Subtext. According to one of my friends, it’s a “writer thing” that doesn’t matter much to ordinary readers and can therefore be ignored – indeed, that should be ignored if a writer wants to appeal to the maximum number of readers.
I am pretty darned positive that he is wrong.
Let’s start with a definition: subtext is the stuff in a book that isn’t said straight out, but that the reader can infer from what is in the text. At its broadest, it can cover everything from sarcastic dialog to character motivation to sweeping statements about culture and current events (as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, but which has a strong subtext criticizing the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s as well as the abuse of power and law).
There are three kinds of subtext in every story: 1) The subtext the writer puts there deliberately, 2) The subtext that sneaks in because of the writer’s underlying life assumptions, which the writer is usually unaware of, and 3) The subtext that readers find because of their life experiences and assumptions, which often has little or nothing to do with anything the writer stuck in (whether on purpose or accidentally).
Subtext can be obvious, it can be subtle, and it can be layered. The deliberate use of subtext is most common in dealing with dialog and characterization. There are many, many places in a story where one or more characters say one thing, but mean something else, or mean something in addition to what is actually being said.
“The last orange is right over there” is, on the surface, a perfectly straightforward bit of dialog. The subtext, however, could be anything from “You need to eat more fruit; go eat that orange” to “I hope you don’t want it because I’ve been looking forward to eating it myself but since you’re here I have to offer” to “You’d better eat it after you spent all that money on a luxury item we can’t afford” to “I saved you the last orange; I hope you appreciate it” to “Take the damned orange and get out of here before I beat you to death with the frying pan.” An argument over who gets the TV remote can be, in the subtext, an argument about fairness, about which person has the power in the relationship, about differences in spending habits, about differences in personal taste…practically anything.
Almost all writers make use of subtext in dialog at some point, because few characters always say exactly what they mean, no more and no less. In fact, when a writer comes up with a character who is that blunt, the character often stands out as a little odd compared to the better-socialized characters around them (which can be either a good thing or a bad one, depending on the character’s role in the story). If the subtext of a conversation is extremely important to the plot – for instance, the ambassador is being offered a subtle bribe by one of the local businessmen – the author may make it more explicit for the reader by having the viewpoint character think “He’s trying to bribe the ambassador!” so that nobody will miss the plot point. Much of the time, though, the readers are expected to put the subtext together for themselves from the clues the writer provides (body language, tone of voice, word choice, context).
One of the more effective uses of subtext comes in layering it, such that the reader understands a scene differently depending on how much information he/she has. Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold is a great example: a lot of the conversations with the villain in the first two-thirds of the book mean something completely different once you have read to the end and know exactly what he did, how he did it, and why he did it. The subtext was there the first time through, but the reader doesn’t have quite enough information to interpret it correctly (even if the reader has fingered the villain right from the start).
Writers sometimes make use of broader subtext in order to talk indirectly about things that, for whatever reason, they don’t wish to deal with directly in their work. Writing about aliens or dragons or the way pet shelters are run can get past the automatic knee-jerk reaction that many folks would have if they were faced with a story that dealt directly with a hot-button political or moral issue, even when the parallels are as blatantly obvious as they are in Miller’s play. Dealing with things indirectly can also allow the author more freedom to play with alternatives than trying to look at the problem directly, especially with current controversies. Because if it is current and controversial, odds are good that the writer has just as strong opinions as many of the readers do, and while those opinions can add a lot to a story, they can also get in the way if the writer is more concerned with “proving” that his/her opinions are the right ones than with telling an interesting and enlightening story that will make people think about their own opinions.
Which brings us to the second kind of subtext: the writer’s underlying assumptions about how things are. The writer usually has little control over this kind, mainly because in order to control something, you have to begin by realizing it’s there, and in this case that requires both considerable introspection on a personal level and a lot of analyzing and thinking about the work itself. Writers seldom bother with this because practically no one a) wants to write a book based on faulty assumptions and b) thinks their own current assumptions are flawed. It’s only in retrospect, when the writer (and sometimes the world) has moved on that flaws in the writer’s worldview become obvious, and by then it’s usually too late to fix – as in loads of 1950s novels that are riddled with subtext about the proper roles of women and minorities, for instance.
Not all life-assumption subtext has to do with stereotypes. I know more than one writer whose life has been sufficiently difficult that they are convinced that nothing good ever happens without at least two bad things following it. Their work is good, but depressing, because this worldview underlies ever story they tell; even the “happy ending” stories have a clear subtext of “…but this will never last.”
Writers have no control at all over the third kind of subtext, the kind readers find in their stories because of the readers’ worldview, life experiences, and assumptions. The only way one could control it would be to interview every reader in depth before allowing them to read the book, which would be intrusive and impractical. About the only comfort the writer has is that for every reader who claims their writing is Satanic, there’s one complaining about all the overt Christian symbolism. When people ask me about this (usually in connection with the Enchanted Forest books, which have been called feminist, misanthropic, misogynistic, Satanic, Christian, and a bunch of other mutually contradictory things), I have found that my best option is not to say anything. If that isn’t possible, “That is a very interesting way of looking at it” is a nice, neutral comment that I can generally repeat over and over until the person goes away. (This is assuming that the person is looking to pick a fight, which is frequently the case. The rare ones who are just up for an interesting discussion are another matter.)
The one assumption that I will sometimes actually try to correct is the assumption that there must be subtext, preferably several layers of deliberately hidden subtext, in every good book (because this is what the reader’s Literature classes have trained them to believe). A reader who can’t allow themselves to enjoy a book without picking apart a lot of non-existent layers is missing a lot of enjoyment in reading; at the least, I think they ought to recognize that some books are good for that kind of analysis and some books aren’t, and one can get a great deal of pleasure out of either kind.
Mostly, though, the subtext that readers find because of their personal worldview is exactly like the subtext that gets into a book because of the writer’s worldview – the only thing that is going to clarify the person’s perception is a change in their own worldview resulting from more experience, the passage of time, and shifts in culture and society that expose them.