Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You Can't Help But Sling Themes

Proposition. Such a boring word, isn't it, reeking as it does of stuffy sages arguing over increasingly finer (and irrelevant) philosophical points? Good old Merriam Webster hardly gets one's pulse going with its definition ("something offered for consideration or acceptance"). But Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa argues in his course "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft" that propositions are the foundation of sentences themselves and thus of all writing:
The relationship between propositions and sentences is a little hard to pin down since a sentence will always advance or express one or more propositions and a proposition will always be in the form of a sentence. The key here is to think of a sentence as being a visible piece of writing and the propositions its advances as assumptions and ideas not necessarily written out. The easiest way of thinking about this relationship is to say that a written sentence usually rests on or contains or combines a number of underlying propositions, most of which the sentence simply assumes and which would be too basic or simple-sounding to actually write out. I like to think of the written sentence as the part of the iceberg you see above water, while many of its underlying propositions remain out of sight underwater. Put another way, propositions are the atoms from which the molecule of the sentence is constructed.
Landon goes on to illustrate this idea with a very simple sentence: "I like hamburgers." Sounds agonizingly straightforward, doesn't it? But Landon notes that it presupposes a number of things, such as 1) the speaker exists; 2) there is a food called a hamburger; 3) that food is capable of causing enjoyment, at least in some people; and 4) that someone might actually care about learning that fact. Now if you aren't already muzzy with boredom, you might be wondering, "Why does this matter when it comes to genre fiction anyway?" Well, the idea that propositions are the building blocks of sentences (which are the building blocks of stories) has huge thematic implications. If you automatically infuse your beliefs into every clause, then you can't help slinging themes every which way no matter what you write.

Let's pluck a story from the headlines by way of example: A government strives to remedy an environmental disaster caused by a corporation. Straightforward enough, but the way in which you tell it leads to very different thematic emphases. "The bags beneath the CEO's eyes grew deeper and darker by the day as he struggled to facilitate a solution for a problem baffling the world's best scientists," lands much differently than, "'Of course I'm working on it!' Tony snapped. 'I'd like the whole thing to be fixed as much as you, and I'd like my life back while we're at it!'" Ditto for an administration clean-up effort that's either "tenacious," "tentative" or "torpid." See the propositions behind those choices? They certainly reveal different sorts of thinking about the same situation. Landon's thesis that our beliefs choose our words is a call for more careful consideration, a reminder that every idea has impact, both on our works and those who read them.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
love not fear)


B. Nagel said...

So, what you're saying is that my underlying beliefs suffuse my creative output, eh? I'll buy into that.

I find your 'tenacious/tentative/torpid' example illimitably illustrative of another belief I cling to: Every word brings weight to the table.

Scattercat said...

People don't seem to ever think about this sort of thing. Until I got to high school, I thought I was the only one.

Loren Eaton said...


Yeah, that's pretty much it. I'd also say that we need to be careful about communicating themes without thinking much about it. Genre tropes are a great example. I don't believe most people consider the impact that including a Great Big Eeeeeevil Corporation in their thrillers (a convention if ever there was one) has.

Loren Eaton said...


No, they don't, do they? Folks always look at me as though I'm more than a little odd when I bring it up. Slightly frustating, isn't it?

Chestertonian Rambler said...


Of course, how much control does the genre-fiction author need to have over his works' statements of his ideologies? I grew up reading Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, and it didn't take me long to realize that the former was generally conservative, pro-millitary and pro-religion while the latter was liberal, highly suspicious of the millitary-industrial complex, and highly skeptical about any system of power.

The strange thing is that both of these authors are generally popular with the same group of people. The moral seems to be that ideology and theme didn't matter nearly as much as characterization, creativity, and dizzying geopolitical plots.

I think Mieville may have the best quotation on the subject:

I’m not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I’m a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. [...] I’m trying to say I’ve invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that’s fantastic. But if not, isn’t this a cool monster?

I'd go a step further and say that genre fiction is unique partially *because* it allows people from differing religious and political perspectives to come together. Lots of people read both Mieville and Tolkien (despite Mieville's public hatred for Tolkien), but few people read, say, both Anne Coulter and Stephen Colbert. So while genre fiction may not be a place free of politics, it is at least a place where a defining focus on other matters allows for people to encounter a diversity of views.

Loren Eaton said...

I don't know if a genre fiction writer needs to have exhaustive comprehension of every proposition that goes into his sentences. (Even Landon admits that that way lieth madness.) But understanding the basic idea is pretty important.

Ironically, I think Mieville is a great example. Yes, he doesn't cram his Marxism down readers' throats (for which I'm grateful), but you can pick out underlying propositions related to it in his writing. Take the intro to "Reports of Certain Events in London":

"On the twenty-seventh of November 2000, a package was delivered to my house. This happens all the time -- since becoming a profession writer the amount of mail I get has increased enormously. The flap of the envelope had been torn open a strip, allowing someone to look inside. This also isn't unusual: because, I think, of my political life (I am a varyingly active member of a left-wing group, and once stood in an election for the Socialist Alliance), I regularly find, to my continuing outrage, that my mail has been peering into."

If the narrator is reliable (which it seems as though the author wants to communicate), then that paragraph implies some very interesting things about the pursuit of political office, the right to privacy and the legitimacy of certain views. Not heavy-handed at all, but definitely there.