Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Purpose Driven Novel

It’s 3am. My blog post is due, and I hadn’t a clue what to write about. So I did what I should have done nine days ago: I visited the Novelspaces Authors' private blog to view the theme for this month. The theme is totally optional, and most novelnaughts thus far have elected to ignore the themes. But right now, it is serving the purpose it was intended for. It is giving me a topic to blog about when my mind is drawing a blank.

The theme for this month is: “Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?”

The short answer is, it depends.

There are many different types of novels. Some have the deliberate purpose of educating the reader. Case in point, Carol Mitchell’s “Caribbean Adventure Series.” They are a series of very entertaining children’s novels set in different Caribbean Islands. It is quite clear that they are meant to expose children to the history and to some extent geography of the Caribbean islands. I myself have embarked on a similar project but with the aim of exposing elementary to middle school students to cell and microbiology through a series of science adventure novels. For children’s books especially, the list of novels that make deliberate attempts to educate is extensive.

Even for adult novels, education is often a secondary (if not primary) purpose of many novels. Some bring awareness to the struggles of racism, classism, discrimination in an entertaining manner. One of my favorite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, does just that. Others expose life in certain eras, uplift women, or men or some country. The much talked about book, “The Help” brings to light the life and times of women of color working as home domestics in segregated America. And we cannot forget the timeless classic, “Roots” and its historical impact.

Some books push an agenda or a political opinion. John Grisham’s “The Chamber,” and “A Time to Kill” very entertainingly address some pressing issues like the death penalty. Time won’t permit me to list even 0.00001% of the fiction novels (and I won’t even go into the creative non-fiction genre) that pushes an agenda, political, social, or economic opinion.

But then there are some books whose sole purpose is to entertain. Many romances, horror, sci-fi and yes erotica, fall into that category. Yet even these books can unwittingly educate or promote an agenda. Even when the author’s aim is strictly to entertain the reader, there is still often a secondary purpose, subtle though it may be. Whether that purpose is to inspire, or teach, or expose something, it is there.

So in my opinion, it does not matter whether or not a novel is written solely for the entertainment of the reader. It will still serve a secondary purpose of educating the reader in some fashion. Furthermore, the readers will take away more from the book that the author even intended.

What do you think? Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?


G said...

I'm not sure.

I would probably get turned off by purpose driven novels if I came across one. When I read fiction, I want to be entertained, not preached to or presented with a particular viewpoint.

If I want a particular viewpoint presented to me, I'll pick up some non-fiction to read.

KeVin K. said...

Novels that are driven by doctrine, like Atlas Shrugged or the Left Behind series, ultimately fail because the ideology of the writer overpowers the story. (People who agree with the underlying dogma think they're great, but that does not make them great books -- as anyone who does not care for or even about the dogma can attest.)

However the writer can have a purpose that informs their writing -- in fact who the writer is and what she believes will inform what stories she chooses to tell and how she tells them.

Science fiction has a long history of extrapolating from current societal trends and examining how those trends may play out in the future. Unless the author of a political or espionage thriller creates purely fictional political and national forces like Amish terrorists or compassionate Republicans, they have to present real life political groups, cultures, and people of different ethnicities interacting -- either competing or cooperating. Whether the writer perpetuates myths or presents unpopular truths or creates a whole new set of fables about these groups and individuals, what she writes will become part of her readers' perceptions and may influence their attitudes.

Even if her soul purpose was to entertain.

Lynn Emery said...

Sometimes readers assume an author has an agenda. Most of the time I don't intend to do anything but tell a story about a set of people facing extraordinary events. My beliefs bleed into the story, but I don't have any interest in convincing anyone of what they may THINK is my "agenda". My main purpose, to get them to turn the pages and then go look for my other books!

Mostly novels that have a purpose fall flat with me, even if I agree with some of the beliefs. I'll still find myself think, "Yeah, but on the other hand..." I think I'm rebellious that way.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good question, tough to answer. I can imagine writers having different goals for different works. I personally prefer to "read" books that are written for entertainment, and if I learn some things along with it that is nice. I don't often find other people's 'opinions" to be that compelling when presented in fictional form.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I've read a few novels that present a point of view by having the main character go through the experience as part of the plot (or the main plot). The are not preachy and are quite entertaining, but they oftentimes leave you thinking differently about the subject/topic/ideology/debate.

Jewel Amethyst said...

G, purpose driven novels don't have to spell out the purpose. Sometimes they can be very entertaining. It's like sitcoms that present a viewpoint. Many do so in such a funny way that we don't realize there is a strong underlying message until it is over.

Kevin, those examples you gave beat you over the head with the doctrine. There are others where the purpose/ideology is subtly addressed through the experiences of the characters.

Charles, like Lynn suggested, even books written for entertainment only refect certain beliefs of the author though not explicitly.

Carol Mitchell said...

We have focused on the author trying to pass on a viewpoint or ideology. I agree that such efforts may be best left to non-fiction and biographies.

I tend to choose books (like mine) that have some basis in geographic or political reality so that I learn a bit about a new place or era while being entertained. In this case, the author may not be going out to teach something, as Lynn pointed out, but the reader gains a little information on the side. I think that books that give information as an integral part of the story can be well-received and serve a secondary purpose.

Shauna Roberts said...

Nice post, Jewel, and many interesting comments. I'll be presenting a different opinion in my theme post on the 21st.

Liane Spicer said...

I'm convinced that every novel has an agenda, whether it's explicit or implicit. My first romance novel was a love story as well as a celebration of the physical beauty of my island. In another I touch on issues like sexual harassment in the workplace. So I have no problem with agendas, once they don't get in the way of telling a great story.

I disagree with Kevin. I don't endorse Ayn Rand's philosophies but I still think The Fountainhead was terrific. Why? Even if you'd never heard of Objectivism (which I hadn't when I read it the first time) it's still a great story!