Tempted by Meaning


I’ve often blogged here that I like stories with meaning, stories that are about something, and that I detest the post-modern disavowal of such stories. But, after reading a book full of stories that were all about something, I’ve come to understand the distaste for them. Too many writers think of their stories as ways to communicate their themes. This leads to boring stories, even when great writers do it.

I’m nearly finished reading Understanding Fiction, which I blogged about here. I still love this book. When they do an analysis, it’s great. I had read “Araby” by James Joyce, “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka, “The Killers” by Hemingway, and “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, and I hadn’t liked any of them. Turns out I hadn’t understood any of them.

Meaning by itself is boring

But I keep getting bored. Often I skip the middle of the story, then read the analysis. Often I’d then go back and read what I’d skipped. Then I stopped going back to read what I’d skipped, because the parts I skipped never seemed important or even enjoyable when I read them later.

These are great stories, well-written. But something is systematically wrong with them, something that Brooks & Warren didn’t just overlook, but encouraged. They went out of their way to gather together stories with deep meaning and beautiful style that are boring.

I begin to understand the reaction against this, like the claim by Bret Anthony Johnston of The Atlantic that “[for a story to be] engineered—and expected—to be about something… is all but terminal in fiction.”

Let’s look at the boring stories and figure out why they’re boring. I listed any stories here where I skipped ahead to read the ending, even if I didn’t consciously think the story was boring:

* Christ in Flanders, Balzac, 1832. 11 pages. (1 page ~ 340 words.) Christ gets on a ferry that has some rich passengers, who are all evil, and some poor passengers, who are all saintly. There is a storm; the ship sinks; the rich passengers all die and the poor ones all live. Theme: Wealth and success make you proud; being beaten down and serving your master in humble blind obedience makes you stupid and therefore virtuous. I hate this story.

* The Birthmark, Hawthorne, 1843. 16 pages. A scientist has a wife whose beauty is perfect, except for a birthmark. He obsesses over the birthmark so much that she appears repulsive to him. He develops a procedure to remove it. She dies, because that one imperfection was the only thing anchoring her to this imperfect world.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Bret Harte, 1869. The town of Poker Flat throws out its less-respectable inhabitants. They act nobly, then die in a snowstorm. Theme: Respectable Bible-virtue isn’t what makes people noble.

A Simple Heart, Flaubert, 1877. 33 pages. A simple peasant woman lives a boring virtuous life, then dies. Theme: Stupid simple religious people are virtuous. Like Forrest Gump, but boring and sanctified.

The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant, 1884. 9 pages. A woman borrows a rich friend’s necklace, loses it, secretly buys another to replace it, and spends ten years paying it off. The necklace she lost turns out to be fake. The theme has something to do with the woman’s own fakeness.

The Kiss, Anton Chekhov, 1888. 16 pages. An unattractive army officer who no woman has ever paid attention to is accidentally kissed by a young woman in the dark. He re-imagines and dwells on the incident for months, and convinces himself his life will not be terrible. At the end, he recognizes that he has deceived himself, and he is a loser and will always be despised and miserable. This could have been a great story if it didn’t have 10 pages in the middle with nothing but the officer thinking about the kiss.

* Filboid Studge, Saki, 1911. A young man wants to marry a rich merchant’s daughter. The merchant is secretly going broke, so he agrees, but asks the young man to market his horrible breakfast cereal, Filboid Studge. The young man markets it by implying that it tastes so bad that it must be morally good for you. The merchant’s fortunes recover, and he finds a wealthier husband for his daughter. At 3 pages, still 2 pages too long.

I Want to Know Why, Sherwood Anderson, 1919. 10 pages. A boy who loves horses goes to Saratoga to watch the races. He finds a horse trainer who also understands the sublime, spiritual secrets of horses, yet also enjoys sex. Theme: The boy is traumatized by learning that spiritual purity can be mixed in the same person with evil.

In the Penal Colony, Kafka, 1919. 26 pages. An explorer visits a penal colony. A soldier has been condemned to death for talking back to his commanding officer. An officer there is preparing to use an elaborate machine to slowly torture him to death. The officer excitedly explains his sick, twisted concepts of justice to the explorer, hoping the explorer will help re-instate the old regime of brutality and injustice. Theme: The story is an allegory for the conflict between religion and science, and a kind of sick justification of religion that no religious person would recognize.

The Killers, Hemingway, 1927. 10 pages. Theme according to the editors: Nick discovers the existence of evil, and of the pathetic codes of conduct men obey, even at the cost of death, to feel like their lives have meaning, and that most people prefer not to think about these things. You’d think this story would be exciting, with professional killers coming in and tying up and threatening the narrator with death, then leaving to kill someone somewhere else. But it isn’t, because for most of the story, the narrator is completely helpless and without a plan. He just sits and waits for things to happen.

A Shore for the Sinking, Thomas Thompson, 1938. 7 pages. A man evicts a family and feels bad about it.

That’s half the stories in the book. Why did they bore me?

Moralizing: Most of these moralize, often with morals that we would now call stupid. Moralizing stories age poorly. (I suppose there were 19th-century stories about the immorality of treating slaves as people or of giving women responsibility.) Usually, when a society finds some problem within their own everyday life so vexing that they feel the need to preach about it, it means they’ve gone overboard, and later generations will laugh at them for it. If your story’s theme might appear on a bumper sticker, write something else.

Characters that only serve the theme: I put stars by the stories whose characters were innately boring because they were just props to carry the theme. They were sometimes eccentric, yet somehow still had no individuality; they could be extrapolated from one or two principles.

Stories just about their meaning: All of these stories doggedly, single-mindedly, pursue their themes. The high quality of the writing style makes them worse, because it makes them longer without adding anything other than pretty words. These are nearly all stories where the author went on for pages and pages describing the scenery or the protagonist’s thoughts in beautiful prose, in ways that went straight to the theme and did nothing else.

This last one is the worst, the problem they all have in common. Every part of a story should be interesting on its own, apart from the theme. It can be interesting because you want to know what will happen next, or because you’re worried about the character. But it’s gotta be interesting. If at any point your reader says, “I know how this is going to turn out”, and skips ahead to the end to see “how it turned out”, you didn’t give your reader anything to care about other than how it turned out, and you FAILED. Even if your name is Anton Chekhov. It’s certainly a mistake I’ve made myself.

Whereas here are some stories in Understanding Fiction that didn’t bore me:

The Death of the Dauphin, Alphonse Daudet, 1869. 2 pages. The very young heir to the throne of France is dying, and is shocked to find out that his guards and money can’t save him, and he has to die like everyone else. This is a bare morality lesson, but at 2 pages, it’s just right.

The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling, 1888. 34 pages. In the 19th century, two British con men become rulers in Afghanistan. The editors say this story has a theme, about how men long to be gods, but being a god makes being a man impossible, or something like that. But, golly, there’s humor, adventure, killing, deception, betrayal, and freemasons. It may have a theme, but lots of exciting stuff happens on the way to it.

Love and James K. Polk, Griffith Beems, 1939. 11 pages. An older, married, male schoolteacher writes love letters to a female schoolteacher. She is alarmed and horrified, but after exposing him realizes she loved it, and hopes he will resume stalking her. Meanwhile the character of the male teacher is explored, trying to show why he does what he does, and in the manner that he does it, and his own desperation. This story is always interesting because each of the characters cares deeply about what is going on, and there are many little points where you wonder what will happen next.

Old Red, Caroline Gordon, 1933. An old man just wants to go fishing. His family want him to do something “important”. Theme: His family tries to live life logically, as if they were all head. They think the proper response to mortality is to accomplish “important” things, whereas the old man rightly understands that it is just the opposite, that being important is a waste of time when you’re mortal.

Araby, James Joyce, 1914. 5 pages. A boy feels disconnected from everyone around him. He has a crush on a neighbor girl, who wants to go to the bazaar, but can’t. He goes, to bring her something back. The bazaar, which had sounded exotic, is cheap and tawdry. Even there, he finds himself cut off from humanity. He has an epiphany about his own vanity.

I put horizontal rules to divide them into categories of good stories:

The Death of the Dauphin: A moralizing or purely thematic story that is short.

The Man Who Would be King: A thematic story that is funny and/or exciting. The Iliad, most of Shakespeare’s dramas, Catch-22, and THHGTTG are like this.

Love and James K. Polk, Old Red: Thematic stories that are aboutcharacters first, which you keep reading because you care so much about the characters that you want to know everything that happens to them, not just how they end up.

Araby: Puzzling stories with deeply buried themes, full of atmosphere, poetry, sensory detail, symbolism, and misdirection, perhaps with a twist at the end. The author seems to be telling a story about one thing, but you have the nagging suspicion it’s really about something else.

The last one is the branch that evolved into our contemporary literary short stories. You can see the strong resemblance between “Araby” and some of John Updike’s stories about his youth, particularly the one where he goes to the carnival. John Updike created the “New Yorker” story; he published about 100 stories in the New Yorker in the fifties and sixties. That carnival story is almost the same story as “Araby”, IIRC, but without the initial motivation of the girl, so the reader is more lost and confused.

“Araby” is a great story; I was surprised just now when I counted and saw it’s only a little over 5 pages. It didn’t seem shorter than the 10-20 page stories; it had just as much stuff happening in it.

(The bastard was just 32 when he wrote it.)

It’s difficult because it uses symbolism and because it gives you just barely enough pieces to put together into a meaningful picture. But it isn’t the difficulty or the symbolism that makes it not boring. It’s the brevity. Symbolism lets it say many things in a short space. Ambiguity gives it less to say, in a way that lets people read their own meaning into it, like a carny’s cold reading tricks.

I imagine I can see how the New Yorker story evolved, through Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Frederick Barthelme up to today’s literary magazines, becoming progressively less clear, more pessimistic, more urban, narrower in thematic focus and in the number of people who could relate to it, and more boring.

I don’t understand why that happened. Maybe people thought making the theme harder to find was the same as having there be less theme there. Maybe they thought that it was the difficulty, the symbolism, or the ambiguity that make it great. Maybe, unlike making stories exciting or funny or making the reader care about the character, making stories difficult has no inherent limits, no endpoint or maximum you can reach and say, “That’s it; that’s as mysterious as I can make it.” For some reason, that last category of story is unstable and keeps drifting.


It’s great for a story to have a theme, but the theme should be something that gets told along the way, while you’re doing something exciting.

I start with a story (character or plot) and develop the theme as I go. Some people, though not many, can go the other way, starting with the theme and developing plot and characters: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Ayn Rand. Some write stories so short they can get away with just theme: Borges, Calvino.

But for almost anything over 2000 words, you’ve gotta have both.


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