Ayn Rand, John Steinbeck, and Fiction with a "Message"

The Problems with Didactic Fiction

Ayn Rand and John Steinbeck were very different writers with very different readers, but at least two things put them in the same category of novelists: lots of people passionately love Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (generally it’s one or the other, not both); and both authors built their careers on didactic fiction.

We could also call it “moralizing fiction” or “message fiction.” It is fiction whose primary purpose is to instruct the reader rather than to entertain, to delight, or to inspire catharsis. It is a conference talk, a classroom lecture, a sermon disguised as a novel.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing a work of fiction that is intended to teach a lesson, didactic literature is often … unexciting. Consider that the average Puritan sermon — considered unbearably tedious by today’s hearers — ran about 2–3 hours. Now consider that it takes almost 10 hours to read Grapes of Wrath and about 32 hours for Atlas Shrugged. Even allowing for the increased narrative pull of fiction in contrast to theology, that’s asking a lot from a reader.

The bigger problem with didactic fiction is the use of art as a vehicle to convey an ideological message. I am not saying this tactic never works. No one who is aware of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Abraham Lincoln called “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”), could possibly make that claim. What I am saying, however, is that using art in this way is an enormous challenge. The children’s author, Natalie Babbitt, explains it this way in her lecture, “The Purpose of Literature”:

There have been books for adults written in direct response to pressing social problems. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one. Another is The Grapes of Wrath. But there aren’t many that have lasted. And there aren’t many that are written simply to be sympathetic. They tend to be written out of moral outrage, and they are directed at the general public, the general reader. Their object is to make a noise and bring about social change, and some have been remarkably successful at this. Then, once the problem has either been solved or has faded into unimportance, most of these books disappear.

Certainly, this has been the case with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is no longer read for pleasure, and only rarely read as an assignment. It is most often read about. The Grapes of Wrath has slid into this classroom-assignment category as well, though less definitively. And for many, Atlas Shrugged is just “that long book I had to read the summer before senior year.”

Art that is explicitly and exclusively tied to one particular social problem comes with an expiration date. That’s why we don’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin anymore. Art that is invested in more timeless questions — the nature of friendship, conflicts between the individual and the group — last a lot longer. That’s why we still read, and take pleasure in, Huckleberry Finn.

Twentieth-century socialists were some of the most avid advocates of using literature for didactic, ideological purposes. It was a large part of their program for winning the hearts of the people. Even they eventually became aware of the difficulties involved in using art this way. In the article “Literature and Ideology” from the 1942 issue of The New International, James T. Farrell wrote,

The end result of the politicalization of literature is an official or state literature.… It is possible to silence writers by force; a state power can put writers in jail and treat them as common criminals; it can prevent their books from being published; it can execute them. However, it cannot make them, either by open force or by prizes, praise, awards, and academic and institutional honors, write good books.

We need look no farther than samizdat texts like The Master and Margarita to see the profound difference in quality that can exist between state-sponsored texts produced for purely ideological purposes and texts produced from authorial passion. Farrell is rightly concerned about the drop in quality that might arise from requiring didactic literature from authors with socialist leanings.

He notes, as well, that a preference for this kind of literature produces a with-us-or-against-us political narrative that is highly damaging both to individuals and to art.

If the writer is not on one side, he is either an open defender of the enemy or else he is giving aid and comfort to that enemy.… Such claims would, if successful, make literature the handmaiden of politics and the docile servant of an ideology. The writer, accepting this conception and attempting to make it operative in the actual construction of novels, would have to see politics first and then life, and he would have to deduce life from political programs.… A true re-creation of social relationships and of human beings was considered to be less important than the ideology that was implanted into a novel and openly affirmed in the last chapter.

I suspect that nearly every avid reader feels that way about one or another novel produced by Rand or Steinbeck. But worse than that, reading or writing with ideology as our primary concern conflicts with our ability to appreciate and understand the great works of literature from other time and places.

If you read enough didactic fiction, it trains you to expect a programmatic clarity from a work of literature. If our prior values are confirmed, the novel is “good.” If they are not, the novel is “bad.” But this is asking fiction to be as simple and un-nuanced as a stump speech. It’s fine for the campaign trail, but it’s a highly unreliable way to get to artistic excellence. And it’s a very bad rubric for judging literary quality.

If we turn to fiction simply to confirm our biases, and judge its artistic merit by whether it effectively accomplishes that, then we are probably missing a lot of good art — and a lot of potentially interesting arguments that might test our beliefs, rather than just confirming them.

There is one final danger in didactic fiction. The reader may get a very different message from the one the author intended.

This is famously what happened when the film of Grapes of Wrath was shown in the Soviet Union. Rather than filling the audience with sympathy for the struggles of oppressed workers slaving under the capitalist system, the film inspired envious admiration. Everyone in America — even the poor and downtrodden Joads — had a car!

Didactic fiction can work. We have seen it. But it’s a risky bet. It risks boring the audience. It risks wrecking good writers. It risks a culture that loses sight of great literature. And it risks having its message misunderstood, no matter how clearly and emphatically that message has been stated. Free markets need an Orwell, but it’s not surprising to me that we haven’t found one yet.

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