To Theme or Not to Theme

To Theme or Not to Theme

My new novel, The Good Know Nothing, scheduled for summer 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press, not only has an overall theme, it uses the theme as its title.

Being so forthcoming has concerned me, since I studied and taught in several university writing programs where the concept of theme was commonly viewed with disdain.

No doubt that attitude developed in opposition to the tendency of many student writers to approach a story as if it were a fable, only valuable insofar as it offered a warning or a moral. The stories written from that perspective were usually painful to read.

Yet I’m convinced that trying to avoid theme is equally mistaken. A few years ago, while judging a competition for a state writing fellowship, I read 100 stories. The language and style of about ninety of them were so polished, I imagine most the writers had attended university writing programs. But only five of the 100 stories gave me the least satisfaction.

So I’ll argue that either writing with a theme as the goal or with disdain for themes is courting failure. To create something that will captivate, entertain and satisfy, better to allow the story to flit here and there until it finds its own theme (or themes), then to use it (or them) as a guide.

I wrote about half of what is now The Good Know Nothing before I came upon this quote: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can’t forgive themselves.” Paul Auster, Man In The Dark, New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 63.

The truth of that statement startled me, and as I recovered I recognized that my new novel (like most detective novels) was about somebody attempting to get at the truth. But, at least in reality, the truth is damned illusive. Even “facts” are slippery.

As I returned to the novel with that theme in mind, elements that hadn’t quite worked began to feel right. I hope readers feel the same. If they do–thanks, Paul Auster.

To read about the Tom Hickey California Crime series including The Good Know Nothing, go to: