Continuing this Q&A series with this great question: "What is your advice about allegorical works? That is, is it a genre you recommend writers pursue? If not, why not?"
Bearing in mind that I do not consider myself an expert on this topic--that these are simply my opinions which should be considered alongside other opinions--here's what I have to say on the subject of allegory.
I think it is unwise for authors to pursue the genre of allegorical fiction.
Does this surprise you? It might, particularly considering my first published novel was an overt allegory of Christ's love for the Church. Not to mention the truth that allegory has a long, lovely literary history that is always fascinating to study and pursue. The problem with allegory, however, is that it so quickly devolves from beautiful story-telling into agenda-pushing. This is true with all forms of allegory, from Christian to secular.
Yes, keep in mind that allegory does not necessarily mean Christian allegory. The definition of the word "allegory" is simply this: A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
Allegory is symbolic; like most symbolic work, it is best when done subtly. But subtlety and allegory do not often go hand-in-hand!
I read an allegorical book recently: Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper. It is a secular allegory on the topic of beauty in the modern world. Tepper has a point she desperately wants to make and she hammers it home through the course of her novel. And it's a wonderful novel, and Tepper expresses her allegory unashamedly and with skill. However, the preachy tone of the book is often extremely off-putting. One cannot help while reading it wondering how much better the book might have been had she sometimes let the characters and events speak for themselves.
Heartless, my own debut novel, has received criticism of a similar sort time and again. And while some readers would argue that the overt allegory is what makes the book special, others would just as vehemently argue that the allegory gets in the way of the story. I tend to fall somewhere between those two camps. It is difficult for me to envision Heartless without its allegorical themes simply because, as a young novelist, that's what I thought I was supposed to do. A good Christian novelist who wants to write fantasy must write fantasy-allegory.
These days--and quite a few novels later--I don't think so anymore.While allegorical themes and plenty of symbolism run through my work, I rarely write overt allegory anymore. The closest I came to returning to overt allegory was the scene of Eanrin's rescue from the Netherworld in Starflower. That story trod close to the same sort of allegorical overtness to be found in Heartless.
As a rule, however, I don't directly attempt allegory anymore. Instead I try to write books about people. Real people in fantastical situations who react to those situations as real people would react. This in itself provides me with opportunities to write about truth, grace, forgiveness, sin. Sometimes I write about them in a symbolic manner--Daylily's "wolf in her mind" from Shadow Hand for instance. There is plenty of allegorical significance in that theme, but it's not a symbol that can be easily pinpointed and explained away in simplistic Evangelical terms. Daylily is a person. Her sin and her struggle is simultaneously unique and universal.
This is the truth of people--our sins and struggles are always unique and yet always universal.
I have mentioned him many times before, but I'll go ahead and mention him again. One of my favorite modern novelists if Sir Terry Pratchett. I disagree with him on many levels theologically and philosophically. But what I absolutely love about his work is his ability to make a point, to give a message or "preach a sermon," without the reader ever feeling like that is what's happening. Because Sir Terry's purpose is always the people involved in his stories. Not the message. The message comes through the characters; the characters don't act out the message. Is his work allegorical (in the secular sense)? Often it is, yes. Absolutely. Does the reader ever feel as though she is reading an allegory? Rarely!
So that is always my urging to novelists who think they want to write allegory. Focus on the characters. Focus on making them as real as possible. Do you want to include symbolism? That's good. Study the great writers, both novelists and poets, who have handled it well, ingrain their secrets into your brain--and then go back to focusing on those characters.
And pray. If God has a message He wants to communicate through your work, He is more than capable of handling that Himself. But that's not your job. Your job is to write real . . . whether your genre is fantasy, sci fi, contemporary, romance, or whatever. Your job is to write with authenticity. Your job is to write with barefaced honesty. Don't hide behind masks of allegory or symbolism, for that was never the intended purpose of those literary devices!
A skilled writer can use allegorical symbolism to augment her honest portrayal of people. But the goal is ultimately not the allegory but the honesty.
What are your thoughts on the subject of allegory? Are you for or against it? Have you attempted to write it or do you avoid it as a rule?