Thinking Theme for Fun and Profit

Today we continue Mark Barrett’s series on theme, which originally appeared on his Ditchwalk site and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission. You can read the first entry in the series, ‘Axing Theme’, here.

Yesterday I posted an important excerpt from Thomas McCormack’s book, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist. In the excerpt, Mr. McCormack dismantled the way theme is commonly taught in schools and colleges, and I urged readers to forward his essay to others so that we might collectively stop this abuse.

Today I’m going to explain why this is not simply a goofy idea but actually important. By which I of course mean that it involves making money.

If you remember my post referencing the 90-9-1 Principle, you’ll recall that 90% of the people interested in anything are passive about their interest. They want to watch movies, not make them. They want to watch cooking shows, not cook anything. They want to read books, not write them.

In the publishing business, this 90% is variously known as The Audience or Our Customers. Yes, writers read other writers’ books, and editors read books other than the one’s they’re editing. But when it comes to the people who buy and read books and generally provide the medium with a return on investment, that’s the 90% who are not interested in writing books or even in analyzing books. They just want to read.

So it stands to reason that booksellers and book writers would want as many such readers as they can get, and they would want those readers predisposed to enjoy the process of reading, as opposed to, say, hating it. Which is why the way theme is often taught to students is a serious question, and one that deserves addressing.  

In fact, it seems to me there is no better time to look at every aspect of the publishing industry than right now, while it’s collapsing under its own weight. (As an aside, when was the last time that an established entertainment medium went through a rebirth akin to what’s happening in publishing? The music business is certainly being transformed by the internet in similar ways — and faster — but revolutions in the music biz are common: wire recordings to vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to MP3 to whatever. In publishing you have the printing press…27 million years of human history in which nothing changes [give or take]…then the internet.)

I understand that everyone is in a hurry to discover the next big bandwagon, but there are some serious structural problems with the book business. One of them is the fact that of all the entertainment mediums in existence, no audience gets hassled more than people who read books. And all that hassling — at all levels — drives people who might otherwise enjoy books to look for alternatives like fast food, heroin, overthrowing the government and watching television.

The whole thing starts in grade school. Not in individual homes (unless your parents are snobs), but in the educational system that kids encounter across the entire country. Some teachers, administrators and librarians believe that children should read specific material so they will be properly educated. Others believe that children should be encouraged to follow their passions, because promoting and preserving a life-long interest in learning and knowledge is critical to the long-term health and welfare of that student.

These battles rage up to and through high school, and there are valid points on both sides. You can’t have everyone reading comic books and nobody reading about global events and history: that leads to stupidity. But you also can’t force everyone to read Shakespeare and Chaucer and allow no one to read popular fiction because that leads to hating school and hating reading. (My own personal belief is that anyone who does anything to discourage a student from reading anything should be shot.)

Somewhere in late junior high or high school, a new wrinkle is added to this tug of war between being educated and being interested. At some point a teacher assigns a book report which is not only about what happens in a book, or about who wrote the book and when, or even about how that book fits into the history of books. At some point someone asks what a given book means.

And this is where the real trouble begins. Because moments earlier each student was thinking, “Well, I enjoyed this book,” or, “Gosh, this book is super stupid,” and all of those reactions were honest if perhaps also youthful and maybe even uninformed. But now something different is in play. First, there’s the possibility that there is a right answer, meaning the student can be wrong. Second, this new meaning may have nothing to do with emotion and existence, “It made me feel cold,” and everything with thinking and abstraction: “It made me wonder about global warming.” Third, the reader’s subjective experience and all that went with it is now being superseded by objective meaning as a point of educational focus.

As Thomas McCormack notes: the student is now being asked to perform an autopsy, rather than being asked to understand a living being:

The remaining counts in the indictment—that the professors’ “theme” hunt misleads the student about, indeed positively shields him from, a good book’s best reward—is something that would be corroborated by many adults looking back on their school days. Picture the student, told that he must derive an abstract generality that “accounts for” and “explains” all the major details of a story. He figuratively dons his white clinician’s smock and knuckles down to his grim task. He lays the tale out on a slab and begins his joyless dissections—not in search of its beauty of feature, grace of movement, charm of voice, vitality of nature, but in search of its ‘idea’; in search not of its feeling but of its ‘statement’; not of what it does, but of what it ‘says’.

When he has finished his examination, he then must write up his report, a tricky business requiring that all the x’s, y’s, and z’s be encompassed in the algebraic formula. In the end it no more conveys the meaning of what’s on the slab than the coroner’s report that starts, “A well-nourished Caucasian female of one hundred eighteen pounds, aged between twenty-five and thirty . . . ”

Again, if the 90-9-1 Principle is even remotely accurate, then 90% of the people who are being subjected to this kind of teaching have no interest in going on to become English majors or professors or authors. If they enjoy reading at all, they enjoy it as a reader. Yet during much of their ride on the educational conveyor belt these readers are being bombarded with the idea that there’s more to writing that what you get out of it — particularly if what you get out of it is enjoyment. Writing is IMPORTANT and MEANINGFUL and other big words that don’t get hung on movies and music and TV and video games until you’re in college and decide you want to do that to yourself.

Worse, writing has the fewest (meaning none) bells-and-whistles of any medium. It’s got nothing going for it other than content, while at the same time the one thing the educational system seems determined to do is make sure that content is not fun. Imagine how much less enjoyment kids would have playing video games if they had to anatomize the theme of a game in an MLA-certified five-page paper. This is the minefield the publishing audience must navigate until they grow into adults with free time and disposable income, at which point a certain percentage of them decide to blow that time and money on anything and everything other than books.

And yet….even as we admit that books are inherently boring as objects, we also know that you get things from books that you can’t get anywhere else. Catch-22 comes to mind — and particularly so given how impossible it would be to turn it into anything else even if you set your mind to it. The depth, complexity, breadth, richness and power of a good novel or biography destroys everything in its path.

Amazingly, the necessary skill to access a book is taught to most children before they are taught anything else, yet somehow swaths of kids ultimately decide that reading for entertainment isn’t for them. I wonder why that happens?

The movie business faces none of this. Television, unarguably the greatest brain-destroying invention since the cudgel, gets little notice in school, even as legions of marketing weasels plot daily how to inject corporate brand loyalties into the minds of three-year-olds. Music is subjected to none of this: in fact it’s a relief to students who have to study music precisely because no one makes them think it to death. Interactive entertainment doesn’t even exist on the curriculum radar: it’s all fun.

My point here is that our audience — the 90% who are simply interested in reading books — is inevitably smaller than it should be because of this intellectual gauntlet. If this were any old time I wouldn’t dare to dream of changing the status quo. But this isn’t any old time: it’s a pivotal time because the status quo is already changing. Today we have an opportunity to go beyond transformation for its own sake to making changes we should have made a long time ago. Because of the way the internet is impacting publishing, we have an opportunity to revisit the entire evolutionary process by which itty-bitty babies become book-reading kids become book-buying adults become book-buying parents.

If readers are always important then they’re even more important when the publishing industry is hurting. Every reader is one more customer that we can satisfy or disappoint. Richard Nash gets it. It’s all about the readers, and I don’t mean the damn devices.

Yes, what I’m talking about would be a revolution. But the internet is a revolution. Teachers are inevitably going to have to adapt to new technology and writing that uses that technology, so we should be trying to help them and their students avoid fumbling live grenades like theme if they haven’t been trained in demolitions. No child should go to school and learn that reading sucks. Chemistry can suck. Or biology. Or gym class for all I care. But not reading.

That’s why I’m asking you to think about theme and the damage that it’s doing to our readers. I mean, our customers.

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