Another passage in The Fiction Editor deals with theme in a novel. It's been so long since I thought like a good little St. Olaf English major (if I ever truly did) that for a second I could only think of theme as in "pirates" or "zombies", as if each book was actually a theme restaurant. But no, Thomas McCormack is talking about theme such as Othello and the horrible cost of jealousy and shit like that. You know, what they make you hunt out in classic books in high school English classes, what the book was "really about". McCormack rails against making students dissect books for theme, arguing that it actually alienates them from the text and miss out on what is truly wonderful about the book, what the author does well, and I have to agree with him on that one. I never go into writing a book with a theme in mind-I'm just happy if I can pull the story off in an interesting way and fully create a viable fictional world. When I first spoke to my father about The Suicide Collectors, which he'd just read for the first time, he told me it was really a love story, which absolutely floored me. Theme, if I ever think about it later, only occurs to me after the book is fully completed and I'm talking about it with other people.
Why is this? I suppose it's as simple as just because you can sum a novel up in a sentence or two (like "this book is about man's inhumanity to man") you've missed out on everything else that made the novel truly meaningful-I haven't heard many people say they've cried when they read the Spark Notes to a novel. As McCormack puts it:
But at least the chemist and historian inculcate some facts that may ultimately have some narrow use. The English professor in the end abandons that claim. He knows that themes like "People deceive themselves' and 'Jealousy exacts a terrible cost' are indefensibly meager payoffs.