Lately, I’ve been considering the topic of theme.
I think it’s a side effect of my work as an RLF Fellow. The most vital turning point of most sessions, I find, is introducing the topic of ‘thesis’ or ‘argument’ or, to put it in plainer terms, asking my students ‘What exactly are you trying to say with this piece of writing?’ To receive so many blank, faintly panicked stares in response to this simple question can be a little disheartening.
But once students understand that the point of an essay is not simply to produce two or five or ten thousand words describing a subject area, but to actually express an opinion, in academic language, and backed up by meticulous evidence and references, of course, I can see the lightbulb click on. It’s the difference between writing about what a thing is and examining why it is, and how. Much more interesting.
This makes it all the more puzzling that novelists are so often discouraged from undergoing the same questioning process in their work. The idea – a relatively modern one, perhaps a product of New Criticism’s desire to divorce authorial intent from the reader’s engagement with a work – seems to be that ‘having a message’ or ‘wanting to say something’ is preachy, cheesy, old-fashioned and generally a detriment to the development of great art. Like those Victorian morality tales for little children which usually ended up with the protagonist devoured by bears or stricken with typhoid because she wouldn’t wash behind her ears, and a strong implication that it served her right.
But still theme stubbornly comes up. In query letters to agents, at pitch meetings with editors, while devising a ‘shout line’ for a book’s cover, or trying to describe the book quickly and succinctly for someone we meet in the kitchen at a party. We may attempt to avoid the cheesiness issue by boiling everything down to a single word: war; adultery, identity; death. Or we might conflate the notion with that of the (much hated and feared) elevator pitch, and strive to reduce all our blood-and-sweat-stained lyricism down to something as banal as possible. Cinderella meets Memoirs of a Geisha. The Count of Monte Cristo crossed with Independence Day. The Wars of the Roses — in space! We speak of theme guiltily, or sheepishly, or with an ironic eyeroll, but still it is important.
Being taught that we shouldn’t think too much about themes or arguments or what we want to say if we want to be a good artist, and then being routinely forced to come up with potted themes anyway for commercial or social reasons, leads to a lot of misapprehension about what a theme really is. In actuality, none of the things I’ve mentioned above, not the desperately blunt single word or the elevator pitch, or the preachy, cheesy, moral sentiment, constitute a theme. Not as I understand the concept, anyway.
In order to avoid some of these misunderstandings, we’d all probably be better off using the same words that I use to teach my students: thesis, argument. ‘What are you trying to say?’
If you want to understand your story’s theme, ask yourself: what central ideas do the events of my story really illustrate? What argument do my characters’ own words, values, and choices prove ‘true’ within the narrative? What sorts of actions are consistently rewarded within this work — and which people are ultimately shown to be foolish, weak, worthless or villainous?
This is the point where it gets tricky. Where authors tend to get a bit red in the face, and confused, and wish they’d never started examining their work through this lens in the first place. Because if you’re honest with yourself – I mean, really honest – you might find that your work is definitely ‘saying something’ after all. Something you never meant it to.
All too often writers are horrified and trip quickly into denial when accused by readers of authoring a work with a central or side theme of, for instance, ‘fat people are worthless’ or ‘women bring disaster onto themselves when they try to find success at the same level as men’. ‘I didn’t write that!’ we cry, clutching our metaphorical pearls in horror. ‘You’re reading things into the text that aren’t there!’
But if the only fat person in your book (or every fat person in your book) makes very stupid decisions and is punished for them by your story, or the only (or every) woman who is depicted working alongside men eventually comes to a sticky end? Well, it may not have been what you meant to say, but as I tell my students, what you meant to say isn’t necessarily what you actually committed to the page.
Sometimes, just as with that time we congratulated our cousin Sarah on losing so much weight and then discovered that she was undergoing treatment for an eating disorder, we express hurtful sentiments without ever intending to.
Personally I find it all much easier and more satisfying if I throw off the shackles of theme-shame and spend some time thinking about this; not just before I begin drafting, but throughout my whole process. I set my characters around me, consider the setting and tone, the plot events I want to explore, and ask myself : ‘What story am I trying to tell here?’ This questioning progresses, through: ‘Am I telling that story with this scene or character revelation?’ to: ‘If my character makes that choice, how can I illustrate my theme through the consequences?’
I’ve written a novel with a theme of ‘Your past does not define you’. I’ve written a novel with a theme of ‘Freedom is more important than power’. I’ve written a novel with the theme ‘Love is poisonous unless it encompasses truth’. I love and believe in all these ideas, and very much enjoyed putting my characters through the wringer until they eventually gave in and learned to live by them.
And yet… it’s not so simple. As I said, I’ve been thinking about theme a lot lately, and in new ways. Some academics, for instance, spend their entire careers writing dozens of different books and papers on topics branching out from their main area of study — but, usually, to illustrate one central idea. They might examine themes of class and race in Tudor plays with one monograph, staging and authenticity with another, and argue for a radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the next. But ultimately they’re always asking their readers to believe some central tenet: perhaps that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford. Or that he was a radical liberal, hiding sedition in his works. Or that he was actually fifteen underpaid jobbing writers scribbling madly in a basement.
Are novelists the same? The more I think about the themes which have informed the various individual novels of my own career, the more I begin to realise that each of these theses – powerful and worthy as they are – are more like major or minor variations on that greater theme. One which, contrary to everything I’ve said so far, probably boils down to a single word after all, and is something I never consciously chose at all.
I’m not sure what I would call that theme. Forgiveness? No. Redemption? Not quite. Perhaps, simply, compassion.
The idea of compassion – of the vital importance of compassion – seems to be innate to everything I write. A part of my identity as a creative person that I cannot change no matter how much I change the type of stories I tell, or the worlds, or the characters. In much the same way that I have a shouting-at-my-dog voice, a singing voice, a teaching voice, a speaking-in-public voice – but ultimately they are all recognisably my voice, even if I should try to disguise it – my theme as a writer seems to have been set for me by the same forces which gave me green eyes, asthma, and wobbly ankles.
I wonder if this is why a lot of writers don’t recognise the other themes that readers and critics attach to their work, even when these seem profound and important; deep down they know that they’ve always been working on proving something else. Their master thesis.
Perhaps every writer is ultimately embroiled in some kind of eternal argument with the universe, an argument which grows and twists and turns as they mature, but which springs naturally from their identity as a person and an artist. A thesis which can only be fully proved by devoting a lifetime to variations on the theme.
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