I have read three books lately, and they all committed the same sin: preaching.
You've read this before: a certain character breaks the fourth wall so to speak, and starts being the mouthpiece of the author. It's the part in the book when I stop reading and start skimming, not unlike a teenager's eyes glazing over when an adult starts to lecture about the importance of not breaking curfew.
Before I touch on the books, I want to show you an excerpt from an NPR interview with the director of Inside Out, the most recent Pixar film about emotions. (Go see it; it’s amazing!)
GROSS: So did you imagine, when you were making this film, psychologists and parents using the film to explain to children what their own emotions were and to tell - to help tell children, like, it's OK to be sad. Tantrums aren't very helpful (laughter). We know you have anger, but, you know, you have to kind of mix that with the other emotions.
DOCTER: Well, not really...
GROSS: So did you think of this as a kind of, like, teaching film?
DOCTER: (Laughter) No. In fact, I know, like, for a lot of people that's kind of a bad word, right? You don't want to have a lecture. … There are - we've already had discussions with people who feel as though the film has really helped them. There's one story that's pretty amazing. A guy who we work with - and we had screened the film for our friends and family along the way just to make sure it was working and it wasn't too complex, you know, especially for younger kids. Luckily, they not only got it, but this guy came back the next day and he said, I got to tell you this story. My son has been taking swimming lessons. And he's been afraid to dive off the diving board. It's just too high, and he's scared, so he hasn't been able to do it. Yesterday, after seeing the film, we went to lessons, and he dove off the diving board. And everybody said, yeah, that's great. How did you do it? And he said, well, I just felt like fear had been driving, and I asked him to step aside. And for us, we were sort of blown away. Not only did he get the film, but it was actually making an impact in his life. That was, like, the ultimate receipt.
The takeaway lesson here, from a company that understands how to communicate to people possibly better than any other company in business today, is: Don’t preach, demonstrate.
I don’t know why authors of contemporary novels choose to preach, why whole publishing houses are based on this concept, but I can speculate:
- It’s easier to preach than to demonstrate. It’s very straightforward, and it requires considerable less thought to mind-dump than to craft a story in which the message is conveyed between the lines.
- The audience is not considered trustworthy or able to receive the correct message. Anyone who has actually worked with kids/teens can tell many stories of how they were caught off-guard by how perceptive, insightful, or observant kids are. That’s part of what makes kids funny, because they can make such astute connections that they seem like little adults. And yes, when books make inferred connections about a moral lesson, it’s really important to have a conversation with the younger reader about what they understood or have questions about. But next time you talk to a youth, ask some open-ended questions about a story they read or watched recently, and you might gain some life advice in the process.
- The author is not skilled enough. Though I believe that nearly anyone can be a good author with enough reading, writing, critiquing, and editing, it’s possible that the author of a preachy book just hasn’t developed their skills to a point where they can objectively look at their manuscript and know what to change.
- The author and editor did not do sufficient revision work. Maybe they were running short on time, or perhaps the editor isn’t assertive or confident enough to confront problems in the book. Maybe it was self-edited and the author was holding on too tightly to beloved passages.
- There is a lack of patience. Not enough patience to write and revise. Not enough patience to address what is working and what isn’t in a manuscript. Not enough patience to develop characters, plot, and scenery to reach a point where a message can be gracefully conveyed. Not enough patience with the reader. Not enough patience from the publishing house to push out a finished product.
These are the books that I read, and could agree with all, or at least part, of their sermons:
- Fragile Bones: Harrison & Anna by Lorna Schultz Nicholson preaches about understanding and accepting people with special needs.
- Barry Goupe: In the Midst of Lies by Sean P. McClure preaches about Christianity.
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand preaches about individualism.
The problem for me was not the message per se, but the method of delivery. If I may distort Marshall McLuhen’s famous line, “The medium is the message,” then the message becomes: shove your beliefs down the throat of the person you are talking to. Beat them over the head if you have to. This medium of delivery, however, is outdated and irrelevant for western culture in the 21st century.
It’s why McDonald’s ads say, ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and not, ‘We sell cheap burgers that will save you time and money.’ And it’s also part of the reason why Instagram is used by 52% of teens and Twitter is used by 33% (source). Because our generation cares more about witnessing emotions and experiences than being told about them.
The novel has a unique position. We don’t go to it because we want to read lecture notes about humanistic philosophy, or to have the pillars of the Christian faith explained. We go to it because we want to be able to relate to the experiences that the characters have there. We want to travel with the characters as a gradual understanding of these tenants change their decisions, and ultimately shape their lives.
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy demonstrated the process of converting to active faith in the Christian God from agnosticism over a span of 800+ pages. He so gracefully showed all facets of possible arguments within the decisions that the characters make (and how their actions frequently contradict their conversations), that when finally Konstantin Levin has a full spiritual awakening, the reader has such a grounded understanding of how it came about that s/he is able to experience the joy and relief that Levin is feeling. This is what novels were created for.
‘Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.’
- Francis of Assisi