Does your novel need to have a message?
I got into a debate recently with a writer who is far more seasoned than me. Internationally published, widely translated and published over two decades, he pondered out loud why he still wrote. ‘I’m always trying to put across a message,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘There’s a question I want to answer, and the novel is my way of addressing it.’
It was an answer that shook me a little. I was used to thinking that the novel is the most intimate, intricate way to convey a message to the reader. I thought of the critic Michael Billington, and his view of the playwright Harold Pinter as ‘a questioner of accepted truths.’ These truths that Pinter questioned variously concerned the fidelity of government practice, and the integrity of institutions. Each play seemed to have a different message.
As anyone who has watched a performance of The Caretaker can argue, Pinter’s ‘message’ is debatable. My own view is that his plays ponder the human ability to communicate directly. Blended with a morbid preoccupation with human cruelty. But the writer I was speaking to felt it was ‘all a matter of interpretation,’ and that ‘novels with obvious messages turn people off.’
I thought at that point of the writers I deeply respect. The likes of JG Ballard, who often create elaborated luxury settings in novels, just to have their characters pull these settings (and each other) apart. His on-going message always seems to be that ‘humans can create safe environments, as their human nature will ruin them.’ Ballard described his novel High Rise, in which a luxury tower block descends into chaos, as ‘a clear-eyed assessment of Human Nature.’ Like with Pinter, I see through Ballard’s work a thread that could be construed as a ‘message.’
Perhaps then it would be more accurate to think of novels as a place in which writers can express their experiences. I think of writers such as Ruth Dugdall, author of the bestseller ‘The Woman Before Me.’ Before becoming a novelist she trained as a probation officer, an occupation which is reflected in the protagonist in her early books, Cate Austen. Even if Dugdall’s work doesn’t seem to have a direct message it certainly conveyed to me how fragile we, as human beings are. In her novels characters are institutionalised, as a result of life choices which we might deem ‘wrong’ or ‘unsavoury’ but which all the same might not justify incarceration. I think of other writers I know, such as Hanna Jameson, who appears to use violence in her crime novels to explore human nature. I get the sense that she would agree with the preference for novels with messages, and see it as a responsibility that, in a hard world, shouldn’t be shirked. When I heard that the ‘pop singer’ Lana Del Rey was releasing an album called ‘Ultra Violence’, Jameson and I agreed that it was the ‘the obvious title to use these days’ My own take has increasingly been that there are too many issues in the world to be addressed for us to not have a message.
In recent years I’ve edited the memoirs of a high-profile banking whistle-blower, and used the research I learnt about this subject in my next novel, An Honest Deceit. I’m working at the moment on a new novel which, as ever, hopes to tell a decent story. But what really drives me to write is the message I want to put across. I hope to present, in novel form, a vision of what the world will be like if the super-rich continue unchecked.
I fully concur with the view that the novel is a place in which to answer a question. Personally for me, the communication of a message will always be a motivation. The art is in trying to make the message a side-effect on the way of telling a good story.
Image Credit: OCA Student Katherine Jasven