Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Should Your Book Have an Agenda?

     I was enjoying coffee and cheesecake with three published friends when I asked something that had been niggling in my mind. 
     “When you write your books, do you have an agenda?” 
     It was not an innocent question. I had a feeling I knew what their first response would be. 
     “Absolutely not. I write for enjoyment and to give the reader a good novel,” said friend #1. 
     “Really?” I said, stirring creamer into my coffee. Then I pointed out that her first book dealt with past lives and the Mayan people. Her second book was about ancient Japan. “Seems to me you want to open people up to other cultures. 
     “Well, yes,” she agreed. “And I want to talk about the possibility of past lives because I believe in the idea.” Her next book will be about “the lack of harmony man has with the earth because of ego.” That's an ecological agenda. 
     The woman who just debuted her first novel in the fantasy genre still maintained she didn’t have an agenda. But, with a little nudging she admitted she believed in alien visitations and wanted her book to be about love, trust and honor. “But I didn’t do it consciously.” 
     Friend #3, a mystery writer, readily admitted “I wanted to create Christian characters but not in a book just for Christians. Although my characters screw up, they have a higher power. I didn’t want to write stereotypes.” 
     “Agenda” is not a dirty word. It doesn’t mean hitting people over the head with your viewpoint. It doesn’t have to be blatant. Webster defines it as “A plan of things to be considered.” I think that’s very important. An author needs to understand their own motivation for writing and to be very clear in their minds when they prepare to set down words on paper. 
     Authors have changed the world via novels with agendas. In 1906 Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” and uncovered horrific practices in the meat packing industry that led to reform. Aldous Huxley warned us about a Brave New World, one of reproduction control and human conditioning as early as 1932. Ray Bradbury scared us with a future without books in Fahrenheit 451. 
     My friend, James Callan, posted about his latest in the post previous to this one. In A Silver Medallion he wrote a mystery about current slavery in America. J. A. Jance at the end of one of her novels tagged a warning to us about air bags taken from wrecking lots for the dangerous chemicals they contain. Would I have been aware of these issues without these books? Perhaps not.  
     I always have an agenda in my novels, my short stories and even my blogs. The seed of an idea stems from something that is currently bothering me. I’m not talking about major events like the recent deaths in Dallas. Yes, that is massive and needs to be addressed, but I’m not up for the task, it’s beyond my abilities. I would rather couch my agenda in the confines of a mystery and entertainment. 
     In Fools Rush In I wanted to present the meth drug culture and how it grew in my part of the country. It was something I dealt with every day in my job with the narcotics unit at the sheriff’s department. In Where Angels Fear I wanted to defend the right of people to their sexual preferences, whether I agree with them or not. In A Snitch In Time I addressed the issue of “Who is the better friend?” after discovering I fell short in that category. I also added lots of dead bodies and astrology. My more obvious agenda was to pull the curtain aside and demonstrate how astrology is used as a tool.  
     Do readers know they are being spoon fed my agendas? No, I don’t really think so. I believe they are reading for fun. But I do hope they are subconsciously absorbing what I have to say. Like Mary Poppins, I'm giving them a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. 
     And books that have no agenda? Like the photo above, they are simply beach reads.


Mona Karel said...

Of course we write about what we believe in. And readers have the option not to read the books lambasting them about something they don't believe in. Is it always conscious? Perhaps for some people and for others it's just part of the fabric of their own being.

Charles Gramlich said...

Most of the time, I think my only agenda is to say: "Here I am."

Che Gilson said...

I think of it more as a 'thematic core'. And often the themes don't emerge until you are nearly done with the book. But every book NEEDS to be about something larger and deeper. What's the saying? 'We read to learn how to be human".

amreade said...

Great post, Sunny. I don't like to read books that are trying to hit me over the head with an agenda, but I do think there are agendas in most books I read, even if the author just wants to get me thinking about something. I'm referring specifically to the book I just finished two days ago- I still don't know for sure what the author's agenda was, but it definitely got me thinking. As for my own books, I want to introduce readers to places that might be new to them, and I'm proud to admit it.

Krista Lynn said...

Being the second writer-friend you mention in this post, I can say you brought up a very interesting aspect of our stories. Did we have an agenda? You really made us think! And I didn't consciously start out with a mission, and certainly my story is a supernatural mystery heavy on the romance so it wouldn't seem to have a purpose other than to entertain. However, I shared myself, my thoughts, my feelings about the desert where I grew up, and in many places, as I unfolded the legend of the haunted canyon, I mention the need to preserve the fragile desert landscape. I DO want people to care about the desert as I do. Along with the importance of family and trust, my story does deliver a message as you brought out. And that's pretty neat, Sunny!

Melodie Campbell said...

I have an agenda, Sunny. My agenda is to bring a few hours of smiles and blissful escape from reality to my readers. I put entertainment first, ALWAYS. If my books have a certain ethical point, or explore a deeper question (and most do) then that must come second, and not be intrusive to my goal, which is to provide enjoyment.

Maggie said...

In my first book I tackled a lot of controversial subjects, including that forbidden trinity: sex, religion, and politics. I also touched on reproductive rights and alcoholism. Lest you think this is heavy going, I weaved these subjects into the story, presenting them as part of everyday contemporary life and didn’t preach. As Sunny stated, “I would rather couch my agenda in the confines of a mystery and entertainment.” However, I did tick off a few, especially with the politics. Lesson learned, even though I have ardent fans on both sides of the political spectrum.

My second book is less ambitious in that regard---more about family and what we’ll do, and not do, for our families. And some icky and evil aspects of money.

Agendas are fine. Just don’t preach unless you’re standing in a pulpit!

Elaine Faber said...

Great question, Sunny. I think you've hit on a concept that many authors may not realize. Our stories often have a theme even if we don't consciously intend to impart one. I mainly write to entertain my readers... that's the conscious agenda.
Only in my story, Black Cat and the Accidental Angel did I INTEND to impart a these or 'message. 'Tell your truth a different way' was my intention as the story is told through the cat's eyes and experiences as he learns about love, loss, jealousy, fear, responsibility, love and faith. I hoped the reader would 'see himself' in the cat's mistakes and eventual lessons. The power of words is real as we write either consciously or unconsciously to share what is important to the author.

Virginia Walton Pilegard said...

Ah,Sunny,I have an agenda when I write a grocery list. Each of my children's books has an obvious agenda. I hope not to be too pedantic, but there's a well established precedent for knocking kids over the head with moral claptrap in children's literature.

Marja said...

Interesting post, Sunny. I think many of us have an agenda when we write, but we don't realize it until someone comments on a book.

Pat Marinelli said...

Great question, Sunny. If you asked me before I started a new short story, I'd probably say no. But, if you ask me when I'm on the second draft, I usually do have an agenda but didn't realize it right away.

I think all writers have agendas just on different levels. Novels have more than a really short story, I think. As long as the reader enjoys the story without being hit over the head with an agenda I think it adds interest.

Sunny Frazier said...

Love all your comments and introspection. What's a blog for if not to make us examine ourselves? That's my agenda!

marta chausée said...

Oh Lotd, I never thought of an agenda, beyond my own personal one, when I wrote Murder's Last Resort. I just wanted to kill a lot of people in a glamorous and prestigious setting.

Next book-- I'll dig deeper. I promise.

Nice blog, Sunny. And I know at least one of your three published companion examples. ;-) say Hi from me.

Linda Thorne said...

I didn't think about my writing as an "agenda," but now that you mention it, yeah for sure. My first book has an agenda from the moment the pieces of it entered my mind (in pieces over decades)-- things I needed to say before I exploded. The second book (still a work in progress) is the same way. My published short stories have an agenda too. I don't have one for my third book yet, but I have a feeling it will come to me if I can ever get to writing it.
I do think that whatever an author's agenda is, it needs to be written to interest readers. Many readers can identify, learn, grow, etc. from an author's personal "agenda." I just want to note to Sunny that I find this interesting how she tagged a new word for the writing world. I think this will come up again and some of us here can say, "Sunny Frazier got that term started." Let's not give credit to anyone else. If I hear about "author agenda," I'm going to say Sunny Frazier started this slant on writing.

Tony Burton said...

I think for most of us, even if we are totally unaware of it, we have an agenda. It may be unspoken, or even simply a vague idea, but we have one. Even if you look at the Jack Reacher books (or other books of like ilk), we see an agenda: the good guys ought to win, even if there is a cost in violence to be paid. If a person writes about the events of the Civil Rights unrest in the Sixties, it is difficult to keep a totally neutral tone, and even if there is no intent to have an agenda, the author will probably paint those on one side or the other of the question as Bad Actors, thus making a judgement call and creating an "agenda" of sorts.

We who write (for example) about supernatural events without being snarky about them, may be saying "Hmmmmm... maybe there is something to this sort of thing, if we think about it with an open mind."

People who object to an author's agenda may (if the recognize it) refuse to finish the book, or refuse to read any more of the author's books. And that's their choice.

Sunny Frazier said...

You're right, Tony. People want to read what they agree with. In non-fiction, it's easy to choose a book with an agenda you agree with. That's why novelists are more subversive, we can bury the motive in a good story and great characters. I tend to dislike rich people, so they don't do very well in my books. I also think some people just need to die, so often my killers get away with murder. But, I also challenge the reader in their preconceived notions. One of the highest compliments I received was a reader who told me "I really hated the drug dealer but sometimes I felt sorry for him."

Linda, I'm not sure I created the term, but if you want to give me credit, I'll take it!

Karyne Corum said...

This is such an excellent post. Agendas root a book in something solid aND tangible wetter the reader realizes it or not. It's what separates the boops that will linger in a readers subconscious to those that will simply float on by.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I have agendas for each of my books. In my multicultural romances I try to introduce people to the cultures of some Caribbean countries beyond the usual tourist view. In my children's books its quite obvious my agenda is to introduce kids to specific concepts. But there are also hidden agendas in my books, messages of encouragement and positivity. Like having an obese woman as the heroine in a romance and getting her to love her body.

Sunny Frazier said...

Jewel, I LOVE your agendas!

Liane Spicer said...

I've realized I always have an agenda when I write a story. Even my beach reads (romance) have hidden agendas; read the reviews on my first novel and you'll see what I mean. These agendas tend to be the things I feel passionately about. I agree with Melodie though: telling a good, entertaining story is essential, whatever the genre and whatever the agenda. It's a novel or short story, not a crusade. (Although some crusading novels can be lots of fun too. Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang comes to mind.)

Great post, Sunny!