The two most recent things I read were Max Gladstone's Full Fathom Five and Grant Morrisons The Invisibles. Both are thoroughly recommended, but my review of Full Fathom Five will include a wee grouse about the blatant preaching. I'm not mad enough to try doing a proper review of The Invisibles but any I did would have to start with wide eyed admiration for the impact its message had on my life. And I know I'm not the only reader out there to hiss my dislike of having a message preached at me while also admiring works for their message.
So what's the difference?
Now, I'm not to dismiss reader fickleness and the possibility we just have different reactions on different days. Or the possibility that things I do care about are inspirational and things I care about less are preachy. I'd like to think that's not where I am, but people realise they are doing things they don't like all the time.
People often talk about blatancy being a factor when it comes to a message being preaching and bad. I know I do. Well, Morrison has repeatedly described The Invisibles as being a spell to bring about a change in the human race and cause more works like The Invisibles. In other words, the author could not be more blatant about the work having a message by his words, and it is reflected in the comics themselves.
My off-the-cuff theory would be that a big part of this is consistency. I mean, sure, all of the above still counts, but its probably not all of it. It seems very rare that one single thing is all of the reasons for why something happens. But, going back to consistency, I've seen so many criticisms of a book that boil down to "This is not consistent with what I was led to expect from the book".
The Invisibles could not be clearer about its support for counter-culture, personal responsibility, and freedom if Morrison paid a flashmob to turn up with a song about it everytime someone opened up it up. There is no contradiction in tone, expectation, or anything else that the story.
Full Five Fathoms and the rest of Gladstone's Craft series do definitely have strong themes with real world relevance from the get-go, but for the most part it is subtle. Then all of a sudden someone gives a big grandstanding speech and it's pushed right up in your face. The approach is not consistent and as a result, it jars. It irritates.
Now, I don't think this is the only thing. CS Lewis' faith is an obvious and consistent part of Narnia and it's still held up as preaching. Ditto Pullman and his lack of faith - although clearly lots and lots of people didn't object too strenuously in either case. The number of highly successful 'preachy' authors is probably better evidence for whether authors should be forthright in their view of the world than any amount of internet grumbling.
But if authors and would-be authors are considering how to go about putting their beliefs into stories and maybe provide thought for others, then maybe thinking about whether doing so disturbs the tone of their story and how consistent it is with the expectations readers will form is a good idea.
Or maybe that's just trying to herd cats and people are better off letting the dice fall where they may!