It has become a weird thing, to me, to read and write toward a theme, some assertion about human nature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Is the job of the writer to parse all of their words, to consider whether or not each line, each sentence, each image reflects the point they are trying to make, that war is hell, that the American dream is a myth, that poverty dehumanizes? When I think of literature that way, writing a short story feels pretty close to writing an academic essay.
I recently read Virginia Wolff’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” It seems ridiculous to me to think that Wolff intended us to put down her novel and think, “yes, I get it! Class hierarchy, colonialism, and war isolate people,” as if coming to a conclusion is the point. Maybe that’s a part of it, but to simmer that assemblage of words and ideas down into a set of precepts seems unnecessarily reductive.
It’s a narrowing idea, as if the writing of a novel is the taking of a few words, the thematic assertion, and writing many more words out of it in order to obscure it, like burying a piece of treasure in the dirt. If this is the act of writing, then the act of reading would be to suss out those few words that the many words are trying to say, to dig through all of the dirt in order to find the gold. Reading then, is an act of reduction, the throwing out of the dirt.
I’d prefer to think in a different way. I’d prefer to read not digging like an archaeologist for thematic assertions, for the nuggets of meaning that an author has hidden in their piece, but for thematic questions, the expansive mystery with which an author is connecting. What questions is a piece asking? What complexities is it pointing to, what unknowns? What multitude of books could be written trying to answer the concerns of this one book? Reading a novel, then, is not to suss out the few words that are contained in many, but instead to suss out the many more words that are contained in the many. Books are not gold buried in dirt, but gold made into jewelry, even more valuable than merely the gold itself.
Virginia Wolff is not merely telling us something. She’s asking us something. How do we find meaning and satisfaction in the modern world? How does trauma leak into polite society? How might we repress others, and how might we repress ourselves? Which is ultimately worse? These are questions toward which people could write libraries. And people have, because Virginia Wolff is not arguing for a singular point. She’s arguing for something opposite to a point: an expanse.
If the great authors of the world are asserting something through their writing, it is that there is too much to know, that life cannot be contained within a statement.
Tyler Toy is a first year MFA fiction candidate | firstname.lastname@example.org