Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?
To respond to the first part of the question, literature does not need a clear social, political or other agenda in order to be great. Sometimes telling a fantastic story is enough. Most great works have some sort of theme or message, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the authors had an agenda obvious even to themselves while writing them. Well-crafted mysteries would be an excellent example of what I’m talking about, unless you consider revealing the edges of what humans are psychologically capable to be an agenda of some kind, or consider themes to be synonymous with agendas. All great works, of course, have some kind of theme or message – I don’t consider those terms to be quite as strong as the word “agenda.”
That said, having a strong social or political agenda can easily go either way – it can either detract or enhance a work’s value. Though I have not yet read Jane Eyre, I’d say Connie’s point illustrates how an agenda, when done poorly or too explicitly, can diminish one’s enjoyment. We don’t need to be hit over the head with an author’s motives or political leanings – it can feel like the author doesn’t trust the reader to “get it” and has to spell it out. I would disagree with her about Animal Farm though – I read it for the first time a month or so ago and found the obvious agenda to be a little too over the top for me. I did think that was the point, exposing the faults of a corrupt communism with a simplistic and thinly-veiled depiction of a “communist” farm, and despite that, I enjoyed the book to an extent, though not nearly as much as 1984. Ayn Rand is another example of an author whose political motivations completely overpowered the literary merit of her books, with her characters going off on 50 pages monologues of propaganda.
Authors, of course, can weave their agendas well into their stories. Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago and even Tom Wolfe (I’m thinking Bonfire of the Vanities) are just a few examples. The Handmaid’s Tale has clear message about the dangers of what our current society is so easily capable but the dystopian future is merely a carefully constructed backdrop of what might come if we don’t attend to problems today. Atwood never explicitly announces what those societal problems are.
Overall, though, an agenda is just one factor in assessing a work’s value, or in determining how much enjoyment a reader might experience. Much depends on an individual reader’s purpose in reading and what they bring to the experience themselves. Perhaps some readers need things explicitly spelled out in order to get the message. Thoughts?