Bookish Pet Peeve #8: Preachy Authors
Here’s how I phrased this in my literary trick or treat post:
“Proselytizing has no place in literature.”
Some context: I’m a Christian. Not necessarily the traditional “conservative Christian,” but a Christian nonetheless. Yet I have no desire to read a Christian novel in which the author’s sole purpose is to proselytize or convert. I can’t take you seriously as an author if I believe you’re trying to win a debate with me or some other vague force out there you disagree with.
John Steinbeck did this to some degree, with socialism, in The Grapes of Wrath. I believe Richard Wright was even more guilty of preaching communism in Native Son. You can take a lovely story with incredible character development and throw it all away by incorporating a preachy character or, even worse, a preachy narrator.
That’s not to say that an author should leave their beliefs at the door. It’s the opposite, in fact. You can still have a worldview. You can still, I think, subtlely incorporate that worldview into your work. But the communist saviors who swoop in to save the beleaguered protagonist is just too much (See Native Son).
I understand that a lot of this has to do with history and context. When Steinbeck and Wright wrote those books, they were smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Capitalism didn’t seem to be working, and the class divide was as great as its ever been in America. So I get that.
From a reader’s standpoint, though, I still feel like an 8-year-old being lectured by a Catholic nun.
Here’s a quote from Boris Marx (Bigger Thomas’s communist lawyer in Native Son), explaining why Bigger shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions:
He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. The actions that resulted in the death of those two women were as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes. It was an act of creation!
That’s just one quote from one character in the novel, but it’s a recurring theme. Here’s a man who’s had a rough life, who’s done some terrible things, and here’s a communist lawyer more than happy to give him a free pass, even praise him. This character, a guy who puts on the cape and saves the day, is one of the more annoying characters I’ve come across while reading Time’s list.
It’s just too overt.
That said, I liked both The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. Both are rated in my top 30, but they would’ve been much higher had I not felt like I was, at times, attending a bad church service.
Those are just two examples, but literature has certainly offered us many more preachy novels over the years.
I can’t stand them. Can you?
Previous Literary Pet Peeves: