I am preparing to give a brief talk about my new novel, Back Side Of A Hurricane, and when I talk about my novels, and try to answer the question, “What’s it about?” I always focus on theme rather than plot. Literary fiction writers, it seems to me, write about themes, and use plot as a vehicle for addressing the themes that matter to them. The plots tend to be somewhat less action-oriented than popular fiction plots, and focus more on the characters, and how they change during the course of the story. The best popular fiction writers are very good writers, too, but they are masters of plotting, and tell great stories full of adventure and suspense. Plot carries their novels, although many have well-developed characters, too.
I write literary fiction because that’s what I most like to read, and because I like the writing as much as the storytelling. I am not as good at plotting, but hope I still tell a good story that illuminates themes that matter a great deal to me. But, if themes are so important, why not write an essay? Why bother with the elements of story? Why take the time to develop fictional characters, settings, and circumstances, and try to make the reader believe in them, just for a while?
Well, part of the answer is that I find it fun. It is work, and it can be frustrating and time-consuming, and it never feels like it’s good enough, but it is tremendous fun to make up a complete story and get it written and made into a book. But that’s not the main reason. The main reason is that stories, the narrative structure, are what impact readers emotionally. Humans are wired for story, it is how we make meaning out of events (and themes, which are ideas). Science demonstrates that our brains react to narrative by connecting the language, memory, and emotional areas in our brain, and changing the way we think. Stories help us develop empathy, compassion, and altruism. They help us understand and care for people who are not like us.
So, that’s why I write novels rather than essays. To be sure, I’ve read essays that affected me deeply, but usually on an intellectual level. My goal, whether I’m speaking, or writing, or teaching a class, or playing with my band, is to have an emotional impact on the audience, one that leaves them changed by the experience. I think that is the function of art, and novels are one of many great art forms.