Emma Darwin’s blog recently discussed issues relating to themes, subject matter, and originality. This left me thinking about one of the questions she implicitly posed: Why do we write about the things we write about?
Stephen King once answered an interviewer who posed that question by asking, “What makes you think I have any choice?”, and a fine answer it is; I don't think King, or for that matter, Kafka, probably had much chance of selecting different themes or topics.
There may be a few writers out there who consciously select their subject matter and themes based on commercial considerations. In general, this sounds to me like a recipe for trying to write a book even though it's uninteresting to you. Who would want to go through such drudgery, and what are the chances it would result in a book anyone would want to read? Lord knows there have been a million people writing Da Vinci Code clones over the past few years, and publishers willing to publish at least a few of those, but none of them have had much success, and I think that's because they were commerically calculated efforts. I found Dan Brown's novel literally unreadable, but I don't doubt that when he write it he was excited by the topics and themes, and that this excitement communicated itself to the book's many enthusiasts.
Alfred Hitchcock once observed that although the public thought he must be some kind of monster owing to his subject matter, he actually worked so well in the fields of suspense and terror because he was so frightened of so many things. In his best work, his neuroses and fears come through to the viewers, and his anxieties and preoccupations become our own.
My own novels are in different genres and vary widely in tone, from comic to earnest to downright dark. Most of them, of course, are still unpublished, and you might think this is evidence of my own thesis here: a writer should stick to their preoccupations and not jump around.
Yet when I peel back genre and style and take a look beneath the surface of my stories, I find the machinery below is familiar, even repetitive; my mind seems to be obsessed with certain kinds of conflicts, ambiguities, and personalities. Those dynamics are a mirror of my subconscious mind.
On the surface, it looks as though I have a choice in what I write about (the less charitable might say it looks as if I can't make up my mind), but I'm beginning to doubt how much freedom I have. Perhaps I can dress my preoccupations in different clothes, even play Henry Higgins and teach them different accents and styles; and, with a little bit of luck (no lyric reference intended) they might seem fresh and new. I'm beginning to worry they're all still Eliza Doolittle at heart.
Do the writers amongst you find that, at some deep level, you are writing the same story or tackling the same themes in different ways in each successive work? And are these phases, like Picasso's Blue Period, or are they permanent?
PS In the comment trail on her post, Emma says, "...having heard Ang Lee acknowledge that Sense & Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and The Incredible Hulk all sprang from his obsession with repression, I do now feel a bit less nervous."