Yesterday Davin wrote a post called "What You Can't Write About," and discussed the idea that a story isn't discussion of a grand theme, but is instead a dramatic representation of an individual's situation that might illustrate some aspect of that theme. My example was that "poverty" is not a story, but that "Davin Malasarn struggles against the poverty of his village to create a clean drinking-water source" is a story.
I have a feeling that Davin's post yesterday came about because Davin has been thinking lately about the idea of meaning in fiction, the idea that fiction can be more than just entertainment. Note that this is not an argument about interpretive fiction versus escapist/entertainment fiction. These are my thoughts about ways to talk about theme in interpretive (what some call "literary") fiction.
Themes in entertainment fiction tend to be very simple and unquestioned: "Murder is bad," "Family is good," "Children and small animals are precious," "Social, political and religious stability are good" and that sort of thing. Themes like this tend to be part of the frame--the background of the story--and aren't questioned. They aren't questioned because questioning those assumptions is not the point of the literature; the escapist story is the point and there's nothing wrong with that.
In interpretive, or literary, fiction these basic assumptions are the point. (Now I find myself suddenly having to make sweeping generalizations, so please bear with me.) Literary fiction tends to either call assumptions into question or to examine assumptions from a variety of views. Both of these literary tendencies usually challenge the reader's worldview. A very simplistic example of calling an assumption into question would be something like "Hey, the minority members at the margins of your culture are humans, too, with deeply-felt inner lives that are not that different from yours, and those people have an equal value to you." A simplistic example of examining an assumption from a variety of views would be "Hey, killing is morally wrong, but it's generally acceptable to kill to protect your child, but what if your child is a horrific, murderous person?"
There are a multitude of more subtle themes to be explored than these sweeping, grand themes, and a lot of the best fiction explores the more nuanced experience of life. More often of late, my own fiction has sort of buried themes that have to do with what I think of as my own shortcomings. This is not to say that I write a kind of breast-beating, self-pitying fiction; what I mean is that the faults my characters have will often reflect my own faults, because I understand those faults and I see how they can motivate people's actions. I also can see other ways of being, and talk about those as well. What do I mean by this?
In one of my books, I have a character who is moved to assassinate a king. He gives the reader one reason for this act (vengeance), but the truth is that he's attempting to be someone who has a significant effect upon the world because he views himself as someone who doesn't do anything at all particularly well. While I don't plan to kill anyone to become famous, I certainly have felt that feeling of insignificance, so that's what I'm ending up exploring in this book, in a subtle manner. It's a truth I examine; a small truth, but a truth nonetheless.
In another one of my books, I have a protagonist who makes a lot of bad personal decisions that benefit a second character, because the protagonist is in love with that other character, so much in love that he has enslaved himself to them. So while on the surface the story is an adventure tale, below that surface I am talking about making dumb decisions and committing self-destructive actions in order to please someone to whom you have enslaved yourself. While I have, again, never killed anyone, I have also been young and dumb and impetuous so there's another truth for you, albeit a small one.
When I wrote the title to this post, I was thinking about something I wanted to say to Davin in an email I have yet to write, which is that the deeper subjects of my fiction tend to be things I can't write about in any other way than to work them into a story. Being too close to things makes them impossible for me to analyze sometimes, so the abstraction of a fictional setting helps me to see these themes for what they are. My impulse to write doesn't come from an urge to analyze these personal themes, but these personal themes do seem to work their way into my writing, because I can't separate me from what I do, I guess. I should also point out that in the two books discussed above, the outline of the plot and the characters came to me far ahead of any ideas about themes or truths. I am not writing in order to declare those things that I consider to be true, but I'm not finished writing until I've said something true.
The themes that we can most truthfully and most interestingly illustrate are those themes that represent truths about ourselves. Again, I'm not advocating some kind of confessional literature where the writer bares his soul as a cathartic act (I know this writing exists and, you know, it bores me), but perhaps in this case I am saying that you should write what you know. The big themes only feel real, I think, when we see them at a human scale, and the most true experiences we can relate are our own, maybe. Again, all of this is provisional and I'm talking about my personal approach to meaning and theme in literature. Your mileage may vary. I'm also hurriedly writing this post from work, so some of it might just be rubbishy nonsense.