What is values fiction?

June 11, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Related to the recent posts about CBA and the general market, someone sent this: “I’m a writer who hasn’t been able to find success in the traditional CBA markets. I was told my book is ‘too message oriented for most Christian publishers.’ One house told me they want ‘values fiction, not message fiction.’ Is this a real trend? What is values fiction? How does it differ from message fiction?”

It’s a real trend. “Message fiction” is a story that gets weighed down by the author trying to deliver some sort of obvious, heavy-handed message. An example? Christian writers who want to send me their novel about the naughty 15-year-old girl who fools around, gets pregnant, then has to show me her struggle about whether to get an abortion or not, complete with angst and tears while the author hammers me with the message that “Abortion Is Bad.” WAY too heavy handed, and I see it frequenlty.

Look… I’m pro-life. But the author in that situation isn’t really trying to tell me a story — she’s trying to present me with a Major Life Message. And that’s boring. Who buys fiction to be preached life messages? Nobody. Pro-choice people won’t touch the book, and pro-life people don’t need to read it because they’re already convinced. If I want political messages, I’ll turn on MSNBC or Fox News (depending on your political leanings). If I feel a need for entertaining liberal messages, I’ll listen to NPR. But I buy a novel for the STORY. (And this isn’t limited to abortion books — there’s also the “We’re Destroying The Planet” books, the “Capitalism Is Evil” books, the “Obama Is The AntiChrist” books, and the “You Need To Fall On Your Knees And Accept Jesus Because You’re Going To Hell” books. They are all boring. Nobody wants them And they don’t work. So if you’re writing a book to share a message like that, publishers are probably going to ignore you.)

“Values fiction” is a story that reveals inherent beliefs within the context of the novel. Your values as an author are evident in the words you put on the page.  Take Huckleberry Finn as an example. There are some solid American values in that text — including some that were a bit shocking to readers of that period. Mark Twain has his protagonist decide to support a runaway slave, a black man, even though Huck believes it means he’s going to go to hell for doing so. Let me tell you, THAT opened some eyes in Twain’s day. But nobody would argue Huckleberry Finn is a “message” novel. It’s not a book with the Major Life Message that “White People Need To Be More Fair To Blacks.” It’s a story about a runaway kid and the adventures he gets into… but within the context of the story, Twain reveals some great values about race and freedom and how we should all treat each other. You see the difference?

Or have a look at a contemporary literary novelist — let’s take Lisa Samson as an example. Her books reveal some strong values — the there are different ways we can live out our faith. That we need to be accepting of other people in the church, including those who are different from us, those who are in pain, those of another race or socio-economic status, and those who are gay. She never comes out and holds up a sign that reads, “You need to embrace the poor or you’re a bigot.” Instead, she just tells a good story, with values, that reveals her worldview. Good values fiction does that without screaming or condemning or pointing to too-obvious references. It respects the reader to have enough brains to figure out what the values are inherent in the story. 

So if you set out to write a novel that will help people understand some Important Life Message, you’re probably starting off on the wrong foot. Instead, tell a good story. Let your characters and story reveal what you believe to be true. Entertain people along the way. That’s how you influence lives anyway.

Posted in Current Affairs, The Writing Craft

  • Jaime Wright

    Do you find that a lot of the “message” books tend to go the self-publishing route? The few self-published books I’ve attempted to read made me feel like I was attending a lecture on a particular subject or an autobiography rather than a novel. I’m not trying to say all self-pubbed are that, but just musing…

    • chipmacgregor

      Definitely see that, Jaime. And yes, that’s why too many self-published books are boring and self-important.

  • http://www.InspireWriters.com/ Elizabeth M Thompson

    Great writing is hard, that’s why many writers stop with the message. It requires less soul-searching, less crafting. But, we can’t bear fruit with what has not taken root! The art of writing involves digging beyond the message to the underlying
    values and then crafting great stories that allow those values to
    unfold organically. If we really wrestle with a message and allow God to break our own hearts first, we’re marked with a humility that won’t allow us to preach it to others as though we owned it all along.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I think sometimes an author just has a story to tell — which is fine. Tell the story. But in good literary fiction, you’re right… the author has to dig down. The problem comes (in my opinion) when authors feel they have “answers” they need to throw at the reader, which presumes the author is smart and the reader isn’t. In fact, some of the best fiction occurs when we discover things as we move through the story, just as the character (and, presumably, the author) does.

  • http://www.dennisbrooke.com/ Dennis Brooke

    On once heard the CFO of the Seattle Mariners say, “We’re called to be fishers of men, not hunters of men.” Message based fiction is approaching the reader with a club to get the message across. Like you say, those who agree with you don’t need to hear the message. Those who don’t will be turned off. The craft is in influencing without being heavy handed.

    • chipmacgregor

      Hey, that’s good, Dennis. I’ve never heard that before. Thanks.

  • Meghan Carver

    I had not heard those specific terms, but they make good sense. If I’m understanding correctly, it seems to be a tricky balance. Protagonists need to learn something along their journey and end up changed in the end but not to the point of pushing it on the reader.

    • chipmacgregor

      I suppose the most satisfying books are those where the protagonist learns and changes… but in some books the lead makes bad choices, or learns lessons the hard way, or fails — just like in life. But again, the reader wants to see and interpret that, not have it explained to him like a child.

  • Cherry Odelberg

    Tell a good story! Yes!

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks for coming on to join the conversation, Cherry.

  • Robin Patchen

    It’s interesting that, when Jesus told stories, he never felt the need to bang his message over the heads of his listeners. He trusted the Spirit to either open their hearts or not. When his disciples asked what his stories meant, he explained. And those who’d heard the stories and didn’t get it, well, they weren’t meant to get it.

    Would that we trusted our readers–and God–that much, we would feel much less need to be so heavy-handed in our messages.

    • chipmacgregor

      Agree completely, Robin. Thanks for this.

  • berendsen70

    I’ve run into some CBA books lately (Susan Meissner’s famous books) that seems more general market because they have the values beautifully written in without being heavy handed, but they also never name Jesus in their pages. I thought that was the whole point of CBA publishing?

    • berendsen70

      (I just read the previous posts about ABA and CBA too, and I get where you are coming from with not minding your faith being challenged, and frustrated with evangelicals who demand agreement on every point of doctrine. I’m not up in arms, I’m just trying to figure out the ABA and CBA, but I guess I’m probably looking for a clear line where in reality, like many things in life, its a blurred line).