There is no way to escape these themes, any more than writers can escape characters, plots, or words, so it is important for us to consider how we want to use them--and how they are used by authors we read. There are a number of ways to present and explore these themes in books, some more effective than others. So, in order from least to best, here are the different methods authors use to present ideas in their works:
|Pam Grier in 'The Arena'|
The average Women in Prison Movie, for example, uses its setting to depict violence, nudity, lesbianism, and dominance, but it doesn't actually explore these ideas. It doesn't try to define what 'justice' actually means, or look at the nature of personal freedom versus social safety. These are themes that are going to be present in any movie about incarceration, but in a low-quality exploitation film, such themes will never be presented with any complexity. Of course, this doesn't mean that all movies labeled with the 'exploitation' genre must be this thoughtless--some use these techniques to get butts in seats, and can be remarkably subversive once the audience is hooked. Many exploitative works, like Dracula, accidentally reveal a great deal about their time period and culture, not because the author deliberately chose to explore them, but because they have thoughtlessly included their own hangups and assumptions, which can be quite telling to an astute reader.
II. Reproductionlaid against Fight Club: that it opens up a number of interesting questions, but by the end fails to sink its teeth into them, instead letting them drop away into the background. Many exploitative authors try to use this as a defense of their works--that they're only presenting the world 'as it really is'.
For example, recent authors of 'gritty' epic fantasy tend to present rape as a constant threat to women, often to the point that no female character in any of their books will fail to be threatened seriously with rape, at one point or another. They claim they are only representing 'the dark nature of war', but they never present a single male character being threatened with rape by his enemies, despite the fact that male rape is much more common in real world militaries. As such, we can see that they are only presenting one side of rape--not coincidentally, the side which our current culture finds titillating and exciting, meaning that they are writing pure exploitation, not realism. That's why simple reproduction fails to be responsible criticism.
Part of the problem with this strategy is that it acts as if the author and the book are somehow separate, allowing the author to deny responsibility for what they have written. All works are artificial, because everything in a story is there only because the author chose to put it there deliberately, or included it unconsciously. Sitting back and saying 'no, my story is realistic, it represents the real world' is a cop-out. The book represents the author's views and mind, whether they intend it to or not, so why not deliberately take advantage of this artificiality by being aware of it, rather than pretending that it doesn't exist? Why choose to write a story about a prison if the theme of freedom doesn't interest you?
III. Promotion or Condemnationsince he happens to kill babies, we're supposed to conclude that Communism is evil. Sometimes, it's set up as a conversation, where the character the author wants to be right has all the proper answers, and the wrong character gets completely torn down.
Less skilled authors don't even bother to put the idea into the mouths of their characters, they just state it outright in the narration--either going off on some long tangent about their personal opinions, or perhaps slipping them in, here and there. Take for example a racist author who always uses unflattering, animalistic physical descriptions for non-White characters, or a sexist author who describe all the good women as beautiful, and all the bad ones as ugly and deformed.
Though it's good that at least these authors are trying to explore ideas in their works, in the end this method is no more than propaganda, an attempt by the author to tell you what you should or shouldn't believe. It's what I've come to call 'literature of answers'--the author has some particular opinion they present as gospel truth--and any time someone tells you they have all the answers, they're trying to sell you something.
IV. Negative Capability
Better yet, they can show us how various individual prisoners and officers see it--that some prisoners are going to disagree with others about what it means, and some prisoners and officers are going to be on the same page. What's important is that each individual view that we see comes off as valid and believable for that character, that we aren't getting weak straw men on one side and the real arguments on the other. The term 'Negative Capability' was originally defined by Keats, referring to how great writers like Shakespeare wrote about ideas--that all the characters on both sides of the argument seem to be strong and well-written, and as such, that it's difficult (or impossible) to know for certain which side the author personally prefers.
Indeed, a thoughtful and honest author will often admit that they don't have the answers, and that the best we can do is to present various sides of the issue, as we understand them, and to let our readers make up their own minds. This is what I've come to call 'literature of questions', where instead of giving us simple answers, the author forces the reader to consider difficult and complex questions about the nature of life and being.
means you can't be a racist--when of course, prejudice is much more subtle and insidious than that, and deserves more thorough and thoughtful treatment.
There are also some cases where an author might be providing a response to a common cultural theme that is widely taken for granted, and since it is already so familiar to readers, they feel that they don't have to present both sides--that they only need to present the revolutionary, contradictory side.
|Kyosai - Hell Courtesan|
One of the most important things that you can do as an author is to choose characters, scenes, and settings that match the ideas you prefer to explore. If you want to explore the idea of justice, then pick characters and situations which will highlight various aspects of that idea. Give yourself every opportunity to present your themes in different ways, and from different points of view, so you can provide your reader with a more complete presentation. For every author, there will be certain ideas that appeal to them, and to which they will return again and again over decades in various stories and books. There may also be ideas that interest you only for a while.
Getting to know what these ideas are, and why they are important to you is a vital part of finding your own authorial voice. That doesn't mean you have to be certain about them--quite the opposite: they should be ideas which continually puzzle you, which fill you with wonder, so that you will never tire of picking them up and looking at them again, trying to find a new angle or view that you can represent in your writing.