October 10, 2011
I suppose every fiction writer is asked, What do you write about? The answer is easier for writers of thrillers and romance, but for writers of literary fiction the answer is often difficult. For this third group, a better phrasing would be, What is your recurrent theme?
I came upon the identity of mine while I was answering a post about Henry James, a writer I admire enormously. I believe fiction writers have their writing idols. By this, I’m not referring only to their favorite writers, but to those writers whose standard sets an ideal—be it for language, tone, elegance, thoughtfulness, ideas. In fact, I am planning a new novel, so I returned to Henry James to get my bearings and set my standard, although I write nothing like him. He is such an idol that I sometimes enter a room and say, “This is a Jamesian room. The light, the stillness, the aesthetics. We two could sit together quietly and talk.” I recently asked myself, What would James and I talk about? About his theme: “the unlived life.” He would ask me what I write about. I would want my answer to come up to his standard. I matched him with “the detoured life.” We talked on these two themes, coming to the conclusion that they are not the same. “The unlived life,” James said autobiographically, “responds to the failure to live.” And I said, “The detoured life responds to living another life than the one the character intended.”
The secret to my epiphany was built into the standard of the question as it arrived out of the mouth of idol. Try it.