Thursday, October 28, 2010


Novelist, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature, once described the novel as nothing more than an author’s “philosophy put into images.” I’m rereading THE STRANGER (English translation), and it has me thinking about theme.

From start to finish, there is no question that with THE STRANGER Camus was writing with a message in mind. As a teacher, I love discussing the book. It is a pseudo-existential 123-page heavyweight. As a writer, I’m always left scratching my head.

I believe every work of fiction possesses a mystery. It is the work’s central question after all that keeps readers involved. Much of THE STRANGER’s mystery revolves around the protagonist. Who is Meursault? Why does he act the way he does? What is his moral code? Why and how was that code formed? By contrast, these questions loom so large in the text that the plot often seems to lack cohesion.

I found Barbara’s Wednesday post fascinating in part because she explains that she is cognizant of her theme as she writes. (Also, congrats, Barbara, on the release of BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD. Great cover.) When dealing with my own work, “theme” is not typically part of my vocabulary. At least not while I’m writing. This admission would seem strange to anyone who has taken my courses because whether it is Mystery Literature or a lit seminar the word pops up in nine classroom discussions out of ten. Yet, when I’m writing, I’m focused on character and motivation. Those things move my story along and provide the wide-open stretches with no speed limits, the muddy backwoods trails, and the awkward potholes I’m hoping to encounter.

Theme comes only after that fact. If asked about the theme of one of my stories of novels, I can usually offer a semi-coherent analysis. But I am always caught off guard because nowhere in my process did I previously consider that aspect of the work—at least not as plainly stated. The closest I usually get to theme when writing is when asked what the work-in-progress is about. “It’s a book about loyalty and friendship,” I might say.

I’m interested in how my fellow Type M colleagues and our readers handle theme. Is it a conscious pursuit? Should it be?


peter_may said...

I think I always have a theme, Donis. It's usually the idea that I start with - something I've read about, or experienced, or feel strongly about. In my China series I dealt with such themes as GMOs, doping in sport, human trafficking, organ theft. In my Enzo series I have dealt with such themes as wine (mmmh) and haute cuisine (double mmmmh). In my latest I tackle the twin themes of dementia and institutionalized mistreatment of children. The theme, for me, is the fundamental reason for writing the book, and suitable characters are created to carry the story to explore that theme.

peter_may said...

Well, my comment seems to have ended up on John's blog. Not sure how. But it's all on the same theme, so to speak, that John kicked off. So...