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Variations on a Theme

Open book of music

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about theme.

I didn't always - or at least, I didn't consider it in those terms. I think my pre-occupation with the topic developed as a side effect of my work as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. For clarity's sake, an RLF Fellow is a professional writer (of 'established merit', which is always nice to hear about yourself) who is employed by the venerable Royal Literary Fund to go into universities and teach writing skills to students ranging from BA to PhD level.

Many RLF Fellows have no teaching qualifications; I didn't. Many have no formal qualifications at all: at the time of my Fellowship, I didn't. What they do have is a fantastic grasp of how to use the English language to make a point, how to employ all the tools of lucid and persuasive writing to convey information and construct a convincing argument. We also know, at a basic level, how to construct a grammatical sentence, how to use a semi-colon correctly, and the difference between an appropriate synonym and one which makes an entire paragraph unintentionally hilarious. Believe me, these last three were skills which many students who came to my office definitely benefitted from learning.

But I would say that the vast majority of the students who visited me were actually perfectly competent writers. Their issue was that no one had ever taught them what an essay was actually for.

The most vital turning point of many sessions was my introduction of the topic of ‘thesis’ or ‘argument’ – or, to put it in plainer terms, the moment when I bluntly asked my students: ‘What exactly are you trying to say with this piece of writing?’.

I'll be honest: I received so many blank, faintly panicked stares in response to this simple question that it was a little disheartening.

However, once the students understood that the point of an essay was not simply to produce two or five or ten thousand words describing a subject area, but to actually express an opinion – in academic language, and backed up by meticulous evidence and references, of course – I could see that lightbulb click on. This is the difference between writing about WHAT a thing is and examining WHY it is, and HOW. Which is about one hundred times more interesting.

Having said all this: don't you think it's rather strange that novelists are so often discouraged from undergoing the same questioning process in their work?

The idea – a relatively modern one, perhaps a product of New Criticism’s desire to divorce authorial intent from the reader’s engagement with a work – seems to be that ‘having a message’ or ‘wanting to say something’ is preachy, cheesy, old-fashioned and just generally a detriment to the development of great art. As if thinking about topic or theme or argument too much would be bound to produce something akin to one of those Victorian Morality Tales for small children, which usually ended with Little Mary being devoured by bears or stricken with typhoid because she wouldn’t wash behind her ears (and a strong implication that it served her right).

But theme still stubbornly comes up, doesn't it?

In query letters to agents, at pitch meetings with editors, while devising a ‘shout line’ for a book’s cover, or trying to describe our work for someone we meet in the kitchen at a party, we're always struggling in some sense to articulate what exactly our narratives are about.

One thing I notice writers doing pretty often is to attempt to avoid the cheesiness factor by boiling everything down to a single word: "Oh, well, it's really about war, you know." It's what? Is it really? Well, I mean, if you say so... I've heard people say that they were writing about divorce, trauma, identity; death. Concepts so massive and intangible that they might as well have said: "I am writing about blue."

(No offense, of course, to Kai Kupferschmidt).

I think some of this reluctance to dig meaningfully into meaning is caused by a conflation of the notion of theme with that of the (much hated and feared) elevator pitch, in which authors describe their work by reducing all their blood-and-sweat-stained lyricism down to something as bland as possible in order to appeal to the widest audience. Jaws meets Memoirs of a Geisha. The Count of Monte Christo crossed with Independence Day. The Wars of the Roses – in space! No one wants to elevator pitch their new friend in the kitchen at a party. No one wants to sound as if they're imparting moral maxims, either.

What's either funny or tragic, depending on how you look at it, is that none of the things I’ve mentioned above – not the desperately blunt single word or the elevator pitch, or the preachy, cheesy, moral sentiment – actually constitutes a theme at all. Or at least, not as I understand the concept.

We’d all probably be better off using the same sorts of words that I utilised to teach my students: Thesis. Argument. What are you trying to say?

What story are you hoping to tell?

If you want to understand your story’s theme, ask yourself: what central ideas do the events of my story effectively illustrate? What argument do my characters’ own words, values, and choices prove ‘true’ within the narrative? What sorts of actions are consistently rewarded within this work – and which types of people are ultimately shown to be foolish, weak, misguided, mistaken, or even villainous?

This is the point where it gets tricky, isn't it? Are you feeling a little flush in your cheeks, a faint swelling beneath the breastbone, a troubling sense of defensive confusion, and the desire to stop thinking about this and go and do the washing up instead? If you’re honest with yourself – I mean, really honest – is it possible that your work is definitely ‘saying something’ after all? Something you never meant it to?

All too often writers are horrified and trip quickly into denial when accused by readers of authoring a work with a central or side theme of, for instance, ‘fat people are worthless’ or ‘ambitious women cause disasters’. “I didn’t write that!” we cry, clutching our metaphorical pearls in horror. “You’re reading things into the text that aren’t there!”

But if the only fat person in your book (or every fat person in your book) makes very stupid decisions and is punished for them by your story, or the only (or every) woman who is depicted working ambitiously eventually comes to a sticky end? Well, it may not have been what you meant to say, but as I told my students, what you meant to say isn’t necessarily what you actually committed to the page.

Sometimes, just as with that time someone congratulated me on losing so much weight and then clearly wished they could sink through the floor when when I muttered that I hadn't been eating much since my father's funeral, we express hurtful sentiments without ever intending to.

This is why, personally, I find writing much easier and more satisfying if I throw off the shackles of theme-shame and confront my own intentions, not only before I begin drafting, but throughout my whole process. I set my characters around me, consider the setting and tone, the plot events I want to explore, and ask myself: ‘What story am I trying to tell here?’ This questioning progresses, through: ‘Am I telling that story with this scene or character revelation?’ to: ‘If my character makes that choice, how can I illustrate my theme through the consequences?’

Sometimes I set out to write a story encompassing one theme, and find as I write that the characters and world are actually pulling me in another direction. This is thrilling, but also frustrating, not only because it often means a lot of work rewriting and re-outlining, but also because my characters and world are in my head, and therefore I feel it would have been polite if my own brain had let me know what was going on back there. Consciously. Before I wrote ten chapters that are now plainly wrong wrong wrong. However, I don't quibble with this kind of revelation anymore. Some of my greatest disappointments with myself as a writer stem from ignoring my own sense of the greater story I ought to tell in favour of something smaller, more convenient and more manageable.

I’ve written a novel with the central theme ‘Compassion is beauty’ (Barefoot on the Wind), one with a theme of ‘Freedom is more important than power’ (The Book of Snow & Silence), one with the theme ‘You are not to blame for the things that have hurt you’ (Shadows on the Moon). I believe in all these ideas, and very much enjoyed putting my characters’ through the ringer until they eventually gave in and learned to live by them.

And yet... (I'm making an agonised face, crinkled brow, gritted teeth, as I admit this) I know that it’s not so simple. As I said, I’ve been thinking about theme a lot, and lately I've been thinking about it in new ways.

Some academics, for instance, spend their entire careers writing dozens of different books and papers on topics branching out from their main area of study – but always, usually, to illustrate one central idea. They might examine themes of class and race in Tudor plays with one monograph, staging and authenticity with another, and argue for a radical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the next. But ultimately they’re always asking for their readers to believe some central tenant: perhaps that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford. Or that he was a radical liberal, hiding sedition in his works. Or that he was actually fifteen underpaid jobbing writers scribbling madly in a basement.

Are novelists the same? The more I think about the themes which have informed the various individual novels of my own career, the more I begin to realise that each of these theses – powerful and worthy as they are – are more like paragraphs in an essay, each building up towards proving some greater thesis. One which, contrary to everything I’ve said so far, probably boils down to a single word after all, and is something I never consciously chose at all.

I’m not sure what I would call that theme. Forgiveness? No. Redemption? Not quite. Perhaps, simply, compassion.

The idea of compassion – of the vital importance of compassion in making any life bearable, and how damaging the lack of it can be not only to those who seek it, but those who choose to withhold it – seems innate to everything I write. A part of my identity as a creative person that I cannot change no matter how much I change the type of stories I tell, or the worlds, or the characters. In much the same way that I have a shouting-at-my-dog voice, a singing voice, a teaching voice, a speaking in public voice – but ultimately they are all recognisably my voice, even if I should try to disguise it – my theme as a writer seems to have been set for me by the same forces which gave me green eyes, asthma, and wobbly ankles.

I wonder if this is why a lot of writers don’t recognise the other themes that readers and critics attach to their work, even when these seem profound and important; deep down they know that they’ve always been working on proving something else. Perhaps every writer is ultimately embroiled in an eternal argument with the universe, an argument which grows and twists and turns as they mature, but which springs naturally from their identity as a person and an artist.

A thesis which can only be fully proved by devoting a lifetime to variations on the theme.

Image of dark tree branches reaching out toward each other against a pale sky


Nov 16, 2021

I got a little teary at the part where you wrote about the themes of your own novels and compassion because I think it encapsulates why you are among my favourite writers whose work I always enjoy on some level.

Nov 16, 2021
Replying to

That's lovely. Maybe that is why there are certain authors whose work we keep coming back to - because their internal 'theme' meshes with ours, whether we know it consciously or not. Thanks for commenting :)

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