Theme and Subtlety in Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Video Killed the Radio Star (cover) by the Presidents of the United States of America)

The age-old question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Or, to put it another way, if an author is making an extended metaphor in their writing and no reader notices it, does the meaning still matter?

I had a long discussion with my brother (we’re gonna call him Goat for reasons I’ll explain later) about artistic integrity and whether something written for oneself and no other audience can actually be considered art. My opinion was that art as self-expression is still art, but that it loses some ephemeral factor (what I might call that factor, I have no idea) which makes it… well, not lesser, but certainly different.

Whew, I’m jumping right into it.

Let’s step back for a second and examine why I’m even writing about this. As you know if you’ve been keeping up, I’ve been working with an editor from Westwind, UCLA’s literary journal, on a short story called The Oasis that will be published in the winter edition of Westwind. (If you haven’t read it yet, take a few minutes to do so; this will all make more sense.)

In a previous post, I talked about the changes I was making in moving from the first to the second draft, and why. Included in that discussion was an explanation of one of the themes I had hoped my audience would get out of the piece – that of inter-minority war, the idea that the white majority subtly manipulates minorities into expressing their institutionally  created anger at each other instead of at the systems that oppress them.

I thought my themes were there, latent but available to the deep-reading audience. My beta readers – all except one – disagreed. Despite multiple changes to the level of subtlety in the expressed theme, none of my beta readers were able to discern what I considered the true purpose to my story.

At one point, I expressed a bit of frustration to one of my betas, telling him I didn’t know how to make the theme more apparent without slapping readers in the face with it. He in turn asked me if it wasn’t something that could be “just for me”, in a sense – something almost no reader would be able to notice, but maybe the crazy Reddit fan theory uncovers it years later.

(I think that’s doing me a little too much credit, to assume I would have Reddit fan theories spawned by my work.)

But it did get me thinking – if there’s an intended theme an author puts into a work that is then never picked up by any audience, does it still matter?… and now we’re caught up.

The obvious answer is yes, it does matter because it has meaning to the author. And I would agree with that, insofar as that theme isn’t considered core to the piece.

(DISCLAIMER: I change my opinions almost on the weekly about stuff like this, so please don’t read my words here as Biblical… Torical… Quranical…. If you’d prefer, read them in a funny voice to ensure their proper lack of weight is known and felt.)

What I do believe is, if a piece is built around a core theme (and I would say that The Oasis was built around two – the sense of isolation racial minorities feel in society and the inter-minority war concept), then that theme has to be apparent to the readers.

No!!!!! screams the literary giant, glaring at me with bespectacled fury and stepping on my ideas (squish). How dare you try to force conclusions on the reader that they haven’t come to themselves?!? Let them read whatever themes they want out of your work!

I weep a single tear over the word-jelly that used to be my opinions. Then I say, “I respect a reader’s ability to examine a piece at whatever level they want and come away from it with whatever themes they find important and meaningful.” And I do – I am a sure believer in the idea that art is a contract between artist and audience (this is the principal reason why I think art as self-expression is missing something).

“But,” I continue, lifting the giant’s weighty foot and retrieving my word-jelly from where it has been stamped into the earth, “I do think that the core theme is something you sculpt a work around – the very purpose for its existence. If its purpose isn’t recognized, then the work hasn’t achieved its purpose.”

For instance, some of my betas have pulled away themes I never even considered while writing The Oasis – stuff about human nature, stuff about the war between science and religion or technology and mysticism. And I would never discourage those readings of my story. But if people can’t tell that this is about race – that Terjjen’s decision to destroy the Oasis is a symbol for the incitement of a race war – then the story hasn’t achieved its purpose.

You may disagree, and I’d love to hear it in the comments if you do.

So, some of you may be asking, did you just edit the story to make the theme super unsubtle? You filthy, subpar literary plebe?

Yup.

Here’s what I’m going to do, after a discussion with my editor. I’m going to make it so that, on the path to the Oasis, Terjjen realizes that the Contessa is sending them purposefully to destroy it, and that in doing so she will destabilize the political situation in the Empire enough to weasel her way into the Empress’ throne. Then he will be left with the decision – act as pawn to the Contessa, or refuse and let all the other Waymakers die? He’ll choose to destroy the Oasis, knowing the implications – a powerful moment of characterization for him. And even worse is the epilogue quote – a sign that the single moment of rebellion wasn’t enough, that he’s now been conscripted to fight for the Contessa as a literal pawn, along with the rest of the Waymakers, against other minorities – enslaved in a completely different way.

Wow, when I get excited I start to get run-on. My apologies.

The minority war theme will no longer be subtle in any way. But here’s the beautiful thing about writing – the move to a less hidden frame story allows for all sorts of layers of depth to be injected into the characters of Terjjen and the Contessa, as well as a more drastic finale where the reader realizes the impossibility of escape for a minority in a system that forces compliance, which is only a step above slavery.

Again, run-ons.

My final version of The Oasis is due a week from today. When I’ve submitted it, I’ll post it up on here so you all can examine the differences from first draft to final. And hopefully, you can learn with me what makes for good self-editing.

Yours, unsubtly,

-R.R. Buck

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