Time to Debate: “I Don’t Put Messages in my Writing”

So says Philip Pullman:

For me, there are two issues here.

Firstly I am surprised he said it about his own work when so much has been and can be read into HDM. The fact that he himself has taken part in public debates with religious figures such as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to discuss it makes this quote even more bizarre. Williams was the only public religious figure who got it – a criticism of using the spiritual realm to exert political influence to seize temporal power.

He made the comment as a response to a comment from Bill Donohue of Catholic League that HDM “promoted atheism” and deliberately “denigrates Christianity”. Pullman dismissed Donohue’s accusation as absolute rubbish and then made the above comment.

If he did not set out to create any message in the text that is one thing, but to state (as he appears to do) that he does not create messages (because that’s what sermons are for) – inadvertently or otherwise – just seems bizarre. And Pullman was reimagining Paradise Lost in HDM!

I can think of numerous works of fiction where there is some sort of message, whether the author intended it or not. True, we are primarily fiction writers who want to tell a story but sometimes our medium is real life and – for me at least – a method of venting some of my own frustrations and thoughts about the world. The Weight of Reason certainly was that.

The floor is open to debate on this one… do you put messages in your fiction? Or is any message later read into it subconscious at the time of writing?
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8 thoughts on “Time to Debate: “I Don’t Put Messages in my Writing”

  1. Personally I do. Paradox war stacked messages on messages, using mythic themes, symbology, sub-text, dialogue, comedy, and a crowbar, but that was kind of the point. Any story that plays with religion and spirituality is going to have to have a message in order to feel authentic.
    Actually I have characters who get a bit preachy from time to time, but its all part of telling their story and character progression, so hopefully that’s okay.

    1. Any story that plays with religion and spirituality is going to have to have a message in order to feel authentic.

      Absolutely. I can’t see how you can not impart a message when discussing something like religion, philosophy or politics. They are messages.

      My novelette The Weight of Reason has a clear and unambiguous environmental message. Even some of my short stories in Herrenvolk and other Stories have a message.

      A New Age Exodus is about politicians covering up truths that might challenge their status quo. Evil begets Evil looks at the gap between obedience.and doing what is right. And 50% Match? shows how there is always two sides to an argument and no matter how ethically we try to live, we can never be completely virtuous.

  2. I do, especially with short stories. I don’t push it but it is what I construct my plot around and how i choose my ending. Should the hero die? Should the hero survive? I think about what message it conveys either way and pick the one that matches my original intended message.

    However, I think a lot is read into stories purely by the readers and not intended by the writer at all

    1. Hey, welcome back!

      I think you are certainly right on the final part. Sometimes I look back at something I’ve written and I can see how somebody might read a message into it, but often that would be unintentional.

  3. I do, too. And I openly say that. All my stories have messages.

    And Pullman knows that, too. I think folks (and himself, I believe it is on his website) promote that quote because it tones down the “angry atheist” image.

    I mean, messages are how – no, that’s why we write. There is a topic we are passionate about and we want folks to know about it. The message might be: life is grand, enjoy it while you can or some explicit political diatribe or environmental catastrophe is imminent or that kinky sex with a dominate male is what women really want. Whatever it is, and as you said, whether the author is aware of it or not, the message is in there.

    1. I think folks (and himself, I believe it is on his website) promote that quote because it tones down the “angry atheist” image.

      Is that the reason? If so, it seems a little dishonest. I mean, sure, not everything does have a message and maybe sometimes people attempt to look for messages that might not be there. Think specifically of Procol Harum A Whiter Shade of Pale. Philosophers had been analysing it for years before the band came out and said it was meaningless – that the lyrics were gibberish and supposed to be so 🙂 but to say something that clearly does have meaning – and that so many people are reading the same meaning – must mean something and some sense of deliberate-ness to the meaning

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