Soapboxes Make Bad Stories

I really don’t like people with agendas, the kind who are just looking for the perfect segue allowing them to set up shop with their soapbox. Here’s an example. Say you’re holding a newborn in your arms and someone else in the room comes up to you and marvels along with you at this beautiful baby, saying, “Isn’t it just amazing how a few weeks ago she was still inside her mother?” and then right after that going, “And can you believe people want to kill these precious gifts?” Regardless of your view on abortion, being poorly sneak-attacked like this would be highly annoying.

And with that in mind, this is one of the challenges in writing: avoiding the presentation of having an agenda. Many writers try to write so as to “get their point across,” or some try to weave social agendas into their fiction. This infuriated Flannery O’Connor. She plaintively stated such literature is never worth reading because it’s so horrible. Story always comes first, and writing a great one should be the foundational intention. People who want to turn a soapbox or indignation into a great novel will (and should) fail every time. We call it didacticism. It’s heinously obvious and revolting to encounter as a reader.

I’ve mentioned before how my friend Alan and I are writing a short story collection with the Seven Deadly Sins as the theme. Often we figure out what we feel is the root evil of the sin we’re going to write about and then construct our story from there. That approach and my hate for soapboxes may sound hypocritical, but Alan and I will be the first to admit our primary goal is to write a great story. We couldn’t care less about emphasizing the theme accurately. If we write a tale that transmits what we’re trying to say, but the story itself is abysmal, then the former doesn’t matter. Not one bit.

And if it makes for a bad story, take that a step further into the realm of our own personal lives and how we’re on a journey, which means we’re essentially writing our own stories. There’s nothing wrong with passion, but when a soapbox dominates the plot of someone’s tangible, lived-out saga, it repels the people around him. It makes for sickening literature and a distasteful life.

Sadly, though, many of us (especially in my generation) do not understand how to express our ardent interests without bringing out the wooden crate formerly packed with Olay to stand upon it in the city square. For many of us, such violent story-living is probably hereditary or cultural, an inheritance given to us by either our literal fathers or communal forefathers. For some of us it’s the only way in which we know how to further our cause or proceed to the next chapter.

Makes sense, I guess. The American novel has always been one of violence, bloodshed, and furor set to an almost religious tempo. We’re American; this is what we know; it’s in our blood, land, and love; and we have this knack in this country to keep doing what “worked” two hundred years ago. I wonder if many of us—subconsciously, of course—our living our lives out like an American novel. Actually, I doubt my own premise because the number of books an average American reads in a calendar year is shockingly small. Was just a thought.

But there is a dangerous need for peace to be present in the way in which people live their stories. People may think peace and passion go together, and I would posit the thought that they should. But I’m not sure they can when a person brings in an agenda before keeping peace first and foremost in their mind. And someone may not necessarily be using his hands for malicious intent. Often it exists on a much tinier level in the merely spoken realm. Words are just as painful and used, perhaps, more often than they ever should be.

Much love.

  1. Wait, wait, wait… Hold up just a second, hombre.

    I’m not entirely sure didactic writing in itself is entirely so vulgar as you’re making it out to be. After all, isn’t your opening paragraph of this post didactic? Isn’t this whole post didactic? Nay, this whole blog?

    You are a brilliant thinker, my friend, and your writing conveys that very effortlessly to the reader. (Whether or not it’s effortless on your end is moot – it’s effortless for the reader to see that you’re smart.) Part of what sets your writing aside in the blogs I follow is knowing that even if I disagree with what you’re saying (which isn’t very often), you’re going to present it in a reasonable, deeply thought-out, and personally entertaining manner. It is not only a joy to read for literature’s sake, it is a benefit to my day to read what you write because it encourages me to think about something that may not have crossed my mind – but it definitely crossed yours.

    didactic: 1b. intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment
    – Merriam-Webster’s dictionary

    While I will readily agree with you that there are few things in this life as frustrating as the thinly-veiled or perhaps even outright naked preachiness of some folks’ soapbox writings, I stop short of saying that any didactic work is inherently bad.

    Think, for instance, of C.S. Lewis. My goodness, if he hadn’t written with an agenda, would he have written anything? Even his fiction works – beyond the Chronicles of Narnia – are purposefully loaded and, in fact, structured almost entirely around making a point.

    That there are those in the world who object to Lewis I cannot deny, but it’s interesting to note that it’s not that they’re upset because he’s making a point in the first place. Rather, they’re upset about the point he’s choosing to make. People don’t get upset because “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” makes a point. Aesop’s Fables make a point. “Moby-Dick” makes a point. People get upset because the point in LWW is Christianity.

    Unless, of course, you’re a Christian. Then it’s just a wonderful book written for children with all sorts of marvelous extras thrown in for the adults.

    So don’t shy away from making a point with your writing. That is nothing to be condemned or feared or whatever. It is in fact something to be embraced.

    What IS to be avoided, however, is doing it without style. Look back to the dictionary definition of didactic. If your INTENT is to convey information AS WELL AS pleasure and entertainment, then you’re going to focus on story as well as purpose. In your Seven Deadly Sins short stories – are you planning on portraying any of the sins as virtues? Or will you still maintain that they are, in fact, sins? If you’re focusing on finding the root evil of the sin as you say, you’re still making a point – that the sin is evil – and framing a story around that.

    Don’t be afraid to teach in your writing. You’ve got enough figured out about the way things work that it would be a shame to see you deny the rest of the world your hard-earned wisdom.

    • Nelson Shake said:

      Aaron, you are spot-on as always, and I’m grateful for your added input. Your comment full of grace and truth makes me realize how poorly I fleshed out my point and has put me in my place.

      The post and blog are didactic, obviously, but they’re not a work of fiction, so of course it’s going to be more didactic. But you bring up a great point: isn’t all literature, in some way, didactic? And you’re right, it is. You nailed it when you emphasized the need to do it with style. I bristle (and I’m assuming you do, as well) when didacticism enters the realm of forcing a message down one’s throat. Excellent reference to Lewis, for he found a way to avoid that while still actually saying something.

      My main point that I meant to make (but failed to do so) was that reading fiction should never feel like sitting through a seminar. Often it can, though. Thankfully, Father Time (the harshest critic of all) determines what literature lasts and what does not, and you won’t find preachy fiction surviving the flames.

      Finding that delicate balance like Lewis did is a perpetual struggle. It’s so very easy to write with a passionate agenda like a man in a crowd with a clenched fist raised and, in the process, completely forget to focus on the craft involved with story. And on the other end of that spectrum, it’s not difficult to write a story without substance. One step too far on either side of the line, and the entire endeavor falls apart. It seems people too often forsake story for the “nobility” of their passion. I think you see this especially in the Christian art circles when people instantly assume they can create great art because they believe in a Creator, as if baptism endowed them with newfound artistic flourish.

      And all of that to say (and thus wrap this reply up): I’m not saying I have figured out that balance. Writing is that painful process of trying and failing and constantly attempting to outdo yourself with aims of finding the perfect way to word something. Yes, often that something will have an agenda, and as you expertly pointed out, that’s not a bad thing. And while that passion can dominate often and cause things to take a wrong turn, it’s true that it’s never like that across the board. My mistake for painting a black-and-white picture.

      Perhaps this? All good things in moderation, including didacticism.

      • “I think you see this especially in the Christian art circles when people instantly assume they can create great art because they believe in a Creator, as if baptism endowed them with newfound artistic flourish.”

        Aside from scripture itself, I doubt truer words have ever been spoken.

        So a question, then – what would you say about works like “Fahrenheit 451”, “1984” (or just about anything else written by Orwell, for that matter), “Slaughter-House Five”, or even Melville’s “Billy Budd” and Poe’s “Hop-Frog”? These books and others all definitely show their author’s beliefs fairly plain once the reader actually thinks about what the author is saying through the fiction crafted.

        You’re right in saying that Father Time determines what lasts and what does not, and the flames have yet to touch those books (although it’d be interesting to know what Ray Bradbury thinks about your choice of that image), but do you think that those writers hit that elusive balance that you’re so rightly seeking?

        There are a huge number of “great” works that I think are far too heavy-handed in their approaches to whatever subject the author felt like writing about. The first ones that pop to my mind are all comics, but still, “V For Vendetta” and “Watchmen”, both written by Alan Moore, absolutely reek of the preachiness that you are so right in wanting to avoid. But at the same time, there are people who will fight to the death for their belief that those are two of the greatest works of graphic literature of all time.

        Going back to C.S. Lewis – I make it a point to re-read the entire Chronicles of Narnia at least once every two years or so. I’ve got no problem admitting that I’m QUITE biased in favor of Lewis, as well as in favor of Christianity, so I find his work entirely agreeable. I like his style, I like his content, and I like his point.

        But – as much this truth perplexes me – my own personal taste is not the mandated standard of what is “good.” Philip Pullman (the author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, described by Pullman as an atheistic rebuttal to the Chronicles of Narnia) and others call the Chronicles “religious propaganda.” I would argue (although I’ll readily admit that I’ve not read any of Pullman’s works) that if his work is an atheistic rebuttal, then it is every bit as much religious propaganda – even if it’s propaganda against religion.

        Just like I can’t stomach much of Alan Moore for his preachiness, Pullman blasts Lewis for the same crime. I love Lewis, others love Moore. There’s (unfortunately) no objective standard for where the line sits between “an excellent story that subtly makes its point known to the more perceptive of readers” and “a blunt instrument which crams the author’s beliefs down the audience’s throat.”

        So now I come to a second question – something of a direct challenge to you, my dear fellow soldier of the pen…

        Where’s YOUR line?

        I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to know that I have GREAT difficulties – now, at least – in writing anything, fiction or not, that doesn’t hinge directly on my faith. (Thanks for the inclusion in the blogroll, it really does mean a lot to me.) I am wholly cognizant of the fact that there will be a huge number of folks who read anything I write and immediately reject it because of the position I take on faith. I HOPE that – at least in my more “apologetic” works and not my “epistles,” so to speak – there will be readers who are willing to take what I’m saying, even from an admitted stance of “Yes, I’m writing this because I want you to be a (better) Christian,” and consider it for what it is, weigh it by its own merits, and then do with that what they choose. A predetermined rejection of my works because of the reader’s own disposition towards Christianity is beyond my power to control, but I can’t NOT write Christian material. At least not at this point in my writing… uhh… career?

        So… where’s your line?

        To what extent are you willing – or even planning – to allow your own personal views to be poured into your writing, even if it will be seen as preachiness by others?

        For instance – in your Seven Deadly Sins short story collection… By the very act of using the list of the Sins as a root, you’re bound to the definition of Pride as a sin, where this is an exclusively Christian thought. (I say exclusively Christian not because other religions say Pride is awesome, but the Seven Deadly Sins themselves, being an explicitly Christian thought, are alone in grouping Pride with Wrath, Gluttony, and the rest.) Pagan thinkers, such as Aristotle, and even secular thinkers, such as George Bernard Shaw, consider Pride a virtue. By acknowledging a value judgment of Pride as evil, even if you’re not the first guy to come up with that idea, you’re still taking a side on an issue that others may find… well… “preachy,” I guess.

        I’m not saying all this to denigrate anything you’ve brought up about didacticism in the original post or your reply to my first comment. Your thoughts are all very sound, and if I thought you were flat out wrong, I’d have said so. You’re definitely on the right path…

        I just wanna see how far down the road you are.

          • Nelson Shake said:

            Just so you know, I am not avoiding answering your last comment. All free time has simply been sucked away due to New Year’s, friends in town, and returning to work after Christmas. I’ll hopefully write a response either later today or tomorrow.

            • Nelson Shake said:

              Sorry for the tardiness.

              Of the works you listed, I’ve only read “1984.” I enjoyed it, but it was by no means my favorite or my cup of tea. Obviously, though, Father Time has picked it to be one of those that stands the test of time, and I can respect that because I do realize the genre-breaking work Orwell accomplished. It’s my belief that writers like Orwell or Huxley go further off of that delicate balance between preachiness/inconsequentiality than I enjoy, but considering how these works have stood the test of time, I’m obviously now getting into the realm of personal preference, and I won’t go further into that because “to each his own.”

              I think people will latch onto and lend a voice of support to more biased works (“Watchmen,” “Chronicles of Narnia”) if those books match their own views. People will always latch onto what they want to in a story (perhaps that’s the beauty of literature—I love what someone wouldn’t enjoy and vis-a-versa).

              I think you’re wise to acknowledge how your personal taste is not the mandate for labeling that which is good. I wish more people exhibited such humility. This is why it’s important, I believe, to read the works that have stood the test of time. Even if they’re not our favorites, we can learn a lot about the culture of our past and present when we scour through the seemingly immortal pages of literature. For example, I’m not the biggest Albert Camus fan, but I’ve read some of his novels because I see the necessity in it. It’s more for intellectual purposes, not entertainment, I guess.

              So what’s my line? Well, it will change depending on the writing project at hand. And since I’m on a journey with Christ (just as he’s on a journey with me), I can expect my line to shift and evolve as I grow with time. So all I can answer is for the Seven Deadly Sins, and I know my aim with my half of the stories is to highlight the all-consuming nature of these sins and, by that, underscore just how detrimental they are. I think there’s still a belief that one’s own nefarious actions do not contain a ripple effect. I hope my stories show this couldn’t be further from the truth.

              If I were to try and make a blanket statement for my “line” right now, it’d probably be this: I want my literature to remind people what it is to be alive. That could happen in any number of ways: through its lyricism, artful approach, storytelling itself, or in the subject matter. To do this, though, may require writing darker stories. Emily Dickinson would say that to truly know what victory tastes like one must have experienced the agony of defeat. If my stories remind even just one person about the crucial timeframe encased in this temporal realm, then I’d be happy.

              But even so, at the end of a writing session, I’m not writing for other people since everything comes back to the existence of a power greater than me. The question is just how to express that in my stories. I care not what other men think of my writing. I care most what God does. He, if anything, is my greatest critic, the reviewer before whom I place these stories. They are my offering, if you will, placed on the altar, and I greatly hope they do justice to him and that in them he is well pleased. So, besides myself, I write for an audience of one, making it nearly impossible for me not to be a perfectionist with my stories. But perhaps that’s how it should be.

              • Good.

                “They are my offering, if you will, placed on the altar, and I greatly hope they do justice to him and that in them he is well pleased. So, besides myself, I write for an audience of one, making it nearly impossible for me not to be a perfectionist with my stories. But perhaps that’s how it should be.”

                I find myself in that same boat.

                Well said, my good man.

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