do you like your skiffy preachy or fluffy?

Picture a graph for the Social Commentary content in science fiction.

On the left side is the Pure Fun/Entertainment/Escapism value.  On the right side is the pure Political/Social Propaganda value.

Some authors lean more toward the left side of the graph (John Scalzi, David Weber), and some are toward the right side (Cory Doctorow, China Mieville).  Some straddle the line, falling on either side of the median at different points in their careers (Orson Scott Card), or even at different parts of the same book (Heinlein comes to mind.)

Here are  my questions for you today:

At what point do you consider the Social Commentary content in a novel “preachy”?  Where’s the line for you when it comes to “Stuff that makes you think” versus “Stuff that makes you feel like you’re being preached at”?  Which writers do you find overtly preachy, or too fluffy and un-edgy?

35 thoughts on “do you like your skiffy preachy or fluffy?

  1. Jen says:

    When it takes me out of the story. When it stops being a coherent part of the narrative and makes me go, “Oh, wait, he’s trying to make a real world point”.

    I didn’t think, when I read Mieville, that he was trying to propagandize anywhere outside of the context of the story. Same with Ender’s Game and the sequels, and the Narnia Chronicles, although in thinking about both of them after the fact, I suppose the political/sociological/religious overtones were there. I couldn’t read Little Brother, even the cover copy was too political. Maybe I’m missing a great story, but it’s already been colored for me.

    I suppose I expect a good plot, narrative and characters, and enough respect for me as a reader that there’s no overt attempt to shove doctrine down my throat.

  2. Brandon says:

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress wasn’t preachy at all, nor was 1984. Atlas Shrugged, however, is the example given in the dictionary for “preachy.” Rand lost the story among the philosophy.

    If you have a character giving a 60-page speech after you’ve already hammered the point home time and again, that’s preachy.

    I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but I was glad when I finished it and could move on to something else. My line, then, is much the same as Jen’s. When the story’s put on hold so the author can make a point, the line’s been crossed. A good writer can make the point within the structure of the story, much like Heinlein and Orwell did, and doing so makes the point stick in the reader’s mind much more effectively than by employing extensive monologue.

  3. Andrew C says:

    A well-written book can get away with quite a bit more preachiness than one that is not well-written. I really like Doctorow’s writing, so I enjoyed Big Brother despite a clear political message.

    On the other hand, John Ringo’s first-person writing in The Last Centurion didn’t work well for me, then the in-your-face political messages made me put the book down after the first chapter (I’ve really enjoyed most of his other books).

    Generally speaking, I start feeling irritated when authors take something that should be trivial in the story and inflate it to make a political point, or reference current or near-future events. If an author refers to the collapse of Western society following the introduction of socialism in the US during the early 21st century, I’m probably going to stop reading.

  4. Mer says:

    Right about the moment Doctorow picks up his pen. Lots of fuss has been made of Corey Doctorow and his books, and I find him under-revised and under-edited. He’d probably pull back significantly from that line and publish much more elegant stories if he would just take a little more time to work the book before he pushes it out.

  5. Windy Wilson says:

    I think the line is when it takes you out of the story. “Starship Troopers” came close, “We the Living” was over the line, Stranger in a Strange Land had other flaws that made it seem over the line at times. I’ll go further than Brandon, not just “Atlas Shrugged”, but all of Rand’s fiction was way over, even “Anthem” which should have been so stripped down as to be a short story, the preachyness was so unnecessary (and consequently intrusive) for the story.

  6. LittleRed1 says:

    I third the motion about message pulling you out of the story. If the plot comes to a screeching halt for a sermon, you’ve lost me.

  7. Joe Allen says:

    Also depends on if I agree with it… L. Neil Smith: important social commentary. Star Trek: obnoxious collectivist proselytizing.

  8. Chip says:

    I agree with Andrew C. in that good prose can give the author a bit more lattitude in preaching. The kind that you read over twice just to savor the words. I also think if your point of view leans towards the view espoused by the author you will tend to be a bit more forgiving. Oops, what Joe Allen said. No original thinking here, no sir!

  9. Michael G. says:

    When I was new to the whole liberty thing, I could tolerate quite a lot of preachyness, let’s say up to Randian lavels. What I couldn’t stomach were the speeches, but otherwise I didn’t mind. I was so happy to discover that someone else thinks more or less like I do, that I didn’t scrutinize the literary quality of the books too closely.
    Now that I’m pretty familiar with most topics surrounding liberty, I still like books where the political leanings of the author are clear, but I like it when he or she shows them less directly.
    I probably don’t have to mention that I don’t read books with statist/collectivist viewpoints, preachy or otherwise.

  10. Isaiah Kellogg says:

    Some of Heinlein’s fiction is good, but several of the novels (okay, most of them) had a good beginning and then …

  11. Nick says:

    Repetition also doesn’t help. I enjoy reading Tom Clancy when I’m not in the mood to think very hard, and I can usually put up with his occasional bouts of overly simplistic political philosophy (it’s never much more complex than “Commies/terrorists/drug lords are BAD, guys”). But in Red Rabbit, Clancy just wouldn’t shut the hell up about how bad the Communists were. When your book is about the Soviet Union trying to assassinate the Pope, it’s pretty clear who the bad guys are from the outset. But at times it seemed like half the book consisted of various characters ruminating on the evils of the USSR. We get it Clancy, you don’t like Commies. Neither do we, so stop talking and start shooting them.

  12. John Stephens says:

    Monologuing instead of action. If you’ve got a message, don’t tell me, show me.

  13. Atom Smasher says:

    I find that I have a pretty strong tolerance for preachy if it’s well-written preachy. I am much more likely to put a book down because the main character is a whiney antihero jerk (Stephen R. Donaldson) than I am because the main character is preachy (late-career Heinlein).

    I definitely lean towards escapism in the SF choices I make though so worrying about polemics isn’t usually much of a problem for me to begin with,

  14. rfortier1796 says:

    If I agree with it, I can stomache it more than usual. If not, I tend to walk away from the book. This of course, is only in the fiction side. The last novel I read that had me starting to think “ok, we get, now move on with the story” was Patriot by Rawles. By about half way through, I was thinking “Ok, I get it, your a good Christian, and the only two things that will get you through the end of society is a gun and good Christian values. Fine.”

  15. Cat says:

    Depends on what they are preaching and if I agree with it. I consider that most speculative fantasy is preaching; the author is coming up with a new world and making you believe in its reality. To be effective, the reader has to agree that the reality is somewhat plausible. The author usually has a perspective on whether the world he imagines is good or bad, which he tries to make the reader agree with. It works for me in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress because I agree with the author; I find Brave New World overly preachy because I don’t. If the characters are interesting enough, though, I’ll overlook a lot of preaching I don’t agree with.

  16. guy says:

    I was enjoying Heinlein’s ‘Friday’ then hit the “Racism is BAD M’kay” discussion of the wedding of one of the characters to a man from New Guinea(if I remember right.

    After about a chapter of that I put the book down and haven’t picked it back up again. I breezed through “Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ and quite a few other Heinlein novels, but that one just stopped cold for me.

  17. MarkHB says:

    It doesn’t take much preaching for me to put a book down these days. I’m opening that novel to get away from the real world. If I wanted to learn something, I’d crack some nonfiction, probably something with graphs or greek characters.

    Take your BigMilSF Opus; you didn’t need to preach any or at all, just give a quarter-chapter of accurate description of Life In The Slabs. The character doesn’t have to preach or proselytise to explain any of what’s bad about it, or even his motivation for wanting to get the hell out.

    Again, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; it’s got bits in it that on a bad day I’d call preachy, but it’s kept to a minimum and it’s part of the motivation. John Galt’s Speech, though? I have never read all of it. Max penetration was about 20 pages, at which point my eyes crossed and my forebrain congealed.

    These days I find it equally hard to crack Doctorow on one side or Clancy, Dale Brown etc. on the other side. Forget John Ringo. I’ve just reached the point where someone pumping any agenda too hard is trying to sell me something, and I’m not buying right now.

  18. MeatAxe says:

    I find I agree with most of the other comments here, but I’m not about to let that stop me from sounding off, repetitive as it may be. : )

    Besides, its an interesting question….

    In the real world, people love to preach and and deliver endless bombastic monologues. I’ve been guilty of it myself — remembering the time a friend of mine very left wing editor of an NY publishing house asked me “what a libertarian was, anyway.”

    But in a novel, the preachery can get tedious quickly, especially when its clear when the author is using a character as a mouthpiece for his own political views.

    In Mike Williamson’s novel Freehold, (IIRC) when the main character flees from Earth and ends up on the Libertarian Paradise Planet of Freehold there is a lot of dialog explaining how the society works and why its so great. After the third or 4th long speech, it started to wear thin.

    On the other hand, I have tremendous tolerance for social commentary exposed through character and plot development.

    In Williamson’s book The Weapon…. (SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD)

    …. when the main character is on Earth, he and his companions are trying to stockpile some food and supplies and they get a visit from a local bureaucrat who has been alerted by some all-knowing computer system that these particular citizens are eating more than their share of Snickers bars.

    That incident did more than reams of didactic bombast to make the point about centralized control, collectivist politics, statism, etc etc.

  19. Murgy says:

    I find it interesting that most of the comments are on the preachy nature of the right , or liberitarian view.

    So, is the left less preachy, or do they not make it past the BS filters?

    I enjoy Scalzi’s novels. Could I tell he was a liberal? Mostly not.
    Eric Flint’s 1630 series – he may be a self-avowed Trotskyite- I can’t see it.
    I love Steve Miller & Sharon Lee’s Liad universe. From their livejournal, it’s pretty clear they love the left. Does it keep me from enjoying what they write? No.

    I do recall one character named for the greatest president ever, Algore. That *did* keep me from enjoying that novel. (Can’t remember the author, now.)

    As always, YMMV

  20. MarkHB says:

    Murgy,

    Scalzi’s a liberal? Damned if I’ve noticed that. He seems much more libertarian than liberal to me. If you want to see lefty locquatiousness, Doctorow’s Little Brother is on those lines, but even then he’s more about the dangers of excessive state powers, something most traditional conservatives would be bang against anyway (unless I’ve got this manual upside down again).

  21. RevolverRob says:

    Fluffy. We live in a preachy, political world, I deal with it on a daily basis. I read for escape, so I want escapism. Failure to provide will prompt me to reject the book with disgust. I don’t want to read an author’s preachy side, I don’t care. At least not in my fiction!

    Now, here on the interwebs, in non-fiction, sure, but not in my fiction.

    -Rob

  22. Matt says:

    Hmmmm. I’ve found that novels with too much of a ‘preaching’ aspect to them usually get read once or twice, and then sit gathering dust in my bookshelf. It also depends on your age as well. I recall reading Friday when I was 14 or so, and the preaching went over my head. Picked it up a couple of years ago and found it, well, very longwinded in places where Heinlein is trying to make social commentary. David Weber on the other hand, well, his ‘social commentary’ is subordinate to the novel’s needs for a ripping good story. *shrug*

  23. John says:

    When direct exposition on a social or political issue exceeds four consecutive sentences, it’s gotten preachy.

  24. scotaku says:

    When I was a young hothead, I liked ’em preachy. Gawd, but I could sit and read pages of Randian demagoguery, and I smiled the whole time. But then the seeds took root and I started to do my own thinking (hopefully), and now I like them mostly fluffy, to be honest. My own awesome novel is decidedly fluffy, so much do I not want to stand in a pulpit.

    But I agree with most here – as long as it’s well-written, then I’ll read it and assimilate the message as I see fit. If the message gets too much in the way of the story, then I’ll find something else to read.

  25. Matt says:

    Like many have said, when something pulls you out of the story, it’s bad. No matter whether it’s the hoopdedoodle Dutch Leonard strives to avoid, the holier than thou preachiness of Clancy (did you know Mao liked little girls? Did you?), the graphic prose of Ringo (let me finish cleaning this SIG before I pull out my throbbing-), or whatever Christian or liberal platform you want to build in my living room as I try to read your story.

    If it advances the story or is pertinent to a character, leave it in. If not, pitch it.

  26. LabRat says:

    Everyone else has already said the crucial thing: “if it pulls you out of the story, it’s bad”. Particular WAYS to pull you out of the story include blatant time outs from the action so some mouthpiece character can lay an Author Tract on us, a character that exists solely to lecture the others on the author’s philosophies (Heinlein was particularly terrible about that), or cases of strawman warfare in which the character or side intended to be “wrong” actually has a good point that the other characters don’t bother to refute or otherwise deal with.

    I’d actually hold up Terry Pratchett as my case example of an author that often writes involved social satires but never, ever makes me feel I’m being preached at- normally I HATE that shit even when I agree with the author, which is why I haven’t read much Heinlein and won’t touch Goodkind, for example. I’d say his trick for getting away with it is that the stories are almost entirely character-driven and “good” and “bad” therefore emerge from believable human motives, but really I’d just go “Read Night Watch. Do it like that, however “that” can be fairly described is.”

  27. Mulligan says:

    It depends on the moment when I ‘get it’. If there is a message or sales pitch or sermon, once I’ve picked up on it I want to move on with the plot.

    If I’m reading for entertainment a good plot can cover a lot of preaching, but if I’ve picked up a ‘political’ book and I know it’s left or right going in, it will be a painful read unless the argument is new.

  28. ibex says:

    I’ll admit that I’m very biased. The more I agree with it, the less preachy I find it. The few passing lines to the effect of “guns are bad” (easy to say when you have super powers) in the otherwise extremely entertaining novel Jumper rubbed me very much the wrong way. On the other hand, Atlas Shrugged (what I’ve read so far) doesn’t seem so bad.

    Then again, Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped.

  29. Trebor says:

    If the writer says something in an interview like, “My job is to make readers think…” then I usually find it’s best to skip that writer.

    Sometimes, the quality of the story will overcome the preaching, but generally I like my escapist fiction with more escapism, less propoganda.

  30. Anonymoose says:

    I like politically charged books, movies, and video games. What I don’t like is hamfisted sledgehammering, unless Heinlein is doing it. Properly done, a political novel doesn’t require a great deal of speeches about “The Way Things Are.” The concepts are integrated into the universe.

    If socialism is IT, then that idea should be woven into the fabric of the story. If we should all leave each other alone and vote Libertarian(if you want to), events should unfold to show this. Meddlers end up in bad ways or ruin everything, rugged individuals who don’t bother others should be rewarded or at least martyred, etc.

  31. Kaerius(SWE) says:

    I find Heinlein to be pretty tolerable, at least those books I’ve read of his(which isn’t all, and it was years ago)…

    Terry Goodkind on the other hand I found preachy in a way that compromised the story. (Sword of Truth series).

    Sometimes I’ve even found books I expected to be preachy, but weren’t bad at all. (for ex: The Sparrow / Children of God).

  32. perlhaqr says:

    Heh, that’s funny. I’m just now plowing through Honor Harrington’s series of autobiographies, and found Weber’s politics fairly obvious, though not exceedingly preachy.

    I’m a political animal. I can take quite a bit of preaching… as long as I agree with it. 😉

  33. I.T. says:

    Someone else wrote.. “Show me, not tell me”. I agreee with it.

    That statement is very useful, and has a lot of applications outside of fiction. I really like it.

    I have barely touched the worst offenders.. (Rand.. no one sane would read more than one novel written by a NPD Hag) but Richard Morgan sometimes overdoes it with dystopic pathos and vivid descriptions of how ugly all of it is and why it’s inevitable.

    Anyway, preachy fiction isn’t enjoyable. Nor edifying, as writers are mostly “off” when it comes to politics (G.G.Marquez, Orson Scott Card, China Mieville, Banks..)

  34. Scott says:

    For the most part I like fluff but occasionally I can deal with politics. I have read Unintended Consequences a couple times so far as well as most Heinlein and Gordon Dickson not to mention Ringo, Morgan and a few others.
    I started to reread a couple Heinlein anthology’s that were written post WWII that were amazingly preachy and authoritarian, I couldn’t finish the book because of the politics. I loved the vast majority of Heinlein’s work as evidenced by my dog eared copies of most of his novels but there was a period where he was scarily statist. I haven’t been able to finish any Rand or L. Neil Smith and I have tried numerous times even though I for the most part agree with them.

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