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Author Topic: theme vs didacticism  (Read 3548 times)
Ben Phillips
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« on: June 09, 2010, 12:04:47 PM »

There's a common thread pervading many comments from Millennium_King, about what he calls "message stories", which I'd like to address before I see it strenuously repeated much more.  I'll just excerpt things from a couple of story threads to present what I hope is a fair representation of his commentary (but I'm linking to the threads in question if you want more context).

Regarding "The Sultan of Meat":

I absolutely despise these "cosmic revelation" stories (anyone who's read my review of "The Blessed Days" should already know this).  The big payoff to this is that we're all just flesh and the universe is a cruel place?  Ummmm... DUH?  (Warning, editorializing ahead: Except that's not even correct: cruelty requires the concept of kindness to exist.  The universe simply IS.  It's uncaring - neither cruel nor kind, it simply IS.  If it turns on an axis, that axis is force - not cruelty.)

We'll talk about "Blessed Days" below.  But first:  repainting the world in more interesting colors is what I think fiction is all about, unless, perhaps, the fiction in question is strictly realism.  (More on that below as well.)

Remember that one can read a message in anything.  You can read a Tom and Jerry cartoon as an invective against violence.  (Don't preach at me, you damn cartoonists -- I will hit anyone I want, with anything I want, no matter how futile you seem to think it is.)  I would say "The Sultan of Meat" does, like many horror stories, use the primal fear of consuming and being consumed as leverage; and if that didn't work for you, then okay.  But I don't see it as a prima facie flaw.  The characters (and other creatures) involved apparently became obsessed with the concept because a supernatural force caused them to do so.

I appreciate stories where the characters have powerful, personal revelations - not where some "cosmic truth" is thrust on the reader.  That never works.  Either the reader already knows it, or their worldview has already rejected it.  Let's have less evangelizing in our fiction, okay?

Are you sure there's a difference between the two?  It's hard for me to imagine someone having a personal revelation I couldn't disagree with, that I couldn't recast as misjudgment on the part of the person/character having it.  And sometimes it can take me out of a story when this happens.  This is a common sticking point for a lot of people with a lot of stories, even ones with no speculative element at all -- the reader's perception of an authorial worldview butts up against the reader's own convictions and upstages the story.  It happens.  Maybe the author really feels quite oppositely from how the reader is assuming and that was supposed to be part of the point, but anyway...  is the undesirable end effect on the reader indicative of something the author could have done better?  Perhaps.  Like many things, it probably worked for some people and not others.

Regarding "The Blessed Days":

Anyway, the horror of Lovecraft was that the universe was a vast, uncaring place where your greatest hopes and dreams were less than dust in the grand scheme of eternity.  This story validated them, made them look valuable.  The worms were essentially Satan - the evil entity that provokes evil in mankind, that cares about the actions of every soul.  That's stupid - but almost funny.

So you liked Lovecraft and thought "The Blessed Days" fell short of the mark simply because humans are in any way special?  You must have hated all the Lovecraft stories where someone was able to summon a thing more powerful than himself -- because why should that entity be compelled by the actions of a human at all?  I would say it's for the reasons HPL's source material said it should, basically:  intelligent beings can do magic.  It was inspired by the age-old notion that blood sacrifice is special, that worship is special.  He was just turning it on its head by implying that it's anything but beneficial.  (Sure the entities usually just want to eat people.  But still -- they always seem to particularly like eating *people*.)  It doesn't negate the idea of meaning, an overarching message, conveyed in narrative.  Quite the opposite, in fact -- it is very much bound up in the religious views of the major religions he was reacting against, and the apparent views of the human-sacrifice cults he studied.  And it is much of what gives his stories the impact they have, the main theme of his work which has been replicated throughout the horror genre ever since.  Is it realistic?  Heck no.  It's Romanticism, same as any gothic literature you can shake a stick at.  If you don't like Romanticism you don't want to read gothic stuff.  You want realism.  Try nonfiction.  (Insert can of soul-devouring worms here about history as a kind of fictional narrative in itself.)
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Millenium_King
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« Reply #1 on: June 09, 2010, 01:17:45 PM »

Rebuttal to Ben:

Firstly, I'd like to say that I am not in any way attempting to disparage you as an editor.  I keep coming back, obviously, and I think you’re doing a cracking job of selecting stories which exhibit a wide variety of themes – even if I dislike some of them.  This variety fuels my (and, I think) many other’s adherence to Pseudopod.

Let me secondly stress that many of my reviews are from a subjective, “reader’s” perspective.  It’s difficult to perform textual analysis in an audio format, after all.

Let me clarify my comments re: some of the stories I have listened to lately.  There are four I will examine specifically:

“The Sultan of Meat” – In my opinion, the success of a story like this, just like “Leviathan,” succeed or fail depending entirely upon the “big reveal” at the end.  In other words, the “Boo! Factor.”  In order for a story like this to be effective, the revelation must carry sufficient impact to send the reader stumbling.  I already commented in “Leviathan” as to why it failed to create the same Lovecraftian impact as “Dagon” or “The Call of Cthulhu” – but why did “The Sultan of Meat” fail moreso?  If you take “Leviathan” and excise the “sanity-shattering” reveal at the end, you are still left with an entertaining little sea-story about brave men roughing the elements and connecting in a human way.  On the other hand, removing the “big reveal” from “The Sultan of Meat” leaves one with only a string of disconnected elements and vague metaphors.  Moreover, the “revelation” in “The Sultan of Meat” is really made to the reader – not the character as it was in “Leviathan.”  Ergo, the reader’s personal prejudices are brought into the fray.  This plays into my overarching criticism of these four stories: message and allegory must take a back seat to “telling a ripping good yarn.”  Star Trek’s “Let that be your Last Battlefield” and “The Mark of Gideon” and the Twilight Zone’s “He’s Alive!” and “The Obsolete Man” are as heavy-handed as they come, but even without their “messages” they are still entertaining works of fiction.

“The Undoing” – Like my criticism of “The Sultan of Meat,” this story is basically plotless.  Its 20 minutes of lovingly described torture all to make an allegorical point about Guantanamo Bay (or, perhaps Israel, or simply torture in general).  Beyond being a superficial examination of the motivation of state-sanctioned torture, moral authority and the pitfalls of engaging thereof, it relies upon lame metaphors like “light in eyes.”  My primary criticism stands for this story more than any other: take away the allegory, and there is no value here, there is no plot here, there is nothing to keep the listener interested.  A story must be more than just a message.  Furthermore, this story arm-twists you into identifying solely with one side.  The prisoner is actually named “Hero” and the doctor notices a loss of beauty in the world because of what he/she did.  What a twist, what a horror would it have been if the doctor – or someone else provided a nuanced counterpoint: the sun glows brighter with men like Hero gone.  But alas, this story lacked both plot and nuance.

“Wave Goodbye” – Similar to “The Undoing” this one completely lacks a plot, twists the arm of the reader to sympathize solely with one side of the issue (is the tormented woman ever even given a name?  Does she have family?  Friends?  Who will miss her?  Or is she simply a cardboard stand in for colonial guilt and Western sinfulness?).  Again, there is no story here.  Just 20 minutes of torture all designed to be allegorical.

“The Blessed Days” – I am the first to admit I that my displeasure at this story was almost entirely personal.  I had been hoping for a “Lovecraftian reveal” but instead got (what I considered) a lame vision of a wormy Satan.  I dislike stories where much of human violence is inspired by ultra-human forces.  It takes the blame off of us.  If all good things in one’s life are from God, and all bad things from Satan – where does that leave you?  Again, apologies Ben, my distaste for this one was more of a personal bias and less of an objective case for an argument against a “message” story.  This was an entertaining story even without the message, and so I judge it a total success.  My criticism was unduly harsh, and I apologize to both you and the author.
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Millenium_King
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« Reply #2 on: June 09, 2010, 01:19:39 PM »

Ben: furthermore, if you'd prefer I stop with these sorts of criticism, I will happily oblige.  I am not here to stir up trouble, just give an honest opinion.  I can be cruelly blunt sometimes, and for that I do apologize.
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« Reply #3 on: June 09, 2010, 01:59:59 PM »

I think it's more the statement of opinion as fact ("That never works," etc.) combined with some borderline statements about the authors, editors, and hosts.  When you cross from "I didn't like this story because I personally feel blah and it said bleh," to "Stories that say blah are wrong and stupid.  Everyone knows bleh is correct," there can be issues, and criticizing the editorial decisions and commentary based on how they didn't match up with yours is a bit off-putting.
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Ben Phillips
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« Reply #4 on: June 09, 2010, 02:09:50 PM »

I think it's more the statement of opinion as fact ("That never works," etc.) combined with some borderline statements about the authors, editors, and hosts.  When you cross from "I didn't like this story because I personally feel blah and it said bleh," to "Stories that say blah are wrong and stupid.  Everyone knows bleh is correct," there can be issues, and criticizing the editorial decisions and commentary based on how they didn't match up with yours is a bit off-putting.

Yep, what Scattercat said.
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Fenrix
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« Reply #5 on: June 09, 2010, 02:14:13 PM »

Ben: furthermore, if you'd prefer I stop with these sorts of criticism, I will happily oblige.  I am not here to stir up trouble, just give an honest opinion.  I can be cruelly blunt sometimes, and for that I do apologize.

Your tact filter may just need a little tuning. There's a line between cruelly blunt and brutally honest. Maybe it would be better for you to write a comment and then come back to it a day later before hitting "post".

I'll admit I've skipped the remainder of your posts when typical forum troll flame bait language pops up. That language devalues other opinions you may have, valid as they may be. We're all grown ups here, so treat everyone with the respect you'd like and you should be fine.
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Millenium_King
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« Reply #6 on: June 09, 2010, 03:24:25 PM »

I think it's more the statement of opinion as fact ("That never works," etc.) combined with some borderline statements about the authors, editors, and hosts.  When you cross from "I didn't like this story because I personally feel blah and it said bleh," to "Stories that say blah are wrong and stupid.  Everyone knows bleh is correct..."

Certainly fair enough.  I thought I was clear enough in my replies that they were all "in my opinion" - but I can certainly see where that is not clear.  I'll try to show a little more tact.  Thank you everyone for pointing this out.

...there can be issues, and criticizing the editorial decisions and commentary based on how they didn't match up with yours is a bit off-putting.

Apologies all around if I have offended anyone or seemed like I was coming down on anyone's decisions or opinions.  That was not my intent.  There are a couple things I'd just like to state for the record:

1.  I have never directly criticized any of Ben's decisions.  I constantly praise him for how brave he is in choosing some of these stories ("Breaking the Vessel" and "Set Down This" in particular).  Even though I might hate some of his selections, I actually do not think they are bad choices.  The wide variety and willingness to not pander to the audience is why PP is challenging and thought-provoking - as opposed to the same old bland crap.  A lot of the stories I hated worked well for other people (Scattercat and I are frequently on opposite sides of the fence) and I think Ben has a knack for picking provocative pieces.  The fact that I hate some of them actually INCREASES my respect for him.  There are other publications, which I will not name here, which mine the same vein of crap every time and there is a reason I do not post on their message boards.

2.  Deep apologies to Alasdair if I seem to knock any of his commentary.  It is typically very insightful and provides a much needed expansion or counterpoint to the story.  There were just one or two ("Wave Goodbye," for example) where I was a little let down since I'd been expecting a sort of "different take" on what was a fairly obvious (to me, anyway) message.  Let me reiterate that my dissappointment has just as much to do with my own emotional response to the piece as to the fact that his commentary is usually of very high calibur.

Again, apologies all around to everyone.  I was just trying to look back through the archives and review the great work here.  I tend to give strong positives, but also strong negatives and tend to be forceful, rather than tactful when I argue.  I will try to be more polite in the future.  I love PP and there's a reason I've been spending 3-4 hours a day trawling the archives.  I have nothing but respect for the authors, editors, hosts and narrators here... even if I disagree with them.
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« Reply #7 on: June 09, 2010, 03:54:29 PM »

I think it's more the statement of opinion as fact ("That never works," etc.) combined with some borderline statements about the authors, editors, and hosts.  When you cross from "I didn't like this story because I personally feel blah and it said bleh," to "Stories that say blah are wrong and stupid.  Everyone knows bleh is correct..."

Certainly fair enough.  I thought I was clear enough in my replies that they were all "in my opinion" - but I can certainly see where that is not clear.  I'll try to show a little more tact.  Thank you everyone for pointing this out.


Therein lies the rub, I think. "In my opinion" is always implicit - everyone always posts their opinions. But "in my opinion, this never works" isn't any better than "this never works" - in either case, you are asserting that you believe you know what the universal reaction is. Saying it's your opinion means that you're admitting you may be wrong, but that's not the problem.

Rather, what you should be saying is "for me" - "this never works for me". That's something you have every right to say. But "for me" is not always implicit - it needs to be stated explicitly.

These are lessons I learnt the hard way myself - by people getting upset at me when I posted things not only without intending to offend, but without even imagining I might.
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Millenium_King
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« Reply #8 on: June 09, 2010, 04:04:16 PM »

Therein lies the rub, I think. "In my opinion" is always implicit - everyone always posts their opinions. But "in my opinion, this never works" isn't any better than "this never works" - in either case, you are asserting that you believe you know what the universal reaction is. Saying it's your opinion means that you're admitting you may be wrong, but that's not the problem.

Rather, what you should be saying is "for me" - "this never works for me". That's something you have every right to say. But "for me" is not always implicit - it needs to be stated explicitly.

These are lessons I learnt the hard way myself - by people getting upset at me when I posted things not only without intending to offend, but without even imagining I might.

I totally agree with you.  I can just get carried away and, of course, I have been assuming what you suggest: they are my posts, so I assume everyone knows it's just one lunatic's opinion.
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« Reply #9 on: June 09, 2010, 05:34:42 PM »

Let me just toss in, while I thoroughly appreciate the clear apologies and have no doubts on sincerity etc., that "I have never directly criticized Ben/Al/whoever" isn't exactly a resounding defense.  Statements such as "I hate this," "Another message story," and "Less evangelizing in our fiction" (which I chose because they're ones that appear to have struck a nerve inasmuch as Ben singled them out for response) are very clearly judgments and criticisms.  You didn't say, "Ben is stupid for picking another dumb message story," but the implication is pretty strong when you start talking about it in terms of editorial trends ("another X story").

It's the dismissive tone and the flippant disregard that really make it not work rather than the disagreement per se; you may not like what you perceive to be "message stories," but given that not everyone even sees the same message in these stories you so dislike, it's not entirely kosher to toss it all on the pile as one thing or to discuss it in terms of "another message story" when Ben may not even think of it AS a message story or have any sort of ulterior motive in selecting it for publication.

That's really the crux, here; it's not what one says, but how one says it and how sensitive one is to the possible implications of what one says.  In particular, the editors, hosts, and in many cases the authors themselves are all present and reading what you write; bearing that in mind, thinking of them as part of this community, too, might help you avoid the sort of storm of negativity that's clouding the air just at present.
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« Reply #10 on: June 09, 2010, 06:55:47 PM »

Scattercat:  I have explained my position on my reviews.  They are my opinions and they do not intend to disparage Ben or any of the other editors.  I believe that Ben can pick stories which are absolutely the wrong choice for my taste, but absolutely the correct choice for PP.  If you choose to continue to view my reviews as insults to Ben, that is up to you.  I have nothing but praise for him and, if you do not believe me, that's fine.

I have issued my apology.  If you do not accept, that is also fine.  Just say so.

But do not continue to lecture me.  You actually compared my story to a "manure-filled barn."  I never did, nor shall I, demand an apology from you.  I am an adult and can accept criticism.  But you have no room to lecture me on being considerate to authors.

http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=3436.40
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« Reply #11 on: June 09, 2010, 07:22:11 PM »

That's a reference to the famous joke about the optimist who inherited a barn full of manure and ran through it shouting, "With all this manure, there must be a pony here somewhere."  I did not say, "This story is a barnload of manure."  I was using a metaphor to describe my disappointment that what I thought was going to be a fun re-imagining ended up as a straight homage.  If you mistook my meaning, then I apologize.  (I even went back and added the line about the pony to make sure my reference was clear.)

If you really can't see the difference between that and your posts, well, there's not a lot that anyone can really do to fix that.  I kept my criticism of "Ankor Sabat" to my perceptions, my expectations, and the things that annoyed me personally, not to the podcast as a whole or entire segments of the literary world. 

I already said I have no doubts about sincerity and so on; I just wanted to make it clear that not having criticized something directly is not the same as not criticizing it, and having a paragraph of justification after an apology tends to weaken the impact of the whole.

Edit: typo
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Millenium_King
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« Reply #12 on: June 09, 2010, 07:40:09 PM »

Scattercat:  I'm not here to argue "who's the bigger negative poster."  You may have felt your comments were entirely in line and fair, other people may not have felt that way.  Furthermore, many people did seem to take your comments as insulting an "entire segment of the literary world."  That was my point.

Furthermore, now that you have issued your apology, I do not plan on continuing to bang you over the head and lecture you.  I do not plan on going on about how "having a paragraph of justification after an apology [weakens] the impact of the whole."  Which is exactly what you did too, you know.

It just seems to me that you have shown up here and demanded I continue grovelling.  I gave my justification, I stand by my reviews and I apologized if I was overly harsh.

Perhaps you can just be straight with me:  what do I need to do to prove to you that I have "learned my lesson?"
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« Reply #13 on: June 09, 2010, 11:53:20 PM »

Let me just say that both Millenium_King and Scattercat have given positive reviews to stories as well as negative.  At this point, we can focus on those, and all go about sharing our opinions with lessons learned. 

Negative criticism is allowed and appreciated here on the forums as long as it is not personally directed, sweeping, or as the title of this thread suggests, overly diactic. 

I'm glad Ben started this thread to provide guidence and warning, but I think that what was needed to be said directly, has been said.  If anyone would like to discuss this further with Millenium_King, please send him a PM.  The general topic of didacticism and theme remains open for discussion.
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« Reply #14 on: June 10, 2010, 01:11:02 AM »

I apologise if I'm butting in unwanted here, but I have to say I don't see anything wrong with the kind of criticism being offered by anyone here.  Do we really need to qualify everything we say?  I think a proper response to something that's being perceived as being stated as "objective fact" begins with "I disagree, and here's why," not "Don't say things like that."  I prefer discussion over silence.
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« Reply #15 on: June 10, 2010, 02:21:03 AM »

I would like to state for the record that I was not attempting to be didactic in any of my reviews.

I am not criticizing these stories based on the content of their messages (at least, the messages as I saw them), I was criticizing these stories because they were only the message, and nothing else.  Even if "The Sultan of Meat" had a revelation that jived 100% with my worldview, I still would not have liked it.  Without the message, there just wasn't anything to that story.

And again, this is just my opinion and that is all, but I seriously dislike stories in which the message is all they are composed of.  When I call something a "message story" - it is this to which I am referring.  Not that I dislike the message itself (which I do from time to time), but because there is nothing else but the message.
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« Reply #16 on: June 10, 2010, 03:21:03 AM »

There's a continuum, though, isn't there?  I mean, on the one side you have, like, "Pilgrim's Progress" and Ayn Rand, all message and minimal story filled with flat characters, and on the other end you have, I dunno, "Snakes on a Plane" or something, that has nothing but events without purpose or meaning.  (Barring some sort of post-modern deconstructionist non-story.)  Where is the line between a message story and a regular story?

Take "Wave Goodbye," which I personally thought was a little on the preachy side; it's got a lot of characterization and some modulated notes that give it a nuance of flavor.  It doesn't only have a "message," since part of the story revolves around the tension between the vengeful ghost and her restless daughter, and that means it has characters and a conflict.  Heck, not everyone even got the same message from that story; some people thought it was an endorsement of the ghost's worldview, but others saw it as an indictment of that same drive to vengeance.  If it does have only a message and nothing else, then it's not doing a good job conveying it.

Or "Sultan of Meat," which was also about striking images and rich, chewy language as much as whatever message one can see in it.  (I agree that its fundamental premise appeared to be that the universe is a cruel place, but I don't really see that conveying that message was in any way the point of the story.  If anything, you needed to already have digested that meme in order to even understand the story; if you weren't familiar with the idea of a cold cruel universe, then God as a masochistic devoured devourer would be utter nonsense to you.)  It was also about a girl's self-destruction and a man failing to save her from it, and it was also about some truly horrific imagery.  I don't think one can really pull a single clear and obvious meaning from that story, let alone claim that there wasn't anything else in it.

More broadly, all stories have messages; theme is an integral part of a story structure, and you can't avoid having your story say something.  Even saying nothing is saying something; refraining from making a particular thematic statement is itself a thematic statement.  Stories can also have themes they didn't intend and convey messages they weren't meant to convey.  Sometimes this reveals some sort of hidden bias on the part of the author, but other times it's just a matter of the catalytic interface between the text and the reader.  Witness the whole #racefail debacle from last year; a lot of people heard a message that wasn't supposed to be sent and whose author was unaware of its existence until others pointed it out.  How loud a given message is tends to be a factor as much of the reader as the author.

There probably is a point where something stops being a story and becomes simply a manifesto.  (I'd argue Ayn Rand is at least in danger of slipping off that precipice, for instance.)  I don't think it's a good approach, however, to reduce a story to a one-sentence theme (one of several possible readings) and then denounce that story for being only that theme; it wasn't only that theme until you reduced it to that, d'you see?  It had characters and a plot and stuff, or else it wouldn't have been a story at all.  And you could go back to the start and find a whole other meaning buried in that story, and another and another and another.  If I decide that the Creature in "Frankenstein" represents Doctor Frankenstein's repressed homosexual urges, well, I can probably find ways to support that reading in the text, but am I then justified in casting aside the book as a mere paean to the Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name?  The more common reading is to see the Creature as related to Science Run Amok, so much so that we call our creations "Frankenstein's Monster" when they break from our control.  Does that make "Frankenstein" a message story?

What about stories that end up with "wrong" meanings?  Ray Bradbury famously decried people for misreading "Fahrenheit 451" as being a message against censorship (though I forget what he claimed it was "actually" about; I think it was supposed to be about how stultifying television is or something); is the book still a message story if the message everyone sees isn't the one the author intended?
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« Reply #17 on: June 10, 2010, 12:33:28 PM »

There's a continuum, though, isn't there?  I mean, on the one side you have, like, "Pilgrim's Progress" and Ayn Rand, all message and minimal story filled with flat characters, and on the other end you have, I dunno, "Snakes on a Plane" or something, that has nothing but events without purpose or meaning.  (Barring some sort of post-modern deconstructionist non-story.)  Where is the line between a message story and a regular story?

There may be a continuum, sure.  Again, these reviews were just my opinions.  In my view, the bottom of that continuum is something like "He's Alive!" or "Let that be your Last Battlefield."  I think "Set Down This," "The Undoing," "Wave Goodbye" and "The Sultan of Meat" fell well below this threshold.

Take "Wave Goodbye," which I personally thought was a little on the preachy side; it's got a lot of characterization and some modulated notes that give it a nuance of flavor.  It doesn't only have a "message," since part of the story revolves around the tension between the vengeful ghost and her restless daughter, and that means it has characters and a conflict.  Heck, not everyone even got the same message from that story; some people thought it was an endorsement of the ghost's worldview, but others saw it as an indictment of that same drive to vengeance.  If it does have only a message and nothing else, then it's not doing a good job conveying it.

Perhaps to you.  But I saw precisely zero tension in the story.  The daughter never really had any power or ability to stop the mother, so there was never any tension that they might come to legitimate conflict.  Meanwhile, the victim was drawn in completely card-board style and whatever her side of the story was, it was totally ignored.  The fact that she had friends, family and maybe a boyfriend or lover who would miss her was not even considered.  Making her a human being who was legitimately suffering would have made the story appear nuanced and not so thuroughly on the side of the ghost.  Again, this is my opinion.  This story worked for some, and I can see why it did and why Ben chose it, but it failed for me.

Or "Sultan of Meat," which was also about striking images and rich, chewy language as much as whatever message one can see in it.  (I agree that its fundamental premise appeared to be that the universe is a cruel place, but I don't really see that conveying that message was in any way the point of the story.  If anything, you needed to already have digested that meme in order to even understand the story; if you weren't familiar with the idea of a cold cruel universe, then God as a masochistic devoured devourer would be utter nonsense to you.)  It was also about a girl's self-destruction and a man failing to save her from it, and it was also about some truly horrific imagery.  I don't think one can really pull a single clear and obvious meaning from that story, let alone claim that there wasn't anything else in it.

I don't think one can pull a single, clear plot from that story either.  Because it was so plotless, the only things it really did were (a) have lots of metaphor and (b) have some sort of message.  Even if (b) is not true, it doesn't really matter.  Without message or plot, my criticism still stands: it's a meandering mess of metaphor (hah! Unintentional alliteration!).  Again, that's just my opinion and others may have felt differently, but I have yet to see anyone (including you) accurately summarize the plot of that one and declare it gripping.

More broadly, all stories have messages; theme is an integral part of a story structure, and you can't avoid having your story say something.  Even saying nothing is saying something; refraining from making a particular thematic statement is itself a thematic statement.  Stories can also have themes they didn't intend and convey messages they weren't meant to convey.  Sometimes this reveals some sort of hidden bias on the part of the author, but other times it's just a matter of the catalytic interface between the text and the reader.  Witness the whole #racefail debacle from last year; a lot of people heard a message that wasn't supposed to be sent and whose author was unaware of its existence until others pointed it out.  How loud a given message is tends to be a factor as much of the reader as the author.

Hmmm.  I'm not familiar with #racefail.  I agree that a story will have a theme and that it is simply unavoidable.  But what I have been striving to point out is that theme and even message is okay, so long as it takes a back seat to the plot.  Again, just my opinion, but a story like "The Undoing" has virtually no plot.  It can be summarized as "criminal gets tortured."  When the plot is so thin, the message is all the louder.  Eventually, at some point, the message becomes the focus and that, to me, is something I dislike.  A story like "Set Down This" reads to me like the author came up with the message first and the story second (this may or may not be true, of course, it's just how it reads to me).  A story with an "unintentional" message likely contains that message precisely because the story was written first.

There probably is a point where something stops being a story and becomes simply a manifesto.  (I'd argue Ayn Rand is at least in danger of slipping off that precipice, for instance.)  I don't think it's a good approach, however, to reduce a story to a one-sentence theme (one of several possible readings) and then denounce that story for being only that theme; it wasn't only that theme until you reduced it to that, d'you see?  It had characters and a plot and stuff, or else it wouldn't have been a story at all.

This is precisely where you and I part company.  What I disagree with you most about is that "[the story] had characters and a plot and stuff."  The big 4 I have decided to call "message stories" ("Set Down This," "Wave Goodbye," "The Sultan of Meat" and "The Undoing") I regard as virtually plotless with thinly drawn caritcatures of characters.  You do not see them that way and regard them as full-fledged stories.  I don't.  Because I don't, all I can see is the message.  I may or may not have misinterpreted the message, but that is irrelevant.  It's the plotlessness and thin characters that bug me far more than the fact that the story had something to say.  Others may disagree.  Some may be enchanted by nuance and subtlety, and I can see where that might be in those stories.  But, obviously, I am not one for subtlety.  I prefer the powerful action, imagery and legitimate fear of a story like "The Worm that Gnaws" to whatever "negative space" can be found in "Set Down this."

Again: just my opinion.  I totally understand why some people liked "Set Down This."  I understand why you liked it.  I get why Ben liked it and why he chose it.  I don't think he's stupid for choosing it or anything.  It was a wise decision.  If he simply picked stories that were appealing to me personally, we'd all get bored really quickly.  If I can see where you liked a story, but disagree, can you see where I might dislike a story?
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