Six impossible things

Is this a trick question?

My walking partner and I were talking the other day about the sorts of assumptions people make about books, and she said something that made me pause to think. I can’t give you the exact phrasing, but the basic sense of it was that literary and mainstream fiction is, as a general rule, a lot more consciously thematic than genre fiction.

Not that genre fiction doesn’t have themes; on the contrary, there are at least as many strongly thematic writers in genre fiction as there are in literary or mainstream fiction. It’s just that the theme isn’t front and center in the same ways. Often, even (or especially) for the most strongly theme-oriented writers, the themes arise from the interaction between the plot and characters, rather than being deliberately planned out before the book is even started.

This aspect of the Great Genre Divide has a couple of interesting implications. Teachers and professors of English Lit and Language Arts tend to study literary fiction primarily; teachers of Creative Writing also skew heavily in that direction. This means that anyone coming up through the U.S. school system is pretty much guaranteed to get the impression that theme is not only really, really important, but also something that all writers have to think about and plan carefully in advance.

This misconception is not particularly harmful to readers, though some writers find the assumption that they start with theme to be annoying. For writers, though, it can (and often is) very problematic, especially for the plot-and-character centered writers that genre fiction tends to attract. Because if you feel that you must start with X, regardless of all other considerations, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a hard time unless you happen to be one of the writers who just naturally does start off that way. And starting with theme is particularly problematic for me personally.

Because I’m one of those writers who really can’t start with theme. Or even think about it much while I’m in the process of writing, really. I’ve tried a time or two, and every time I try to come up with “what this book is about,” I a) get it completely wrong, and b) find it impossible to make forward progress as long as I’m thinking about theme and not plot or characters.

So I am always bemused when readers want to talk to me about the themes of my books. I’m particularly bemused when somebody gets it right. I can tell when somebody else comes up with what the theme is; there’s a sort of internal recognition, “Oh, yes, of course!” And then I forget almost immediately, so that when the next person asks about that book, I’m just as much at a loss as I ever was.

The thing about theme, I think, is that it’s almost as much about what the reader brings to the work as it is about what the writer put there (consciously or not). And I think that it matters which is which, on several levels. The conscious intentions of the author are as relevant as his/her unconscious worldview … and the way the reader’s worldview and unconscious assumptions interact with both of those.

Theme is probably one of the most subjective parts of fiction. The plot (what happened) and the characters (who it happened to) are usually fairly clear, but you can argue about theme forever. It is also amazingly easy for a reader with a strong worldview to take a piece of fiction with a plot and characters that they like and warp the theme to suit the reader’s own notions, regardless of whatever the author consciously or unconsciously put into the work. Which is why I’ve had different readers tell me disapprovingly that my work is Satanic, pagan, Christian; feminist, anti-woman, anti-male; too complicated, simplistic, radical, or traditional; and quite a few other mutually-contradictory things besides.

I know better than to argue with folks like this. The beliefs and attitudes that people bring with them to my work are not something I can control or change; about all I can say when someone comes up with something really off the wall is, “Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it.”

The themes in my books are not things I put there mechanically and deliberately and consciously. They grow out of the interaction between the story I’m telling  – the characters and plot – and my worldview. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when someone has the right idea about what I was doing. Somebody pointed out to me once that there are a lot of ecological themes in my stories, and I kind of went “Huh. You’re right.”

My point is that I don’t need to know those things in order to write. Most of the genre writers I know also don’t spend a lot of time worrying about theme, even the ones whose work is strongly thematic. We tend to trust that our backbrains will come up with whatever the story needs on that level. There’s nothing wrong with starting from theme or paying a lot of attention to it; it’s just that writers who work that way seem to get more support from the literary establishment already. The rest of us occasionally need to be told that it’s OK if we can’t sum a story up in a ten-word, thematically focused log line before we ever start writing it.

9 Comments
  1. I usually have a general idea of what I want the book to be about on a theme-level, but I don’t let it influence my writing too much. The important part for me is the story flow.

  2. Yes: I have a vague idea of theme when I start writing most stories, and it is usually wrong or skew-whiff in some sense or other, and I care about that just as much as I would care that my drawing ends up not containing any of its construction lines. The real emergent themes I only really understand when the first draft is finished – and whilst they’re helpful to me in revision, I don’t have many illusions that they’ll be the same one every reader takes away from the tale. Why should they? It’s not my life they’re bringing to it.

    I’ve noticed the same sort of thing you have about the self-consciousness of theme in ‘literary’ fiction; and it seldom fails to irritate me, because to my mind SPELLING OUT WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT IN SHIFTING LETTERS OF MANY-COLOURED FIRE is not, in fact, so subtle or artful a technique that learned judges of taste ought to be falling over themselves to sanctify it. For equal values of skill, I feel the genre approach is in principle the more complex and powerful one – albeit not lending itself so handily to academicization and credential-grinding.

    (He would say that, wouldn’t he?)

  3. This was a problem I had when I studied Comparative Literature. Because to me, the theme was a combination of the author’s time, his politics, his worldview, the problems he was struggling with, and the assumptions he made about the story. 90% of those things were unconscious, and you always ignored what the author said about it. How could he know?

    One of the problems with certain kinds of genre fiction is that they take the theme as an essential part of the genre. Love conquers all, only a single moral man can bring civilization to a wild world, a royal birth is the right to rule, what man creates will be his own destruction. And these are fine, probably better than the most common literary fiction theme which is ‘we survive great suffering only to die.’ It’s when authors reject or undermine these basic expectations that we get interesting stories. (Possibly Dealing with Dragons taught me this, along with ‘practical knowledge is far more useful than a magic sword.’)

    Perhaps my favorite romance novel, A Room with a View, has the exact opposite idea from ‘Love conquers all’ instead it seems to say, ‘you only get one chance, and taking it may ruin everything, but if you miss it, you will never be happy.’ which is kind of a really awful theme, but it also has a hundred other things that it says. (Lady novelists are problematic). And that’s the real problem with theme: if a novel is only saying one thing, why write a novel? Stick to epigrams instead.

  4. Cara @ 3:

    “If a novel is only saying one thing, why write a novel? Stick to epigrams instead.”

    I admire this epigram and think it true. May I quote it, with attribution, elsewhere?

  5. Cara @ 3: I don’t think of theme as being a Message, i.e. where the novel is pushing one view at you; I think of it as being some central idea or fact of human experience which the novel can explore or present from several different angles in different parts of the plot or different experiences of the characters. For instance, something like “the redeeming power of love”: love can redeem, but it doesn’t have to, and if it does then there isn’t just one opinion that one has to have about it, so there’s a chance for a novel to look at the idea from several different directions or show it working itself out in several different ways. Similarly with themes like, say, “the fluidity of identity” or “the cost of doing ones duty”.

    That way, different parts of the novel can be thematically related to each other in a way that gives the novel as a whole greater coherence, but without having to “agree” with each other about a particular party line.

  6. … about all I can say when someone comes up with something really off the wall is, “Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it.”

    This phrase sounds exactly like what Miss Ochiba might have said to those people (and yes, that is a shameless Thirteenth Child plug), and reminds me of why I liked your stories so much: they are foremost an exploration of a character and a world, and leave the reader open to explore the adventure alongside the heroes and villains. I’d also agree that literary fiction (or at least, literary fiction written to be literary fiction, rather than plugged into the canon one hundered years later) is overly reliant on the all important THEME.

    In truth, a great deal of what we consider classic literature today was not written by people overwrought with having to find an overarching one sentence explanation of their works: Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe all simply wrote stories. Later, as they were studied and revered, themes were drawn from their writings; I’d say they were closer to genre fiction writers of the present then someone setting out to be the next Hemingway.

  7. Gray @ 4: I’m glad you liked it. Go ahead!

    Tim @ 5: I definitely agree that a novel can be a conversation, it can interweave differing themes, and use them to complicate each other. But in a way I think a theme is a bit like the argument of an essay. If you don’t trouble it and complicate it and show counter-examples, it’s not an argument, it’s just an aside. I wouldn’t say a theme is a Message, but a theme isn’t a topic either. It’s an idea that is important to the story and gives it resonance. Of course, resonance is in the eye of the reader.

    Michelle @ 6: I’ve always said that the books that become ‘Classics’ were the ones aimed at teenagers. Consider how well Shakespeare works for teen-movies, and the Decameron: all smut and bad jokes. If you want to find the books with lasting power, they’re not going to be the ones that only adults can appreciate.

  8. What a refreshing view! A writer friend recently suggested that before I write a novel I have in mind (as opposed to the one I’m revising…) I should read “Structuring Your Novel” by Meredith and Fitzgerald. I read the first chapter and was horrified. I just want to tell a compelling story with well-developed characters that are believable and, I hope, memorable. Purpose? Attitude? Theme? I never got it “right” in all those lit classes in high school, undergrad, and even grad classes… I see stories. (Is that like “I see dead people?”) Anyway, THANK YOU.

    • Gray – It’s not so much the letters of fire in the end product that I was thinking of here, as the conscious influence on the process part…but consciously influencing the process does seem to result in letters of fire, so it probably all ends up being the same.

      Tim – There seem to be two attitudes toward theme: one that thinks theme is a one-sentence message like “refusing one’s responsibilities ends in tragedy” or “love will win in the end,” and one that thinks theme is a lot more general, one-word or one-phrase thing like “Love and Death” or “Trust.” The second one makes more sense to me, but the first one seems to get pushed by a lot of English and writing teachers.

      Lori – You’re welcome. I’m not much for rules or a one-size-fits-all process, as you’ll probably realize if you read many of my posts. And welcome!

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