Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What You Can't Write About Any Other Way

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.


  1. In my women's fiction, my MC comes home after a long time and finds her aunt in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. Now, this was not something that was originally in the story, however, because my aunt has it, which has affected my mother deeply, and I cannot wrap my mind around the fact this disease may affect my mother at some point, I chose to write about it instead. So yes, I see your point.

  2. I don't think there's any rubbish nonsense in your post. It makes perfect sense to me, and I found myself nodding and saying, "yeah, yeah, yeah," all the way through. So there you go.

    I'm like you in the fact I just write a story and themes work themselves in as I go and I don't usually realize what they are until later in the writing. I'm finally seeing what Cinders is about, and that's fun. Monarch's themes came out in later drafts, but I think I could make them stronger.

    You're coming awfully close to defining "literary fiction," Mr. Bailey. I think this is one of the best descriptions I've seen yet.

  3. great post, scott! thought-provoking as always.

  4. Since you're speaking in personal generalities, it may be slightly spurious of me to note that the best of escapist fiction will also have thematic subtlety, but I will anyway. The most notable recent example, for me, was Terry Pratchett's Thud, which, as with most Pratchett novels, was friggin' hysterical, but made a magnificent point about the folly of racial hatred and intolerance in the process. It was both escapist and meaningful.

    Mostly, though, I agree with what you've said. I can most convincingly write my own faults into my characters because I'm all too familiar with them. My characters make mistakes I've never allowed myself to make, and I get to explore the negative consequences without experiencing them directly. It's a teeny bit cathartic, in a way.

  5. Simon: I see what you're saying about the best escapist fiction containing thematic subtlety, but I don't think Scott was saying that escapist fiction doesn't have themes; he's saying that it just has more general unquestioned themes. I would call racial hatred and intolerance marked as a folly as something quite general and unquestioned.

    Unless that's not what you were pointing out at all and then I'll be quiet. :)

  6. Glam: Oh, it was questioned, all right, on multiple levels. But it wasn't overt questioning so much as specific relationships between characters and groups of characters that brought it out. On the surface, it's mined for humor, but beneath the facade, it's very pointed, almost satirical (for all that it's placed in a fantasy setting).


  7. Simon: Well of course it's questioned in the text(that's probably the tension?), but unless the novel as a whole is saying that racial hatred and intolerance are okay I'd say it's not questioned by the text and therefore more escapist than literary/interpretive. Crap, I'm really not bringing this up. I'm not. Bad, Michelle, bad!

  8. Simon: All right, after our brief discussion over chat, I see what you're saying about genre fiction containing depth. Some, of course, contains more depth than others, and I certainly hope that anything "genre" I write contains a subtle depth like you describe here. The themes are certainly general.

    I also think that many people get their feathers all ruffled when we start to separate books into "genre" and "literary" fiction and many, many books get thrown into some gray area where it's undecided - is it more literary or more category/genre/general/whatever - AND does that lower it's value? It's the value part that's the sticking point.

    But this is going into the argument of escapist fiction vs. interpretative fiction, which is what Scott didn't want to do, so I'll end it right here.


  9. You're on your own with this one, Michelle.

    Okay, not. I see what Simon and you are both saying, and I agree with Simon that escapist fiction can deal with important themes in a subtle way, but like Michelle says (and I assume neither Michelle nor I have read the Pratchett book), unless someone's a priori assumptions are being challenged, it might not be what I'm trying to talk about today. Don't know.

    I would be interested if the Pratchett book explores the idea that cultural diversity for its own sake is a good thing. I don't know if anyone's really done that. Certainly a lot of recent Irish and Indian fiction having to do with cultural diaspora are talking about the value of retaining/preserving cultures in the face of diversity, which is sort of the same thing viewed from the other way around (that is, it's only "cultural diversity" if it's your culture being promoted). Blah blah blah. I ramble.

  10. I can't get into this argument today - I don't have time, and the sun is shining outside and I want to be out in it. So, I'll just say this: escapist or interpretive fiction doesn't matter to me - both need to entertain on some level, and to be considered worth reading (to me), both need some sort of deep-felt theme that turns the writing into writing rather than just plot.

  11. I'm not arguing escapist versus interpretive; I don't really care about that argument anyway. I am interested in talking about different ways of exploring themes, though. It's easy to state a theme, like Davin said yesterday, but harder to do something engaging and meaningful with it.

  12. That's precisely my point about Thud. The book was both engaging and meaningful, the theme mixed into a very funny novel with great characters. Some might disagree with my assessment, but I'm fine with that.

    *exits stage right*

  13. I didn't consciously write themes into my novel but they nevertheless found a way to snake through the foundation of the story. I can only hope that the themes will end up being engaging and meaningful for readers.

  14. I guess "argument" was the wrong term. Well, it was the wrong term. I meant discussion. And Simon, I don't disagree with you at all. Maybe this was my lame attempt at trying to peak the discussion in here. I've heard Pratchett is worth reading, and I'd like to try that book sometime.

  15. Scott, thanks so much for writing this post. It gets me "Davin's Favorite Scott Post" Award, that's right, the coveted DFSP Award. Seriously, I have been thinking a lot more about having meaning in my writing, about writing something that isn't forgotten two seconds after it's read. I'm struggling with these thoughts because I hadn't much thought about them before. But, I realize that I do explore ideas like this in my writing. Rooster is about making an unlikable man likable. (Or at least that's what it used to be about.) Bread seriously questions whether or not consensual murder is okay or not.) I think these ideas were driving me and get me to write even though I didn't know it. When these ideas aren't there, I tend not to get attached to the stories. There are a lot of those on my computer.

  16. Sometimes I read one of my stories and I ask myself what emotions I'm feeling. Too often the answer is "nothing." That's when I know that I'm failing to be honest in my writing, or when I'm writing just to craft pretty sentences. A story that contains a truth makes me uncomfortable in some way, pushes me out of my internal status quo, if only for a moment. That's all I'm looking for. If there is nothing in a story that asks, "How do you feel about this?" then I don't think the story has any meaning.

    I am pleased and honored to receive the DFSP Award. Does a cash prize come with that?

  17. Scott, your check is in the mail. Or at least some check is in someone's mailbox.


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