My walking partner and I were talking the other day about the sorts of assumptions people make about books, and she said something that made me pause to think. I can’t give you the exact phrasing, but the basic sense of it was that literary and mainstream fiction is, as a general rule, a lot more consciously thematic than genre fiction.
Not that genre fiction doesn’t have themes; on the contrary, there are at least as many strongly thematic writers in genre fiction as there are in literary or mainstream fiction. It’s just that the theme isn’t front and center in the same ways. Often, even (or especially) for the most strongly theme-oriented writers, the themes arise from the interaction between the plot and characters, rather than being deliberately planned out before the book is even started.
This aspect of the Great Genre Divide has a couple of interesting implications. Teachers and professors of English Lit and Language Arts tend to study literary fiction primarily; teachers of Creative Writing also skew heavily in that direction. This means that anyone coming up through the U.S. school system is pretty much guaranteed to get the impression that theme is not only really, really important, but also something that all writers have to think about and plan carefully in advance.
This misconception is not particularly harmful to readers, though some writers find the assumption that they start with theme to be annoying. For writers, though, it can (and often is) very problematic, especially for the plot-and-character centered writers that genre fiction tends to attract. Because if you feel that you must start with X, regardless of all other considerations, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a hard time unless you happen to be one of the writers who just naturally does start off that way. And starting with theme is particularly problematic for me personally.
Because I’m one of those writers who really can’t start with theme. Or even think about it much while I’m in the process of writing, really. I’ve tried a time or two, and every time I try to come up with “what this book is about,” I a) get it completely wrong, and b) find it impossible to make forward progress as long as I’m thinking about theme and not plot or characters.
So I am always bemused when readers want to talk to me about the themes of my books. I’m particularly bemused when somebody gets it right. I can tell when somebody else comes up with what the theme is; there’s a sort of internal recognition, “Oh, yes, of course!” And then I forget almost immediately, so that when the next person asks about that book, I’m just as much at a loss as I ever was.
The thing about theme, I think, is that it’s almost as much about what the reader brings to the work as it is about what the writer put there (consciously or not). And I think that it matters which is which, on several levels. The conscious intentions of the author are as relevant as his/her unconscious worldview … and the way the reader’s worldview and unconscious assumptions interact with both of those.
Theme is probably one of the most subjective parts of fiction. The plot (what happened) and the characters (who it happened to) are usually fairly clear, but you can argue about theme forever. It is also amazingly easy for a reader with a strong worldview to take a piece of fiction with a plot and characters that they like and warp the theme to suit the reader’s own notions, regardless of whatever the author consciously or unconsciously put into the work. Which is why I’ve had different readers tell me disapprovingly that my work is Satanic, pagan, Christian; feminist, anti-woman, anti-male; too complicated, simplistic, radical, or traditional; and quite a few other mutually-contradictory things besides.
I know better than to argue with folks like this. The beliefs and attitudes that people bring with them to my work are not something I can control or change; about all I can say when someone comes up with something really off the wall is, “Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it.”
The themes in my books are not things I put there mechanically and deliberately and consciously. They grow out of the interaction between the story I’m telling – the characters and plot – and my worldview. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when someone has the right idea about what I was doing. Somebody pointed out to me once that there are a lot of ecological themes in my stories, and I kind of went “Huh. You’re right.”
My point is that I don’t need to know those things in order to write. Most of the genre writers I know also don’t spend a lot of time worrying about theme, even the ones whose work is strongly thematic. We tend to trust that our backbrains will come up with whatever the story needs on that level. There’s nothing wrong with starting from theme or paying a lot of attention to it; it’s just that writers who work that way seem to get more support from the literary establishment already. The rest of us occasionally need to be told that it’s OK if we can’t sum a story up in a ten-word, thematically focused log line before we ever start writing it.