Take a seat, friends. Make yourselves comfortable, maybe get a cup of tea or coffee, because I’m going to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, a young girl read a book. The book had magic and sword fights, or maybe it had aliens, or monsters, or just regular kids having everyday adventures. In any case, the girl loved the book, and she read it over and over. Each time she found something new to learn from it, some new way to stand up for herself, or make friends, or deal with hardship.
As the girl became a young woman, she read other books, ones that people her age were supposed to read. She found ones that reminded her of the beloved childhood book, that taught her how to navigate the more complicated landscape of adulthood. She enjoyed those books, but when she would recommend them to others or try to participate in conversations about them, people would wave their hands and dismiss those books.
“I’m an adult,” those people would say. “I don’t need books that try to teach me something.”
“If that is what you think,” the young woman would say, “then you need these books more than you know.”
Did you like it? According to unspoken rules, that depends on your age: if you’re not an adult, then stories with morals should be good for you! But if you’re an adult, you now know everything and have no need for stories with morals or lessons.
I’m not sure who determined the mystical cutoff point between these stories being useful or annoying, but I have a bone to pick with them.
I read a lot of young adult fiction as well as adult fiction. The two categories have vastly different storytelling approaches no matter the genre, and that is understandable considering the target audiences (although it is a mistake to think the topics covered in YA are somehow less complex or sophisticated). But I have noticed that while in YA (and middle grade and children’s books) it’s important that the story have some lesson(s) for the readers to learn along with the characters, that approach is frowned upon in adult fiction.
It’s called didacticism, and it’s a negative descriptor in the adult fiction world. Apparently when we age out of the target YA group, we’ve learned all we can from books. Once we hit our late teens/early twenties, if a book wants to teach us anything, it has to be so subtle or convoluted that we may miss the point entirely. Otherwise, the story is too rudimentary to be useful to us all-knowing adults!
That was a lot of sarcasm there, if you couldn’t tell.
In any category, bad writing is just bad writing. If a story is clunky and the moral is forced into it (or the story is forced around the moral), that’s going to be unpleasant no matter the reading level. If a story is simple and beautiful and has a moral, even an obvious one, that doesn’t mean it can only be valuable to people under a certain age.
For example, I’ve read numerous times that some people consider Ursula K. Le Guin’s work to be didactic. I can’t help but laugh when I see that. Her stories certainly have morals, certainly teach lessons, but I fail to see why that should be a bad thing. I’ve gained more valuable knowledge from her stories than from most of my education.
But let’s get even more basic. Let’s talk about fairy tales, myths, folk tales, that whole bag. By now everyone knows the Disney versions are not the real versions of the most well-known fairy tales, yet there is still this pervasive idea that fairy tales and myths are childish or only for children.
In my opinion, that’s not even true of the watered-down Disney versions, but it’s certainly not true of the original tales (from any culture). Fairy tales and myths contain important information for us at any age. I mean, almost all of them are thinly veiled metaphors for different stages of our lives or hardships we all face at some point.
Whenever someone uses the word didactic to describe a book or writer, I become skeptical of their opinion until I read the book or writer for myself. There is a world of difference between a story with a moral and a story that is preachy. The gray area between the two is where opinion comes into play, as some people have a lower or higher tolerance, but the two should never be considered the same thing. And when it comes to adult books, the didactic criticism is often given too freely, applied to beautiful books that have a moral as well as clunkers written to push a particular, narrow viewpoint. Because of this, I think the word should be retired for a while so that it can regain its power.
Although even if we do drop didactic for a time, no one will ever convince me that a story with a moral is automatically juvenile. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of reading and writing, it’s that I’ve still got a lot to learn. And the best teachers I’ve had outside of a classroom setting have been books.