So, I was reading this excerpt from a novelette on Analog, and wondering why it was so very, very badly written. I actually zoned out in the middle of it because I just didn’t care about it anymore. Sure, the idea of aliens trying to buy the moon was an interesting idea, and sure the idea of tags and emotion tags was interesting, but the story just didn’t seem to go anywhere, Instead, there were a number of asides about the ex-boyfriend of Rose and things like that, that didn’t seem to add anything to either the plot or the characters. Heck, even the idea of a princess in Britain trying to emulate Diana would have been interesting if it had been explored. And in thinking about that and about “Cat Pictures, Please” — which struck me the same way — it got me thinking about what primary purpose those stories might have had … and about primary purposes in general.
It seems to me that there are a number of primary purposes that a work of fiction can have. Note that they can include some or all of these elements, but there is always generally a primary purpose to the work, something that the work is really attempting to convey. It seems to me that there are these primary purposes:
1) Narrative: The primary purpose here is to relate an event or events. Essentially, this fictional work is just trying to tell a story. A good example of this would be the original Mass Effect game, where the story of Saren and the Reapers was the primary focus, and the world and the characters there to facilitate that.
2) Character: The primary purpose here is to introduce and explore interesting characters. The plot and all other elements are there to support us finding out about and following the interesting characters. Mass Effect 2 is a good example of this, as the plot is literally nothing more than an excuse to go out, recruit and interact with those interesting characters.
3) Emotional: The primary purpose here is to elicit a specific emotion in the person experiencing the work, be it fear, joy, sadness or something else. Horror works are the prime examples of this, as, for example, in Lovecraft’s work all of the plot and characters are there only to allow for the horror to come to the fore during and at the end.
4) Exploring an idea: I think that Chuck Sonneberg’s view of “high concept” stories fits this really well: you have an idea that sounds interesting, and you want to play it out to see how it would work in the setting that you’re in. This can range from simply taking an idea like “What would happen if Captain Picard was turned into a child?” and seeing how it would work to exploring both sides of a complex moral issue. But, in general, you are exploring the idea, not merely expressing it nor arguing for it.
5) Arguing for an idea: The work is trying to argue that a certain idea is correct by analogy to the fictional world they’ve created. “Atlas Shrugged” is a good example here, as it is blatantly obvious that that is her goal, but other, more highly regarded works do this as well, like “1984” or “Brave New World”. Science fiction and fantasy are actually really good genres for this because they are so open that it is easier to create worlds that you can use as an analogy to support your argument than it is in other genres.
6) Expressing an idea: The work just wants to express an idea or number of ideas, without either exploring them or arguing for them.
I submit that “Cat Pictures, Please” and “No Strangers Any More” are aiming at the last category, as the authors are just expressing ideas that they like or are important to them without really exploring them in detail or taking the time to argue for them. The problem with doing that is that in a work of fiction simply expressing an idea is boring, and triggers the precise reactions I had to those works: 1) These are interesting ideas but aren’t explored, 2) The ideas don’t seem relevant to the overall story and 3) This would be done better as an essay than as a story. After all, if you want to simply express an idea, you’d generally write an essay or a post talking about them, and someone who was interesting in either your opinion or in the ideas would be willing to sit down and read you simply talking about them. But sticking them into a work of fiction seems to be taking the long way around if that’s all you’re doing, as both exploring an idea and arguing for it all benefit from the analogy that fiction provides, but if you’re simply expressing the idea introducing it through analogy seems a convoluted way to do that, and risks obscuring the idea that you’re trying to express.
Given this, if I’m right, then there are two likely possibilities for why their stories end up in category 6). The first is that they are, in fact, trying to argue for their ideas, but never get past merely expressing them; in short, they heavy-handedly express them, but don’t properly use the analogy to make their point, leaving the ideas disconnected from the rest of the story. The second is that the main purpose of their writing is to express ideas and emotions and things that are important to them, and they are far less concerned about anything else in their works. You can decide for yourselves which interpretation is the more charitable, as both are ideas that have been expressed by modern fiction writers.
What this means, though, is that any works that end up in category 6) are only going to be interesting to those who already agree with the ideas, as they won’t need arguments for those ideas, and will often feel that this is an author who “gets” them, expressing the ideas that they themselves have always wanted to express or see expressed in works. But, again, as a work of fiction itself doing that will be boring and convoluted, and so anyone who doesn’t already agree or who even disagrees with the ideas will find the work wanting. Thus, potentially we’d see the sharp divide in opinion over such works.