Subtlety, Subtext, and Why What You Don’t Say Matters Most in Fiction

What a writer is writing about is seldom the main point. It’s what he’s doing with his left hand that really matters.

-Thomas Mann


I posted this quote on Facebook yesterday. Like any quote, it’s open to interpretation (hey, get your mind out of the gutter), but outside of any context, it might have befuddled a few people, and after mulling it over for a day, I think it’s worthy of a blog post.


To me this quote sums up the job of fiction. Non-fiction is all about what the writer is saying on the surface. But in fiction, good fiction anyway, we get subtext, suggestion and inference; an opportunity for things not literally stated by the author to form nonetheless in the reader’s mind. It’s a process of completing a circuit in the reader’s imagination by not saying all that we mean.


People who dismiss genre fiction think that Tolkien was just writing about elves, but readers who see The Lord of the Rings as literature know that he made some of the greatest statements of the 20th century about war and the nature of power, obsession, and addiction. Themes that are still relevant today precisely because they’re set in a mythic world apart from the particulars of our own. And that’s not the same thing as allegory. It’s subtler.


To take an example from the other end of the quality spectrum in genre fiction, Stephanie Meyer (who lacks subtlety in all other aspects of her writing) didn’t sell a bazillion books to teenaged girls because she was writing about vampires and werewolves. She had a runaway hit because those girls recognized a story about the animal and social tensions surrounding their virginity dressed up as a story about vampires.


The best stories are about more than what they appear to be about on the surface. Harry Potter isn’t just about racism, but it wouldn’t have the same resonance if it didn’t address the issue in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways.


That’s why the old myths have endured. They seem to be about gods and monsters, but they’re really about what it means to be human. All good fiction can tap into that, but I would argue that genre fiction is especially well suited to the task.


Visual arts can also use the powers of suggestion and subtlety, but usually to a lesser extent. Is Breaking Bad so compelling because it’s about drugs? No, it’s about a million other things, some of them barely mentioned. It’s about marriage and mortality and subverted male empowerment and the economy and healthcare and lies, lies, lies. The story is compelling because it’s a tragic character study that forces us to infer Walter White’s shifting motives at any given time despite what he’s telling himself and the people around him on the surface. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen a TV series come to tapping into the powers of the novel. Vince Gilligan has a very adept left hand.


I think the most compelling TV encourages the audience to come to their own conclusions. It invites us into the process. True Detective comes to mind as a great recent example. But in fiction we are already engaging the reader in a process of filling in the details in her own mind. A book is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer sketches lines and the reader embellishes that sketch with the details of her own experience. She even renders the tone of voice of each line of dialog in her head. And writing fails when the writer fails to make it easy for the reader to do this.


But a writer also fails when he makes it too easy for the reader to know what it all means. The right hand tells you what you need to know. The left hand knows what to leave out.

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