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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:

#7: Buying Books I Don’t Read

#6: Speed Reading

#5: The Book Borrower

#4: The One Upper

#3: The Book Snob

#2: The Nosey Over-The-Shoulder Reader

#1: Bookstore Cellphone Blabbermouth

 

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. hargakosmetikmurah #

    please follow me back,thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    November 14, 2014
  2. I completely agree and as a Christian fiction author, it’s something I’m always mindful of. I see the spiritual growth of the characters as one thread, along with the romance and suspense arcs. No one thread should be so strong that it overshadows the others. It’s a common criticism of our genre, because that balance is very fragile. When I read books in my genre and I start to feel like I’m getting a sermon, I put it down.

    I just finished reading Black Boy (Richard Wright) because my high school junior was reading it. Hard to plow through that second half!

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 14, 2014
  3. What About This? #

    In my English 11 CP class last year, we read the Grapes of Wrath. I’m not sure if I loved it or liked it, because, even though the lessons learned and concepts taught were numerous, some of them made me feel guilty! I felt that it was preachy, and I hate that. Maybe authors do this because they feel some people need “preachy” because it will be the only thing that can penetrate their concrete heart. Maybe they do it to rant. Who knows! 🙂 I completely agree with you, though, especially with religious fiction. I don’t like people to tell me “how it should be done” because our relationships with God is a personal ones, not universal.

    Sorry for being preachy 🙂 and Thanks for the post!

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  4. In Native Son , Richard Wright wasn’t ‘preaching communism”
    Rather he was using the story of Bigger Thomas to highlight how institutional racism against the black man can reduce black men themselves into the very brutes society at the time labelled them as.
    The novel is almost nihilistic in its portrayal of Bigger Thomas as the ultimate anti hero. It is a fine novel that works as a gripping thriller as well as a moral tale.

    You could call it over simplistic in its portrayal of the plight of African Americans (as Baldwin indeed did) but as for proselytising communism? It doesn’t do any such thing.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
    • Richard Wright was a communist-leaning, and he uses the Communist Party to save Bigger. If I wrote a Christian novel where a pastor comes in and does all the right things, while preaching about the tenets of Christianity, then saves some poor soul…you wouldn’t call that preachy, or at least heavily biased? Come on.

      Liked by 1 person

      November 14, 2014
      • You are reducing a great novel to the level of a mere pamphlet for a narrow political cause. NS is much more than that, the novel is complex and the issues it raises are multi faceted. A one dimentional book about the benefits of being a christian would be unlikely to have any literary value.

        Like

        November 14, 2014
        • Definitely not. I agree that it’s a complex novel and there’s much more to it. I say as much in my review. I actually like the book. But when it comes to the issue of communism, I believe Wright’s preachy.

          Like

          November 14, 2014
  5. I don’t like being preached to, no. OTOH, I think we have something of a partisan view of that kind of thing; we are less likely to feel preached to if our views align with the author’s subject.

    Robert Heinlein wrote a book called Friday about an artificially created, courier/assassin, set in a balcanised society close to a vast world war. There are many comments I would make on it, the first of which being that it bored me rigid more or less all the way through, but one of the criticisms most commonly leveled at it (aside from rampant misogyny) is that Heinlein was “preaching his personal ethic of free love and polyamoury.” That may well be his viewpoint on things, but the book isn’t preaching anything that I could see.

    I’ve been accused of being anti-abortion because I created a society where abortion was illegal. I suspect that someone else reading the same passage in that book would scream that I was promoting abortion. (If I’m guilty of anything in this respect, I suspect it’s a rather big anti-war message in the recent two books in that series. Or at least a “war isn’t really very nice” message.)

    Often these things are a matter of perception. We all bring the baggage of our own world view to what we read (or watch, or listen to). I know I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 14, 2014
  6. I probably shouldn’t join this dialogue because I’ve not read Native Son, but it is always dangerous to let the end justify the means. (From your post, it sounds like Bigger Thomas’ lawyer is doing just that — and how can two deaths equal an act of creation? Maybe I should read the book.) For me, if the writing is good in other ways, then I don’t mind a little preaching. The “preaching” usually does diminish the book as a book, however.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  7. bendingoverbookwards #

    I think you make the very good point that books can have a message, but it should not be too overt. A book in which one ideology is presented as absolutely correct, and any counter-arguements are dismissed or ignored is not only boring, but it doesn’t reflect any level of complexity. Humans are complex and hold complex ideologies, and it’s unrealistic to not portra that.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  8. Ted Fontenot #

    Although I agree generally, there are exceptions. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress has powerful passages and segments, and I say this as an atheist. A smart, passionate ideological literary work, whether religious or secular, can attain the level of a novel of ideas, but for it to be convincing it must embody a fresh take on the ideology, and it must be told in a rivetting fashinon, and not be a pallidly pro forma.trite incarnation expressed in platitudes. I think of Graham Greene’s work. Brighton Rock is a good example, especially the ending with its powerful and thrillingly ambiguous message. Rosie left with a divine delusion to comfort her stays with me.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
    • Ted Fontenot #

      “Rose” not “Rosie”.

      Like

      November 14, 2014
  9. This is a slight digression from the topic being discussed but I can’t stand fact dumps in historical fiction novels. I started reading Trinity by Leon Uris (a popular historical fiction novelist of the 70s) but I had to put it down because Uris was merely showing off his knowledge about the Irish Resistance. The facts are forced upon the reader, not elegantly weaved in the narrative. I have been told though that Uris made up some of his “facts”, like Dan Brown (except not as much as Brown). Good historical fiction is hard to find because most works read so much like the Sunday paper – journalism verging on propaganda. I don’t expect historical fiction novelists to be unbiased but I want the characters to be realistically portrayed and I want the dialogue to sound natural. I don’t want the book to be about the author’s political and religious views. But I suspect what is flowing over into historical fiction is something that already exists in so-called objective media. We don’t know how to let the events speak for themselves. We can’t tell a story or recount an incident without proselytizing.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  10. I think of these novels as propagandist and I definitely do not like them. Maybe that is why I don’t care for Ayn Rand’s novels. She beats you over the head with her message. And when you’re beaten over the head with those books, you’re really beaten over the head. Atlas Shrugged alone weighs a ton.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 14, 2014
  11. I don’t like books that try too hard to convince me of something. I would rather read something that introduces a topic and gives me information without trying to convince me. I want to decide for myself what conclusion to come to.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  12. i couldn’t get (still can’t) through Grapes of wrath . i”ve tried and tried but it’s a no go . My brain just shuts down . I’ve only experienced this with another book – i can’t remember the name but the protagonist was able to talk to his dogs . it was huge when it came out . Anyway my point is whenever there’s something the author is trying to ‘sell’ me something , i hate it and i won’t read it .

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  13. it was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wrobleswki . It literally gave me a headache .

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  14. I definitely struggle with preachy characters or narrators, especially if they don’t move the plot forward in some vital way. And you’re right, it’s not about disagreeing with the characters (though that sometimes applies) it’s just the idea that the author is trying to lecture you through their characters that is so irksome. Great post. Glad I’m not the only one with that pet peeve.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  15. This is why I tend to avoid nonfiction, as I feel that authors have to work harder to subtly incorporate their worldviews in fiction.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  16. I’ve always thought that all authors are preachy, having some opinion or narrative or worldview they want me to accept. As the reader (congregation?), it’s up to me to discern the scope and validity of the message.

    Like

    November 14, 2014
  17. Reblogged this on cherylmariesite's Blog.

    Like

    November 15, 2014
  18. I remember feeling that way when I read The Jungle in high school.

    Like

    November 15, 2014
  19. I’m fine with it as long as it’s something I agree with. Hahaha!

    Like

    November 15, 2014
  20. “The Jungle” worked fine for me as a novel, until the very end. The last fifty pages or so (as I recall – it was a long time ago) was just like reading a manifesto of the Socialist Party. I had enjoyed the novel up to then, and just abandoned the last section, without feeling as if I had missed anything important. I haven’t read Native Son, but from what you say, it sounds as if the preachiness runs right through the story.

    Like

    November 15, 2014
  21. PublicEnemyNo.3788 #

    Les miserables,came off as a bit preachy to me.I think thats why despite its appraisal by many, i never was able to get even half way through volume1.It lost its authenticty and fluidity for me as Hugo seemed to be hell bent on relaying epigrams and his own philosophical Dogma.

    Like

    November 16, 2014
  22. I agree and disagree. I love reading books that overtly purport a very specific world view because it helps me understand the “dogma” of that worldview. I agree that you should not sacrifice the integrity of the story for the sake of a dogma. If I feel like an author is trying too hard, and that there are too many gaps in character development, plot, etc that all stem from a need to create the illusion that a dogma is credible, I’ll stop reading. But I also think that one of the greatest uses for literature is to “preach” because stories help us understand people-issues better than anything if the stories are organic.

    Like

    November 16, 2014
  23. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you have
    hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough folks are speaking
    intelligently about. I am very happy I came across this
    during my search for something relating to this.

    Like

    December 30, 2014

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