Theme, Literature and Money

Today we conclude 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, and second installment, Thinking Theme For Fun and Profit, here, and the third entry, Theme As Technique, here

Nathan Bransford put up a post today titled Themes Schmemes. Here’s the gist of it:

I think the drive to write Literature/art sometimes leads some very talented writers, especially young ones, to write books that as an agent I can’t sell because there’s too much attention paid to the themes and the subtext and the meaning and other English-class-type concerns, rather than the narrative and the plot and the craft and other sausagemaking-type concerns.

In talking about theme over the course of this past week, I tried to stay focused on the difference between theme as a useful literary technique and theme as a toxic analytical tool. I tried to stay away from the relative merit of theme as a technique or personal literary objective because I consider that an artistic choice. Saying that theme is bad when used by a particular author to create a given story would be like saying that reference photographs are bad for any artist’s painting. It’s not for me to decide.

Bransford’s post, however, changes the axis of analysis. Instead of the utility or merit of theme, he is focused — rightly, for an agent — on sales. And from that point of view I have no doubt that he’s right: theme and other literary tools are often completely unnecessary when crafting marketable fiction. The problem, of course, is that this is a slippery slope, and once you shove off you can’t stop the slide without exposing yourself to your own market-driven arguments.

I’m confident Bransford believes there’s a minimal level of storytelling skill necessary to write a bestseller. Still, if you found a trendy, charismatic writer who could riff on pornographic sex, gruesome, sadistic violence and pop-culture references, and you hyped the resulting title with a cutting-edge social-media marketing tour, you might end up with a bestseller on your hands. At which point that writer’s agent would point out that Bransford’s concerns about plotting and character and story are totally overrated, and the only thing that matters is whether you really can increase sales by taking a bus load of orphans hostage and refusing to free them until every American buys five copies of Risotto: A Love Story.

Which is why I tend not to make market-driven arguments about craft-driven processes. If what sells is what matters, then nothing else matters.

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