Steven Erikson takes on a controversial and often painful subject — themes. How do writers approach themes honestly, in a way that is true to the story, without driving a personal agenda?
Ignoring this sense of backing into a corner, I have decided to write about theme. This is dangerous territory, one in which a good many of my opinions and thoughts on the subject are likely to irritate if not infuriate some of my readers (and those fellow writers who happen to look in). Well, it’s not like I have anything to lose, all things considered.
I generally begin a story with an idea of what it’s about. I might think this story is about heroism, or grief, or siblings, or motherhood. I might think this is about feeling lost in the world, or the search for meaning/love/God/hope/faith. Or I might think this series will be about the struggle of all of the above. What I don’t think is this: that this story is about how stupid and useless left-leaning liberals are, or how only gun-toting Republican Americans can defeat the alien hordes, or that you can be a good Waffen SS as long as you don’t hate Jews … and still defeat the alien hordes.
If you think I just made up those story ideas, you haven’t read John Ringo and friends.
A theme is not a position, not a political slant, not an agenda, just as a work of honest fiction is not propaganda, polemic, or didactic diatribe. What theme is, among other things, is an area of exploration. And ‘exploration’ is a journey into the unknown, one that breaks down and discards preconceived notions. Exploration involves courage and determination, often verging on the obsessive; as many historical accounts of past explorers will attest. Your enemy is the unknown; your fear is the unknowable, and the peace that follows – if it follows – only comes when the fear goes away. Note that I do not mention wisdom, since as far as I can tell wisdom is another word for world-weary exhaustion, and every wise word uttered is born from bitter experience, and upon hearing such words, one chooses to either take heed or not. Accordingly, bitter experience breeds anew with every generation.
I recall that in creative writing classes, people were often afraid to tackle theme, as a subject for discussion, or as a point of contention. It seemed to be held as somehow sacred, forever ephemeral, not to be approached in the same profane manner as one approaches point-of-view, or dialogue, or sentence pattern. Those few of you reading here who knew me in my workshop days, may (or may not) recall the numerous occasions when I got rather rabid on issues of theme in someone’s story. It’s like reading a landscape: it helps to know the underlying geology that gives it shape, and if no-one else is prepared to wield a pick, well, I am. Why? Because I use that same pick on my own shit, that’s why.
I recall one very well-written story by a fellow student. The tale was set on a farm and involved a wife abandoned by her husband. There were, I recall, a couple other male characters in the tale as well, and each and every one of these men were reprehensible, portrayed with open venom. The story climaxed (and I use the word deliberately) in a scene where the main character takes a cleaver to a turkey’s neck on a chopping block, aptly describing said neck as looking like a flaccid penis. Now, don’t get me wrong: it was a great story, technically, and she was and no doubt remains an excellent writer. But it was false. It was a world created by a blinkered god (the author). Not all men are pricks. Maybe 97 percent of them are, but not all. What I was witness to, then, was the author’s agenda, and that agenda, no matter how truthfully arrived at through personal experience or whatever, became a suspect manipulator of truths, and its fuel was bitter anger.
Who sees clearly when bitter and angry? There was no exploration here: it was a hack at old ground, one over which the author paced back and forth as if caged by the world.
And I suppose she was. Caged. But the story didn’t rattle the bars, didn’t look for a way out, had no time at all to even think about escape. It liked where it was, even as it hated it.
I have (I think) written about ruthlessness before, the force that must be turned not only upon a work of fiction (or art in general) but also upon oneself: upon one’s own most cherished beliefs. If I haven’t, well, there it is. Agendas that survive their iteration in fiction are, to my mind, evidence of failure; specifically, the author’s failure. They wrote how they want it to be, not how it is.
This brings me, at long last, to my portrayal of the Empire of Lether starting in the fifth novel in the Malazan sequence, Midnight Tides. The reason this subject is on my mind is that, once again, I have been asked in a Q&A whether that empire and its political and economic system was intended as a commentary on the United States. Each time I am asked this question, my response is no. So, let’s take this as definitive: there were two major themes in that novel, the first being about siblings and the journeys made by two sets of three brothers, and the second being about inequity.
It’s likely that one would have to go back to the Paleolithic to find a human society not structured by inequity, and even that is debatable, given the social characteristics of our nearest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas. Without question, the agricultural revolution early on, which established sedentary civilizations, went hand-in-hand with the creation of a ruling elite and an emerging class system. The crust needs sludge to sit on, and the more sludge there is, the loftier the crust. Maintaining this system is made easier by inculcating the notion that the best rises to the top, and that opportunities always exist for it to do just that, although one could argue that these latter notions are more recent manifestations – certainly, the slave or serf in antiquity would need to step outside of the law to achieve wealth and comfort (and it’s no accident that such laws are both created by, maintained, and enforced by the elites).
I set out to explore inequity (as an aside, I have travelled through socialist countries and fascist countries, and guess what, shit smells like shit no matter what flag you stick it in), and one thing Midnight Tides taught me was that once a certain system of human behaviour become entrenched, it acquires a power and will of its own, against which no single individual stands a chance. A rather dispiriting conclusion, I admit. To this day, I’d love to see proof to the contrary.
I did not know I would reach such conclusions – well, not so much ‘conclusions’ as grim observations, and I wasn’t particularly pleased to find myself where I did.
Every social construct now in existence among humans is founded upon inequity of some sort. People of one political persuasion or world-view will tell you it’s some kind of natural order, and thereby justify whatever cold-heartedness they harbour; others on the opposite end will decry the evidence and call for a leveling of humanity devoid of individuals. Both have had their day in history, and any particular pitch at present is, as far as I can see, a minor blip on the screen. We’re nothing if not headlong.
Themes. Themes can hurt. They can cut deep inside. There’s a reason why the subject is often taboo in writing workshops. Stripping back the façade can reveal unpleasant things.
And the next time someone asks me if the Empire of Lether was a direct riff on the United States, I will say no, and mean it.
Dubious writing tip #7; subject: theme: Find out what you want to write about. Choose key words and stack them in your head, leaving them to do a slow-burn through the writing of your story. Don’t look at the light, don’t fan the flames, don’t flinch when they burn. Write around the fire, circling, ever circling, working to edge closer as the story progresses. Drive for the moment when you get singed, scorched. Then pull back, smarting. Study the red welt. Good enough? If it hurts like hell … probably good enough.
Heal. Start again.
“Alchemist Killing Hamlet” h.koppdelaney @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
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