Tomas Diaz has an interesting analysis of A Princess of Mars (which I happened to reread this week). While I mostly agree with what he’s saying, I have a problem with the use of “message fiction.” Diaz is using it to mean “fiction that has a message.”
Wiktionary, which was the only thing with a definition of the term I found in a quick search, says it means “Fiction that attempts to convey a sociopolitical message, as opposed to mere escapism.”
The term as I have heard it used seems to mean “fiction where the message is more important than the fiction.” Mostly used in a derogatory manner. Obviously there may be examples were such fiction is good. Castalia House had a post from a few years about decrying boring message fiction, and offers this commentary on what message fiction is:
What distinguishes message fiction from other kinds of fiction is that it is primarily agenda-driven. That is to say, message fiction is created first and foremost for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. Since authorial intention is often unclear, we tend to only notice the blatant cases — the ones with long-winded preachy sermons by one-dimensional characters who are only heroic by virtue of their cause. Nevertheless, message fiction is propaganda within a narrative wrapper, where the story, whether well crafted or not, is merely the delivery mechanism for the message. This definition applies to message fiction that is conservative or liberal, Christian or pagan. A good story, i.e. one with a compelling plot, theme, characters, and style, can still be message fiction if and only if the author wrote it to deliver a message.
I wonder actually if the “message” Diaz talks about is a conscious message at all. Did ERB write this scheming that he was going to put in a how-to for heroes or is the story simply a reflection of the mores of the time? Or maybe he was just trying to write the most awesome thing he could. There’s more of an argument to be made for deliberate message insertion for the anti-socialist/communist and anti-eugenics elements of the story, but those messages are slipped in there and not shoved in your face. If you’re going to say, however, that having any kind of message in your fiction makes it message fiction, then I think it can be argued that there’s hardly anything out there that isn’t message fiction.