Thanks to everyone who suggested a title for my forthcoming Red Sneaker book. “Thinking Theme” is my current favorite (possibly “Thinking About Theme?”) but I’m still open to any suggestions you might have.
Last time I talked about what theme isn’t–basically, it isn’t clubbing people over the head with a moral or a political viewpoint (though Aesop and Ayn Rand might feel differently). Let’s get more positive this time. Let’s talk about what theme is.
I will admit that I am still influenced by a seminal book I read early in my writing career, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Here, the brilliant critic, theoretician, and author of novels like Grendel talked about theme, and more specifically, how to make fiction moral. His idea was that all stories convey society’s underlying values (some better than others). This is represented in authors’ choices, how they lay out the plot, what creates a story that seems to “make sense.” If you accept that notion, then one reason to read old books is to gain insight into the values of the people of the time when it was written. I have often said that one of the great pleasures of reading classic literature is that you realize that people may have believed different stuff back then–but people themselves haven’t changed at all.
Stories are the glue that hold together our fragile experience. They validate our values. This is revealed not only when you choose what to read, but when you choose what to write. That’s just common sense. Techno-thrillers appeal to those who favor strong shows of military force, not pacifists. SF appeals to people who, at the very least, believe in science. Romances appeal to those who believe in love. Religious fiction…well, this is getting obvious, isn’t it? You get the point.
To be fair, some people read to have their values challenged…but not many. We tend to be a closed-minded bunch, even those of us who read voraciously. But if you can produce a book that seriously challenges the way people think, you may be headed to greatness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be a good example. On Civil Disobedience is another. Many spiritual or inspirational books have traded on vagueness, that is, they aren’t really saying anything new, but give readers the feeling that they’ve read something terribly profound–when in reality they’re just reinforcing what the reader already believes. In the opinion of some, this might include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Celestine Prophecy, or even Tuesdays with Morrie–all of them huge bestsellers.
Gardner said, “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be Worldwide Inflation.” So it’s presenting a subject worthy of contemplation, rather than telling people what to think. Posing a question, but not forcing an answer. Similarly, Chekov said a writer does not solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.
One of the most challenging examples of this for me was my novel Capitol Conspiracy, which tackled the then-new Patriot Act. The fundamental question was, Should we uphold the civil rights upon which this nation was founded, or relinquish them in favor of enhanced security? I tried not to take sides. I knew everyone would expect bleeding-heart Ben Kincaid to take the liberal viewpoint, so I created a dramatic event that turned the poor boy in just the opposite direction. If Ben could rethink his predispositions, should we? Ultimately I wasn’t trying to tell people what to think. I was saying, This is an important topic we should all think about, and give reasoned, not panicked or reactionary, consideration.
More next week. Btw, registrations for my California and Massachusetts retreats will close at the end of the month. Don’t miss this opportunity to workshop your words and ideas. Click here: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php