Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”
I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.
I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3
The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5
Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?
I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.
When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.
The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.
However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.
Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8
But that’s not entirely true either.
The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.
However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.
How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9
With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.
I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.
In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.
Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.
Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.
To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.
This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.
To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12
The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.
I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!
In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.
Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.
- As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. [↩]
- When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. [↩]
- But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. [↩]
- Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. [↩]
- I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. [↩]
- Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. [↩]
- No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. [↩]
- That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. [↩]
- Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. [↩]
- Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. [↩]
- Which is plenty of engagement, by the way. [↩]
- Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy. [↩]