Category Archives: academia

Essay Camp: Don’t Write about Themes

Thomas McCormack - The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist

This is the second in a series of posts about teaching writing to middle school and high school students. You’ll find the first post here.

At a recent poetry reading at The Word Barn in Exeter, NH, poet David Rivard mused about the difficulty about identifying a theme for a book of contemporary American poetry. Speaking of his own work, Rivard said he was interested in the spontaneity or the performance of spontaneity (though he may not have used either of those terms) of each moment in a poem, rather than in an overarching story, theme, or framework uniting all the poems in a collection.

But publishers, he noted, do want to know what a book is about. How will it hang together when finished and presented to the public? Their curiosity is driven by an understandable interest in marketing. How can they sum up the book to help sell it to readers? How can the collection be pithily described in the two lines of copy allotted to it in a publisher’s spring or fall catalog?

Rivard and poet Jayne Benjulian, who also read that night, agreed that there might be a theme to a contemporary book of poems, but it might become evident to the poet only over the course of writing many poems over many years. Eventually, Rivard realized that he could organize his latest book around the idea of a standoff—the contrast between the everyday physical world and the ideas constantly running through his mind.

But most contemporary American poets—Rivard cited Louise Glück as an exception—are wary of formally enunciated themes for books. And even though he eventually identified a theme for his book, Rivard is more interested in the experience of reading each poem on its own.

Themes and Topics for Students

Rivard and Benjulian’s discussion reminded me of reasons to be wary of themes in general when writing about novels, short story collections, or books of poetry. Themes may be present, but they rarely deserve much emphasis or sustained attention. Young writers of essays would be well advised to adopt Rivard and Benjulian’s wariness when selecting topics for essays.

Why? Because noting the theme is one of the least interesting things that one can say about a book. Especially in works of fiction, one may be able to identify a theme, but to say anything substantial one must immediately move on to noticing the details of how the theme is developed. Those details are almost always the interesting thing about a book, the thing that makes the book enjoyable and perhaps even powerful and memorable.

Thomas McCormack, in his book The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, makes a good case for looking at details, rather than themes, in books. In a section called “‘Theme’ and Its Dire Effects,” he writes:

The way ‘theme’ is taught is actively harmful.

I seriously pursue this crusade here, albeit in condensed, almost outline, form, because I believe what’s being done in classrooms stunts, and even kills, the ability and appetite of many of the best students. (p. 118; other other quotations here appear in pp. 118-134)

What is theme? He cites definitions from textbooks. Many directly contradict each other: “The theme is the moral” or “The theme is never the moral.” For the sake of this blog post, let’s settle on this definition: The theme is the work’s “controlling idea or central insight.”

What’s wrong with writing about a topic like? According to McCormack, “the student arrives at the theme by generalizing, producing a general statement about the human condition as implied by the total story.”

Depending on the writing instructor and textbook, a student might be assigned to write about a theme in the form of a statement that accounts for all the major details of the story. But the student is cautioned that the statement should avoid the form of a familiar saying, because by assuming that form—condensing the story to a maxim that might be stitched on a sampler—the statement might diminish the richness of the story.

McCormack spends several pages picking about the contradictions and highfalutin nonsense of textbook guidelines about themes. Perrine, one of the textbook authors he cites, furnishes these examples of the themes students might discover in their reading:

  • “War is horrible.”
  • “Old age is often pathetic and in need of understanding.”
  • “Loyalty to country often inspires heroic self-sacrifice.”

McCormack objects:

I now submit that, given the themes express above, to teach young people that these are the reasons for the stories being; that they were the purpose, meaning, and significance of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Welty et al.; and that they are what students must struggle to get out of theme; this is a lesson of such mind-imploding fatuity as to amount to assault with a deadly weapon.

He points out that even those instructing students to focus on themes recognize the shortcomings on that very same focus. Textbook authors like Perrine cavil with remarks like “Story writers’ first business is to reveal life” and “A story is not a preachment.”

Never,” McCormack points out, “do they show any correlation whatever between the quality of the theme and the quality of the story.

He says:

The motivation of these authors, to get the student to pay close attention, to focus, is a good one. Their technique, a search for “theme,” is a bad one. Because it makes the student attend to the wrong thing, it focuses him in the wrong way.

He quotes Flannery O’Connor:

“The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

Instead of trying to extract a vague, platitudinous theme, students should be taught to appreciate the details of the work and to appreciate how these details, together, create the work’s “master-effect” (an idea that McCormack develops in the earlier sections of his book).

What I recommend, then, is approaching the work of fiction with a program of questions devised to focus the reader on the effects achieved, and how the author achieved them.

Examining the details of the work, page by page, provides a much richer ground for exploration. Such an examination cannot but highlight the individuality of the work.

Is a book interesting because it shows us that “war is horrible?” Or is it interesting because it shows us, in vivid and original ways, people’s choices, actions, and experiences in war, and presents a rich tapestry of language that touches our hearts and broadens our understanding?

Conclusion

In their critical writing, students should explore the details and the individual features of a work. This embodiment of meaning (as Flannery O’Connor put it) is much richer material than any tired moral that can be derived from countless works.

Fiction and Deconstruction Considered as Chairs

From a work in progress. Professor Neil Cross of Swivens College, Heideggerian and deconstructionist, was exiled in 1992 to a writers’ colony in remote Alaska, where he was ordered by his department chairman to produce a novel. Sitting in a cold, cramped cabin, he contemplated his surroundings and wrote the following:

The chair I am sitting in is a wooden folding contraption without arms. It seems sturdy enough to support me, but it wobbles and creaks the instant I shift my weight.

How different from the reading chair back in my office at Swivens! Designed by a small artisans’ collective on the Left Bank who took their inspiration from the ball turrets in World War II bombers, that chair lets me swivel, pitch, and roll in any direction. Its frame, with its gently swooping arms and wire mesh backing, is made of brushed alloy of stainless steel prized for both obdurateness and flexibility, while its compact metal base—which appears at a glance to be an conventional assembly of connecting rods and gears with braces extending out to the wheels—conceals a complex system of balances, gyroscopes, and swinging counterweights that enable this improbably small structure to support great displacements of weight. For I can lean back in that chair until my head is grazing the floor; I can tilt sideways, reading a book and sipping coffee, with my torso parallel to the ground, startling colleagues and eliciting the occasional shriek; I can pitch in any direction at all with the complete reassurance that my bottom will never leave the chair’s comfortably padded seat. (When the chair was new, I made use of a thin black harness, which I fastened discreetly about my waist, but after a few days of practice, I came to dispense with this precaution entirely.)

Reading in this chair, one learns to float as comfortably as a truant schoolboy swinging in a tree; one feels the giddy glee of a skull rushing through the empyrean, awash in a mad swirl of colors and sensations: blue sky, green grass, this text, that reference, sudden abyss. Lost in the vertigo of reading, one intuits a secret communion with junior astronauts encountering weightlessness for the first time in jets that rise and plunge above the clouds. To release one’s hands from the wall’s metal braces requires both courage and carelessness; the instructions one has read over and over become a sting of meaningless symbols, themselves hovering, and then one realizes that one is hovering like them—from this lapse of pedestrian cognition, a letting go, and a few seconds of weightlessness. Within days, one is floating freely about the cabin like a sated amphibian, pushing off from one wall and propelling oneself to the other, spinning, somersaulting, joking with one’s friends and slapping their backs as they pass—merry tumblers in a void. Such is the feeling of freedom and weightlessness I get from my reading chair. I can pass the entire day in it, poring over texts and penning new criticism without ever occupying the same position twice.

How earthbound, how single-track, this fiction-writing chair seems by comparison! It is fit only for country schoolteachers and librarians. Simple and plain, it will do for the instruction of grammar, for the locating of Grant’s Tomb on a colorful map, for a pious recitation of the Gettysburg Address, and then, in the calm of the evening hours, for the crafting a simple memoir replete with “true feelings.” Its one trick is to fold up and disappear.

And this is my chair for now, my position in the world!

NYC vs. MFA: Who lost? The Post-structuralists, Perhaps

As a grad student in the Yale English department, Helen Echlin was surprised to find that her professors held literature in such low regard.

No one has mentioned enjoying a book. . . . In the lift down from the English department, I ask one professor what is on her bedside table. The answer: a bestseller about physics. “No novels?” Her reply: “I don’t read literature for pleasure any more.”

Critics are ranked first, then readers and, lastly, writers. When I try to get graduate credit for taking the novelist Robert Stone’s fiction workshop, my request is refused. After all, I am doing a PhD in literary criticism, not in creative writing. But graduate students are allowed to receive credit for taking a course in any other graduate department. I could take a course in inorganic chemistry and be awarded credit for it, but I can’t take a course in creative writing. The department supervisor, Professor Ruth Yeazell, is unpersuadable. The English department will not accept that a fine novelist such as Stone has anything to contribute to my literary education. Having Stone teach literature is, in their eyes, like having a gorilla teach zoology.

This disdain for literature wasn’t, or isn’t, limited to Yale or even to the East Coast colleges, and it began earlier than the late nineties when Echlin attended Yale. Teaching at Berkeley a decade earlier, Robert Alter, the teacher, critic, and translator, found that his fellow faculty members and their students were suspicious, if not outright contemptuous, of literature. In his book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, Alter remembers a student approaching him after class to say how surprised she was to be enjoying Moby Dick. Two other professors in the department had dismissed the book as “a bore and scarcely worth the effort of reading.” Alter rues recent trends that favored abstract theory to practical reading, and he notes that “literature faculties may be increasingly populated with scholars who don’t particularly care for literature.” At  the MLA conference in 1985, he points out, the big topic was whether or not the study of literature was finished for good.

The picture that emerges from Echlin and Alter’s accounts is pretty bleak. Our best universities are teaching a generation of students to deprecate literature. Authors, it seems, are simply happy-go-lucky simpletons who haven’t read Derrida. Outside of classwork, reading literature can be dispensed with, and creative writing itself seems like a fool’s errand. “The joy of analysis – that’s what it’s all about,” as a fellow student tells Echlin.

Somehow, though, hordes of creative writing students didn’t get this message.

As Chad Harbach points out in an essay published in the journal n+1 and available on Slate here, the number of degree-granting creative writing programs has grown more than tenfold over the past few decades. In 1975, there were 79 such programs. Today there are 854.

So while post-structuralists were grimly cataloging the way poems, stories, and novels deconstructed themselves, and while conservatives were bemoaning supposedly liberal attacks on the canon, the humanist tradition, and the loss of Western values, an ever-growing number of students were enrolling in classes to hone their skills in that craft that has continued for thousands of years: telling stories.

Such faith in story-telling. Who would have thought.