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In Defense of Didactic Literature

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Chris M. Arnone

Senior Contributor

The son of a librarian, Chris M. Arnone's love of books was as inevitable as gravity. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri - Kansas City. His novel, The Hermes Protocol, was published by Castle Bridge Media in 2023 and the next book in that series is due out in winter 2024. His work can also be found in Adelaide Literary Magazine and FEED Lit Mag. You can find him writing more books, poetry, and acting in Kansas City. You can also follow him on social media (Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, website).

“Didactic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot online. As Sim Kern noted in their TikTok video, it’s usually used by right-wing individuals writing negative reviews about books that openly address left-leaning ideas. As someone who leans and writes left, a defense would seem easy. This topic is actually quite a bit more complicated than left and right, however.

What is didactic literature? To put it simply, it’s literature that is trying to teach. Sure, there is something to learn in every book that you read, but didactic literature is written and published with the express intent of teaching some information or ideas. To that end, every textbook is didactic literature. Virtually all nonfiction is at least a little didactic. That’s not what this argument is about, though.

Didactic literature in this context is talking about fiction. As Kern noted, the CIA influenced American (and, to a lesser extent, global) literature in the second half of the 20th century. They were so terrified of Communism that they actively worked to tell stories focused on the successes of capitalism and the power of rugged individualism. They specifically didn’t want books to promote Communism or other left-leaning ideas. They didn’t want didactic literature.

But first off, not all didactic literature is left-leaning. Ayn Rand is famous for her right-wing, Objectivist views woven into all of her books. Many other authors that aren’t household names were writing conservative, didactic literature, particularly during the Cold War. So, is didactic literature trying to brainwash us?

Short answer: not necessarily.

Here’s the longer answer. When you’re taught writing, you’re taught that there’s a spectrum that exists for every book, every writer. On one end of that spectrum is where textbooks or children’s books sit. On this end, the writer is explicitly giving the reader every scrap of information. Nothing is left to interpretation or metaphor. This is where didacticism firmly sits.

On the other end, the writer is expecting the reader to make up their own mind in every respect. Every possible message is coded or countered. Every scrap of meaning is hidden in tiny looks, seemingly innocuous dialog, or dense metaphors. Here sit books like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. And yes, I know Joyce’s politics and have read Ulysses. Finnegans Wake is indecipherable to nearly everyone.

Writing professors teach students to live somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Nothing should be too obvious unless it absolutely has to be, but every writer wants their work to be accessible to their target audience. That means there’s going to be a little didacticism to nearly every novel.

On top of that is this simple idea: everything is political. This is my counter to whenever I hear someone yell that an actor or athlete should just shut up and do their job. They’re people who live in a political world, too. In fact, anyone who ignores politics or says they don’t pay attention is just propping up the existing political paradigm. The choice to be apolitical is a political action. Everything is political.

So, any novel that’s even a little didactic is saying something about politics. If that isn’t enough defense for you, then perhaps this is. I mentioned that spectrum earlier. Every author has to choose where they sit on that spectrum. If a writer has something really important to say, they may lean more didactic. Anything for a younger audience will always swing more toward didacticism. I wrote a long time ago that I learned more about American slavery from reading fiction than from my public education, and that was because of didactic literature.

The only real issue with didactic literature, which Kern is getting at, is when literature is manipulative or clandestine. Most modern, left-leaning books aren’t trying to fool anyone. When a book starts using they/them pronouns for a nonbinary character, you know where that author and that book stand. When the heroes of a YA novel are fighting a racist, authoritarian regime, there is nothing hidden in the meaning. If the hero is working for a regime that oppresses others, that’s pretty clear, too.

I’ve never met a left-leaning book that was trying to hide its politics or secretly influence its readers. I’m sure at least one exists, but I’ve never met it. If you, as a reader, disagree with the politics of a book, just stop reading it. It doesn’t need to be banned or review-bombed; it’s just not for you. Or keep reading. Maybe you’ll learn something. Didactic literature has its place in the world because we should always seek to learn and understand, particularly views we don’t agree with.