Currently, the SF&F blogs are embroiled in a mild (well, for some of them, very much not mild) tizzy over whether or not stories should be written with a particular cause in mind. I’m not going to mention what the specific argument is, because 1) if you don’t already know, you probably don’t want to be involved in the first place; and 2) it really doesn’t matter, because I want to talk about cause-fiction in general. 

Cause-fiction (or “message fic,” for a more derogatory term) is not to be confused with fiction that happens to fit with a particular cause. Rather, I’m talking about fiction that is specifically written to showcase a cause du jour. Cause-fiction winds up being a modern version of the medieval morality play, because the audience can tell that the story isn’t coming first. The message is what is first and foremost, like a parable handed down from Christ or Mohammed or the Buddha. It can instruct, and it might be well-told, but it is rarely entertaining.

I’ve spent a lot of time with literature experts — reviewers, professors, authors, and really well-read fans — and I’ve found that there’s often a divide between expectations for the audience. The academic side (and I confess to having a strong academic streak myself, so I’m not attempting to tar anyone here) tends to get fascinated by meanings and messages and what you can learn from a story. They like to see books get their favorite awards from different groups — Best Fiction, Best Novel, Best Book with a Cause that the Editors at this Journal Liked this Year. 

Everyone else — the people who aren’t paid to read and talk about books as part of their job — just want to relax at the end of the day with a good book and not get lectured.

Since I’m one of those who does get paid to read books, I have to constantly think about whether I’m just liking a book because it fits with my favorite causes or because I can identify the famous philosopher that’s subtly referenced in Chapter Twelve. I don’t believe I’ve ever thought a story was good on its own because of that, but I always want to make certain I don’t let my political, philosophical, or religious references tip the scales on whether or not a story is actually objectively good (rather than simply “I didn’t happen to like it”). Of course, I started out as a kid who just wanted to read cool stories, so it’s mostly a matter of hanging on to some of that enthusiasm.

I’ve seen others get buried in the academic side, forgetting that there’s really only one group to please over the rest, and that’s your audience. If you are writing to please a very small group of people, then you’re writing for just that small group of people. If that’s what you want, that’s fine — just be aware that you’re  a niche author. I tend to deal with a lot of niche authors and a few niche publishers, because the Internet, epublishing, and print-on-demand have made it possible to avoid tailoring things to the majority.

I’ve also seen (but not worked with) authors who haven’t understood why their Book with a Cause doesn’t hit the NYT Bestseller List. I’ve dealt with experts who respond to this by talking the actual bestsellers down as trash, and that those who read such trash are stupid.


My advice for you is to focus on a story. If you’ve got a message in there, great! Just make certain that it stems from the story, and not the other way around. Don’t write by thinking “Gosh, I hope this wins this particular award” or “Hey, I bet this will be a great book for students to study!” Awards won’t get you sales except with those who live by awards. Most people don’t. I’ve worked with authors who have one different awards, and I’ve rarely seen — even at conferences and conventions — that having that badge on your cover means diddly to the people actually buying it.

The best award you can possibly get comes when one friend hands your book to another and says “You’ll like this. It’s great.” It’s one of the best feelings in the world, right up there with cute little animals and watching your firstborn learn to walk.

Remember, there are nearly 10,000 books published every single day. Focus on reaching your intended audience, and not the awards banquet. And never be concerned with following someone else’s checklist for what causes you should and should not showcase in your fiction. Write the story you want to tell. Write the story that your audience wants to read.

EDIT: Margot St. Aubin wrote up a long post to explain why she disagrees with me, and wound up underscoring my point because we don’t actually disagree as far as I can tell. Check out her post and her blog!