More student googling: “theme”

by look i have opinions

I keep seeing search queries for the title of a work of fiction plus the word “theme.” What is this “theme” crap? Is there anyone alive who reads a story and then says spontaneously, “I wonder what the theme or themes of this story may be”? Christ, no. Even I don’t say that, and I’m well known for my intermittent attacks of academitis. It’s not the sort of remark that comes naturally to any reader, scholar or not.

But laying aside the unnaturalness of it, is the “theme” question even useful? Is there any halfway decent writer who became halfway decent by studying fiction in such a way? Writing good fiction seems to involve craft, patience, and conviction—by which I mean a certain childish willingness to believe in one’s own imaginary world. The only theme worth having is one that arises from a well-made plot, or richly developed characters, or the writer’s passionate desire to express an idea, or some combination of those things.

Of course, I know why fourth-rate English teachers and SparkNotes always want to talk about themes. Any halfway decent work of fiction has a theme of some sort. There are multiple correct answers. Students can be persuaded to have a lively discussion about “death” or “betrayal” or “coming of age.” Everyone can go home feeling that they’ve “understood” the story and gotten their money’s worth out of it and never have to read it again. Teaching something worth learning would be much harder.