I wish, instead of looking for a message when we read a story, we could think, ‘Here’s a door opening on a new world: What will I find there?'”
Ursula K. Le Guin from Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
I’ve done a lot of thinking about the messages contained in my writing over the last several years. For a long time I’ve been under the impression that a piece of art, and a piece of fiction particularly, must have a theme or message in order to really be art.
At an early age I was very influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy and so I eagerly bought into her thoughts on writing and art. In her books The Art of Fiction and The Romantic Manifesto she talked at length about the need for a theme/message.
In judging a novel’s esthetic value, all that one has to know is the author’s theme and how well he has carried it out.”
The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers
But if a novel has no discernible theme – if its events add up to nothing – it is a bad novel; its flaw is lack of integration.”
The Romantic Manifesto
Rand isn’t the only one to demand theme from the artist. It’s common practice for literary criticism and English courses to train people in picking out the literary theme or message from fiction.
Theme: the author’s message; a moral lesson which applies not only to the characters in the work, but to its readers too—to me and you. Once you have practiced using the literary devices to help you figure out a work’s theme, you will be able to state a theme for a work in one sentence. That statement of theme will state the specific moral lesson taught by the work.”
From the Odessa.edu department of English website
One can debate at length what these authors really mean by theme and message and whether they are strictly the same. But the message I got was that having a theme/message was an important and necessary part of art, something I should start thinking about as soon as possible in the act of creation.
This never sat all that well with me though. There were plenty of stories, poems, paintings, and songs that had no discernible message and yet that I loved dearly, would not want to live without. Stories and poems and paintings and songs that deep down I did consider art. I lived with the contradiction for a long time.
Recently I stumbled on a few ideas about art and message that really changed the way I see my work. Writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates didn’t always see theme as important and their ideas started working their way into my mind. The significant epiphany moment came when I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Message About Messages” in Jeff VanderMeer’s incredible book, Wonderbook. She questioned the idea that writing and art had to have a message. And blew my mind in the process.
My fiction, especially for kids and young adults, is often reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon… Does it ever occur to such reviewers that the meaning of the story might lie in the language itself, in the movement of the story as read, in an inexpressible sense of discovery, rather than a tidy bit of advice?”
The further along in the essay I got the more excited I became. I had spent countless hours beating my head against the idea of message. I had tried to mold my most interesting characters and situations into some sort of theme that had meaning and was good art (another area of recent epiphany I’ll write about soon) and in the process destroyed some of my favorite creations. And now here was this incredible writer telling me I didn’t really need to do that after all.
…a work of art is understood not by the mind only, but by the emotions and by the body itself. It’s easier to accept this about the other arts. A dance, a landscape painting – we’re less likely to talk about its message than simply about the feelings it rouses in us. Or music: We know there’s no way to say all a song may mean to us, because the meaning is not so much rational as deeply felt, felt by our emotions and our whole body, and the language of the intellect can’t fully express those understandings. In fact, art itself is our language for expressing the understandings of the heart, the body, and the spirit. Any reduction of that language into intellectual messages is radically, destructively incomplete. This is as true of literature as it is of dance or music or painting. But because fiction is an art made of words, we tend to think it can be translated into other words without losing anything. So people think a story is just a way of delivering a message.”
I’m not saying that fiction should never have a message, that it shouldn’t be about something, shouldn’t communicate the author’s philosophy, ideas, and concerns. What I am saying is that message isn’t always necessary. Art can be a way to communicate a mood or emotion, to give a reader a glimpse of another world, time or way of life, or simply to entertain the reader, to “be a door opening on a new world.”