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“The story loses everything when you try to put things in service of a theme.”

Last week I finished reading Richard Wright’s Native Son, which I first read during high school. Overall I found the book to be rather uneven – there are some stretches of excellent, riveting narrative (particularly the span between Mary’s murder and Bigger’s capture), but also passages that were overwhelmed by sermonizing dialogue where the plot crawled to a stop, and many scenes that were almost laughably implausible. But my biggest concern was that Bigger Thomas never came alive for me – he seemed more like a symbol than a real, flesh-and-blood person. My reaction puzzled me, given that Bigger is one of the most iconic figures in American literature – was I perhaps just missing something? For some reason did I simply not comprehend Wright’s characterization of his protagonist? And then, in a revelation, I read this remarkable passage from Wright’s companion essay, “How Bigger Was Born”:

But in the writing of scene after scene I was guided by but one criterion: to tell the truth as I saw it and felt it. That is, to objectify in words some insight derived from my living in the form of action, scene, and dialogue. If a scene seemed improbable to me, I’d not tear it up, but ask myself: “Does it reveal enough of what I feel to stand in spite of its unreality?” If I felt it did, it stood. If I felt it did not, I ripped it out. The degree of morality in my writing depended on the degree of felt life and truth I could put down on the printed page. For example, there is a scene in Native Son where stands in a cell with a Negro preacher, Jan, Max, the State’s Attorney, Mr. Dalton, Mrs. Dalton, Bigger’s mother, his brother, Al, Gus and Jack. While writing this scene, I knew that it was unlikely that so many people would ever be allowed to come into a murderer’s cell. But I wanted those people in that cell to elicit a certain emotional response from Bigger. And so that scene stood. I felt that what I wanted that scene to say to the reader was more important than its surface reality or plausibility. [Italics are Wright’s.]

What an astounding statement for a fiction writer to make. In other words, Wright is saying that plausible situations or realistic characterizations are secondary to the writer getting his message across. (That jail cell scene referenced by Wright was just one of many implausible settings I noted while reading.) Or, that the story takes a backseat to theme. Though Wright surely must have believed that Bigger was indeed a flesh-and-blood character, it’s also obvious that if anyone had objected to Bigger’s artificiality, Wright would have said it really didn’t matter anyway, as long as Bigger was effective in projecting Wright’s message. After reading “How Bigger Was Born”, I understood why Bigger felt like a symbol instead of a human being, and why Native Son felt like a polemic instead of a novel – because writing a sociopolitical polemic was clearly Wright’s primary intent. And it’s also why I consider Native Son to be an important book in historic terms, but not in artistic terms.

Several years ago, when I was still fairly new to writing fiction, I asked my mentor, Richard Grayson, if he would ever first come up with a theme, then develop a story to illustrate that theme. (One of my stories had come to a standstill, and I wondered if I could kickstart it by identifying a theme, and taking the story forward from there.) He seemed somewhat shocked, but politely so, by my suggestion. Here is part of his response:

“…I think “formulating a theme” is something I would never try to do. The story loses everything when you try to put things in service of a theme. As I said, I didn’t think anyone actually thinks about a theme while they’re writing. It never would occur to me in a million years…I think theme is always a byproduct.”

That was some of the wisest writing advice I’ve ever gotten, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. Story comes first.