I think a lot about theme when I’m writing my novels, so I figured I'd have a rant on theme. I think about theme before I start writing, sometimes with intent (for example, “I’m going to make my novel about loss,”) and other times unconsciously (meaning the theme(s) develop as a consequence of my characters’ actions, the plot, etc., and I work on developing these theme(s) afterwards). It’s what works for me, and I know it, so I don’t rock the boat when it comes to this element of writing fiction.
The great Wikipedia says theme “is a central topic, subject, or message within a narrative, [and that] [t]hemes can be divided into two categories: a work's thematic concept is what readers ‘think the work is about’ and its thematic statement being ‘what the work says about the subject’.” Sounds about right, no?
Now, I don’t know where I’m going with this. Maybe it may make no sense, what I’m trying to communicate. But hear me out. For me, the one- or two- or three-word descriptions of theme feel like a limitation. I don’t want to sound like I’m making something out of nothing—I mean that. There is value to those brief, amorphous, underdeveloped descriptions of theme. I’ve used them for decades, especially in workshops, so I know their value. But these pithy labels always felt like drive-by descriptions for things that deserve more. And that bothers me because I find it insufficient.
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, said, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” I agree. What I see, though, when I’ve researched the concept of “theme” in fiction, is (or feels like to me), a sort of watered-down version of what theme really, actually corresponds to in a work of fiction. Love. Survival. Courage. Coming of age (bildungsroman). Good versus evil. Death. Loyalty. Faith. Redemption. Nature. Feminism. Sacrifice. Perseverance. War. Technology. These are all themes, right? But they’re one-word summation capsules of the long, hard work an author puts into their writing for the purpose of what I call “description convenience,” which to me is the opposite of how a “mighty theme” should be defined or explained. It’s like the elevator pitch you, as a writer, are expected to come up with when you’re trying to get an agent or editor to join the journey of finding your book a home and getting it published. It’s the Twitter (X?) of the writing world—quick, short, and (supposedly) something that gets right to the point of your entire work. But like anyone who’s ever sent out a tweet, or “posts,” as they’re now known, you probably weren’t able to cover everything you wanted to cover in the 280 characters available to you (and even less in the 140 characters Twitter originally allowed). If you’re a subscriber these days, meaning you shell out the $8/month, your limit is 4,000 characters, so at least you can pay to play if you so choose. But those elevator pitches leave much to be desired.
Take, for instance, these elevator pitches from Writer’s Digest (which they call “Hooks for Books”):
The Guilty Girl, by Patricia Gibney: "Two beautiful girls: One is murdered after a teen party, and the other is accused. The accused girl wakes up with blood on her hands and has no memory of the night before. What really happened?"
Tear Down the Throne, by Jennifer Estep: "Most people consider Gemma Ripley nothing more than a spoiled princess, but Gemma’s pampered persona is a clever disguise. She secretly moonlights as a spy and is determined to stop a powerful enemy from conquering her kingdom."
Balloon Dog, by Daniel Paisner: "A darkly comic tale of longing and legacy and letting go, Balloon Dog tells the story of a brazen art heist gone sideways and asks readers to consider what it means to leave a mark and what it takes to be swept up in the same currents that move the rest of the world."
I suppose that agents and editors will read those and get what they’re looking for. Me? I think, what the fuck does that actually tell me? I’m not criticizing the writers—they’re being asked to provide the elevator pitches. God knows I’ve done plenty of them myself. But it’s like anything you’d do for any other job: If you’re going to half-ass it, why bother doing it at all? (I know, I know, time constraints, a zillion slush pile reads, a zillion represented writers, the work agents do when they aren’t reading, etc.).
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
As a writer, and I’m sure there are plenty of you writers out there who feel the same way, I feel cheated (I was going to say “hate,” but that’s too strong a word) when I have to whittle down my 300-page novel to a line or two so someone “gets” what my novel is about in 30 seconds. Why? Well, because my novel isn’t just about love. It’s not just about redemption. Nor is it just about sacrifice, or good versus evil, or loyalty, or death, or any other theme. There’s a good chance it’s about all those things in combination, and in a lot more detail than what one or two words can deliver. If you’re like me, and you’ve ever had someone at a party say, “Hey, what’s your novel about?” and you say “love,” because that’s the theme (or one of them), and you know that’ll fly with your fellow partygoer, you know what an idiot you feel like for saying it. Sure, the novel is about love. But it’s about a certain type of love, like, say, the kind of love for someone, like Gotye’s song so astutely and cleverly puts it, “that I used to know.” And more than that, it’s about the hurt you feel when that person sees you in the street and doesn’t acknowledge you, as if you were never part of their lives, as if they didn’t tell you constantly that they loved you, as if you didn’t have puke-sweet names for each other you’d be embarrassed about if anyone knew, as if you didn’t break up with them because you found out you had terminal cancer. It’s that kind of love. The kind of love that showed how much you loved them—a love strong enough to break their heart and yours because it would be less painful for them knowing the person they loved was on the road to a horrible, protracted death. Get what I’m saying here? Is the novel about “love?” You bet.
Well, what kind of love, right? What kind of comeuppance? What sort of revenge? It’s just
not specific enough for me.
It’s like, if you see a Vermeer, would you say, the painting is blue and it’s yellow and there’s a pitcher in it or an earring in the painting that’s on a young woman’s ear? Would that suffice to describe his artwork? Does that do it justice? Or if you’re describing Vermeer himself, is “genre painter” enough? Or “Dutch painter?” Or “Dutch Baroque period painter?” I don’t believe so.
In workshops, I’ll admit, I sort of understand the rationale. I won’t pretend to not understand why we use those terms when we describe theme. I get it. It’s quick. It’s easy. It gives a general sense of the overall (partial) meaning of what the theme (or likely one of the themes) is about. But it gives no insight into the book. “It’s about love” can describe a romance novel, a crime novel, literary fiction, YA, fantasy, sci-fi—you get the point. I’m splitting hairs, but I guess it’s more me questioning the norms we’ve assigned to how we classify the art we produce. But it’s about so much more, isn’t it? So, given that, does “love” satisfy you, the author, as being the best way to describe the theme of your book? Is it enough to say, well, it’s about love, and loss, and sacrifice, and suffering and . . . and . . . and . . .. Or do you feel cheated somehow, like you got the appetizer but the server forgot the entrée?
Again, I get it. I know there’s an argument for brevity, for using just a few words for convenience’s sake. But I’m simply not a fan of it. I don’t want to just say, “My novel is about love and loss and sacrifice.” If I was at an ice cream shop, that would be like choosing a cup of vanilla over super fudge chocolate chunk lava cake ice cream with sprinkles, whipped cream, and syrupy walnuts with a dash of nonpareils on top. Is it faster to say vanilla? Sure. But fuck that. I’ll take the obnoxious, ninety-five-word Starbuck’s ice cream name every single time. It tastes better. It makes me feel like the diabetes my doctor keeps telling me I’m inching towards is worth every goddamn scoop.
On that note, though, I know what I’m asking for is improbable. That theme should be provided with enough description to get a true picture of what a book is about is asking for a lot. But are we really that busy? I mean, I know agents and editors are busy as hell. But is everyone else? How much time do you spend surfing Netflix, watching one trailer after the next before you actually pick something to binge watch for the next three weeks? I know I’m twenty minutes in before I realize what a waste of time it was, picking trailers for movies I’ve already seen but that were so bad I forgot I’d suffered through them.
I have two girls, both under 13. They have tablets, watch television, movies, all that. But their favorite thing to do is watch these three-to-fifteen-minute videos of kids talking in silly voices about Minecraft (which drives me nuts). Their attention spans suffer—I can see it in how quickly they need satisfaction, a quick fix, in whatever it is they’re doing. THAT is what I feel about the one-word descriptions of theme in literature (or the list, à la love, vengeance, family, etc.). It’s not enough. It’s a shortcut to a partial understanding of what the piece of literature is about. It’s a stand-in. And if that’s how someone decides on whether or not they read an author’s work, well, count me out.
Like the title says, this is a rant. It is, and I admit it. But I’m not ashamed of it. I’m just frustrated by what literature is becoming these days, what’s selling, what’s not, the threats to writers by AI (artificial intelligence and machine learning), the consolidation of the publishers that are still out there, the quality or lack thereof of self-published works, the shutting down of MFA programs and how that affects writers who rely on those programs to stay afloat, how certain books become bestsellers while others languish in anonymity, how difficult it is for writers to get the attention of agents and editors, the business-side of writing conferences and workshops, the fear displayed by (mostly beginning) writers of people stealing their plots, their titles, their whatever, the sometimes contentious relationship between writers and editors (there are issues with professionalism on both sides), the jealousy and envy, the goddamn typo on page 154 of that novel that that big publisher’s proofreader should have caught but didn’t, and so on ad infinitum.
But back to theme. Yes, all the other elements of fiction—character, plot, setting, conflict, point of view, and style and tone contribute to the development of theme. No question. I just have a problem with the cliché descriptions that seem to pass as acceptable. “It’s about love.” “It’s about comeuppance.” “It’s about drug abuse.” Super. Wonderful. My personal preference is that we update the rules of our descriptions of theme. The first rule of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is “you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!” Maybe we can update the rules of theme to be something like “The first rule of theme is you do not describe theme in less than one paragraph, because one-word descriptions tell us jack shit about the book, and authors deserve more of your time and consideration, because for fuck’s sake, what have we become as a people if we can’t take a few minutes to devote to well-written literature that might one day be a classic!”
Cully Perlman’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in Bull Men’s Fiction, The St. Petersburg Review, Real South Magazine, Avatar Review, Creative Loafing, Connotation Press, The Good Men Project, Pioneertown, El Portal, and more. He was a 2013 semifinalist for his novel-in- progress, LOS BEAUTIFUL, as well as on the short list of finalists for the 2012 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition for his novel, THE LOSSES. He has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story Contest, won the Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent contest for a novel, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.
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