As regular readers know, I don’t have a lot of patience for the subject of theme. To see theme drawn, quartered, burned at the stake, tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail, click here. To see previous posts on the subject of theme, click here.
Fortunately, Rust Hills isn’t party to the kind of high-flying rhetoric about theme that so deservedly demands the subject be shot down. Rather, as suggested by a quote in the previous post on Style, Hills primarily sees theme through a critical lens, as another way of understanding an author’s work over time:
This coherence in the world he creates is constituted of two concepts he holds, which may be in conflict: one is his world view, his sense of the way the world is; and the other is his sense of morality, his sense of the way the world ought to be.
Hills spends the bulk of the section on theme talking about where different writers plot on this matrix, but nowhere does he suggest that the authors he cites made a specific choice to approach their fiction in that way. More important than the theme of any particular story is how those authors integrated their world view into the craft of their fiction.
As to the utility of theme as a technique, Hills is thankfully explicit:
“Theme” and “word view” as an aspect of fiction seem to come very much after the fact. A beginning short story writer will have very little sense of any overall coherence in his efforts so far, and it’s better that he doesn’t.
If you feel you have something important to say about the world, fiction can be a great medium of expression. But front-loading theme into a badly crafted work is an eternal recipe for failure. The best way to integrate theme or anything else into your storytelling is to concentrate on craft. I know it’s fun to strike an authorial pose, I know it’s fun to agonize about the state of the world or literature or the contents of your refrigerator over leisurely cups of coffee at the local cafe, but it’s not enough. At some point the rubber has to meet the road.
If the only rubber you have is theme, you’re going to write a lot of flat tires. If you haven’t read Thomas McCormack’s piece yet, do so now.
Next up: The Short Story and the New Criticism.
— Mark Barrett