An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list

I haven’t played a video game since 1991, but I’m tickled by the concept of a horrible goose with a to-do list.

So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)

For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.

I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.

But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?

In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.

Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)

Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.

I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”

Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.

But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.

Like writing a novel.

So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.

Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.

There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.

One Reply to “An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *