In my Novelists Roundtable workshop last night, we discussed the topic of how best to give our work “weight.” We agreed that while not all books need to have weight (beach-towel romances, for instance), the best and most memorable books have intrinsic significance.
So what gives a book weight? We determined that a weighty book often has a weighty theme, which led to the question: are some themes weightier than others? Is War and Peace weightier than Pride and Prejudice because Tolstoy wrote about war and peace while Jane Austen wrote about marriage?
That’s the common perception.
People like big themes. War. Death. Natural Disasters. Books with more limited scope are considered “quiet.” But who’s to say that loud books are weightier than quiet books, just because they’re loud?
I’m sure we’ve all read a book about Something Big and Important by an author who chose his subject simply because it’s Big and Important. You can tell he pondered the question, “What will make my book Important? Ah, I know! People think 9/11 is important, so that’s what I shall write about.” As if appending his novel to a Big Theme would give it weight.
I really don’t think that’s the way to go.
I just reread Ray Bradbury’s wonderful book Zen in the Art of Fiction, in which he writes “What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate? Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart.”
Herein lies the weight.
I’m sure our themes come to us in different ways, for different reasons. But ultimately, I think the books we enjoy writing (and reading) the most are the books with themes about which we are passionate–whether we are passionate about the war in Iraq or the boy sitting next to us in English class.If a theme has weight for the author, it will have weight for the reader.