in the idea that there are new values rising, mainly because I don't believe in linear temporality when it comes to values. All values have always existed and history is written to focus on a few instead and as a culture we allow some values to dominate over others. Nothing is unique, nothing is new, even the most degenerate beliefs from the most evil in our society are "values" that've been held since the beginning of humanity. (which is another conversation that derails this particular topic).

- "Art for art's sake" is akin to saying "Life for life's sake", which I can believe in quite well.

To have art be at the service of religion, humanity, and the state is to cast a wide net in an attempt to avoid an obvious truth; art is always at the service of existence above all else.

Art in service of the state... where have I heard that one before...
Art can support or oppose religion, humanity, and states. It can be neutral and exist on its own as well. All of this is what art is and what it should be, as varied and complex as humanity.

While I differentiate meaning from "message", Diaz suggests I might agree about an issue of Message Fic being when the messages are at odds with reality.

I agree there is dissonance in a lot of modern-day messaging. Much of what is being created is decidedly at-odds with reality. However, my perspective is that this dissonance is on purpose. It stems from creators building Message Fic with the purpose of changing culture, society, and shared reality.

This isn't a revelation or even denied by people who create Message Fic. The whole point of representation and inclusion stems from some people going "life is like this because of THIS (i.e. cast of white actors in a movie)" and because they identify THIS as the root of what they don't like about reality or life, they dedicate themselves to destroying that root - usually in shallow, obvious ways.

Now I might agree about something awful in life and that it should be changed, but I might entirely disagree that THIS is the root that needs to be destroyed or I might disagree with how to go about that destruction. I might accept that there are awful things in life or I might not see it as that awful.

There are a million and one points along this process where disagreement can occur.

Possibly, this is why zealots avoid any disagreement during the process because it opens up the door for other potential spots of discourse... it takes patience to respectfully deal with all that disagreement and in the midst, passion and purpose could be lost. This is also why concern shilling tends to be naturally effective in slowing momentum, if not realized soon enough.

Message Fic isn't about right or wrong when it comes to the messages. It's not even about unsuccessful or successful, boring or entertaining. It's not about whether something fits with my view of life (though my time is limited, my life is finite, and I will not waste it on boring, unsuccessful messages whether I disagree or agree with the message itself).

What I dislike about Message Fic is that it's a blatant attempt to control reality and manipulate individual thought into a consensus, eradicating nuanced positions of non-extreme perspectives. When combined with virtue-signaling, Message Fic becomes yet another dogmatic attempt to force a singular One True Objective Reality onto a world that is essentially chaotic and capable of ever-shifting complexity.

When supported by rich media institutions, Message Fic becomes propaganda. Creating approved stereotypes and personas to be adopted by impressionable people in order to symbolize certain political agendas is something I see frequently in Message Fic. entertainment.

With that said, Diaz's initial post about Burroughs strikes me as a personal rendition of meaning he derived individually from the work. Whether I agree with it or not is irrelevant because simply meaning being found with supporting quotes from the prose doesn't make it into a message regardless of potential consensus. This is almost realized in the following quote;
"Thus what may not have been a message in Burroughs' time is a message in our time."
Definitions can be made surrounding this topic and lexicons created around internal community ideas that are relevant. Even if there are separate frameworks due to branching disagreements, as long as the divergent points are marked, then conversations can happen that might deepen understanding for all who are involved.

For many reasons, Diaz and I might disagree on some points and we might come close to agreement on others, but the discussion is worthwhile because it gives the opportunity to explore, exchange ideas, and condense our individual understandings of a relevant topic. At least, that's what I take away from it.


  1. Good article, you've gotten me thinking. Maybe one way to look at the issue would be to regard "messaging" as a literary technique, akin, perhaps to "foreshadowing".

    So rather than asking, "is this message fiction?" the question becomes, "does this work include the technique of messaging, and if so, where?"

    Messaging is not necessarily incompatible with telling a good story--I think Heinlein does both in his better works--but it is a technique that can be overused or used badly (or in some cases both.)

    As I said in my comment on Tomas's post, I set out deliberately to message in my series the Book Of Lost Doors. I wanted to include a message to rebut the overt message in the X-Men films. And so I set out to make characters who were not born other than human, but became what they were as a direct result of their own choices.

    Now, I did try to keep that message subtle and let the reader take it or leave it, as she or he chose, but it is there and it is something that I put there on purpose.

  2. Part of the problem that most proponents of "message fic" fail to grasp are these: 1) There's a difference between getting up on your soapbox & picking up your soapbox and beating people about the head with it. 2) You cannot control an audience's reaction to your propaganda. Your intellectual atheist who uses zhis rapier wit to dismantle admonish the dullard religiousians in your novel will more than likely come across as a reddit fedora-tipper to your readers.


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