Axing Theme

Mark Barrett recently published a fascinating series of posts on the subject of theme on his Ditchwalk site, and has graciously given his permission for the series to be reprinted in its entirety here on Publetariat. This first post in the series appeared on Ditchwalk on 10/18/09.

You were right not to trust theme. You knew it in your gut, but you couldn’t prove it.

Today I am going to give you the proof. If you are liberated by it, as I was when I first came across it two decades ago, I ask you to join me in putting a stop to this fraud. I did not have the internet available to me then but I do now. And I have the generous permission of the author to spread this dismantling of theme far and wide.

Thomas McCormack is a playwright. He is also the former CEO of St. Martin’s Press — a position he rose to in little more than a decade after entering the publishing industry as an editor. While at St. Martin’s Mr. McCormack wrote a book titled The Fiction Editor, drawing on his long experience in that capacity. Composed of an essay and supporting chapters, The Fiction Editor addressed storytelling not from the point of view of criticism or marketing, but solely as craft.

Included in the book (later revised in a second edition and reissued as The Fiction Editor, The Novel and the Novelist), was a chapter called Axing Theme. Which did exactly that:

Let’s start calmly: Each appearance of the word ‘theme’ in a literature appreciation textbook should be marked with that yellow crime-scene tape. Samples of the way ‘theme’ is taught should be sent to Atlanta so the Centers for Disease Control can get on it.

Is your heart leaping? Is your mind saying, “Yes!” If so, read on:

I seriously pursue this crusade here, albeit in condensed, almost outline, form, because I believe that what’s being done in classrooms stunts, and even kills, the ability and appetite of many of the best students. This deprives our globe of much talent that would otherwise find itself in writing, teaching, reading . . . and editing.

My relief at being liberated from theme by Mr. McCormack has never left me. As a writer and storyteller it is one of the most important events in the development of my craft. After searching in vain recently for the text of Axing Theme, I changed keywords and sought out Mr. McCormack himself. Finding him on his playwriting website I wrote to ask if I might post the contents of Axing Theme in order to further his crusade.

His response was immediate and unequivocal:

I have no objection to your posting the piece wherever you will — the primary motivation behind my writing that book was not to get rich but to promulgate some helpful things I’d learned in many years of association with storytelling.

The version Mr. McCormack sent me is from the Second Edition. It was retitled as Theme’ and Its Dire Effects, but it is still the weighty axe I remember, honed to a razor’s edge and swung with might.

When you have finished reading it, if you agree it is the proof you always sought, I would like to enlist you. Please take a moment, today — right now — to forward a link to this post, a link to Mr. McCormack’s doc, or both, to anyone who is:

    * In college or high school
    * Teaching writing or criticism in any discipline at any level

I mean this assault to be viral. I want every student and teacher on planet Earth to get this document. Enough is enough.

Swing the axe.


Mark Barrett has been a professional freelance writer and storyteller for over twenty years, and also works in the interactive entertainment industry.