The message is not the motive: why we write what we write

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It began in high school and continued to puzzle me for a few more years, those non sequitur answers to a stock Eng Lit question: “Why did the author write this book?” These are examples of acceptable answers:

  • “To show a peasant class being destroyed by industrialisation”
  • “To criticise Victorian notions of sexuality”
  • “To show that fate and a character flaw can bring tragic unavoidable consequences.”

In the 1950s this was a standard way to approach a work of literature. In retrospect, we may as well blame Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, whose influence on the teaching of English literature was global and decades-long and prescriptive and perhaps absurd — his approach was the only show in town. Just saying.

Anyway, to a future novelist, the convention was most alarming. It implied that we must have a noble theme shaped and polished before we dare to lift a pen. A high-minded morally superior world view and an evangelical urge to win hearts minds and souls were prerequisites for every novel. Obviously I was lacking. I’m still lacking.

The second Eng Lit question: what themes?

We were also asked another question that was more transparent but equally odd and tunnel-shaped: “What are the themes in this novel?” Theme-spotting is a nice game to play, but I could never believe that themes were cut and dried, correct exam answer or not. In the authoritarian culture of our high school, gut feelings (like “this is too facile, this doesn’t ring true) had to be squashed down. Or so I believed at the time.

Sloppy thinking from above

Eventually I got it: apparently my teachers assumed that the two questions were interchangeable, perhaps because apparently the only conceivable reason for writing a novel was to express a theme. Most of my English teachers loved literature with an infectious passion, which I suppose was ultimately more important than their theory. But this closed-questioning did confuse and worry me — because I accepted neither the premise or the implications, both of which frightened me as a budding writer.

Naughty thoughts keep a creative spirit steady

Secretly I continued to think my secret thoughts, naughty thoughts, heretical thoughts such as, “You have no idea what the author was really thinking!” and “You’re not a writer, so how would you know?” and “You’re just analysing a text after the event, and that’s not how people write!”

By identifying with the author, not the analyst, somewhere deep inside I stayed true to myself.

On the other hand, I could thoroughly enjoy myself and even be myself in exams and essays. I relished the game of literary analysis, because it was fun, and because I knew the rules and I knew it was only a game.

But I always needed that private world where you can quietly brew something brand new, all yours, using your mind and hands alone.

You know, I think everyone needs that private world. Not just writers. It gets called many things, for example, “me-time” or “space” or “a shed”.