The question is so used now it's thread bare - but we use it still, because, most likely, no one has come up with a more useful answer. Recently I listened in on a roundtable discussion involving representatives from Christian retail stores. The host asked something like, "Is Christian fiction growing up?" The unanimous response was, "Yes!" (oh joy!) followed by a singular punctuating voice that said, "Finally!" (oh dear!)
It made me wonder, "How do they know? By what standard are they measuring this perceived maturation?" I've asked around, and while there is general agreement that the quality of Christian fiction is on the rise, no one could put their finger on any one measurement. And when I stumbled on a possible answer for both the question and the reason no one can point to it, I had to smile.
I smiled because the answer is one of the most difficult things in fiction writing to talk about - subtext.
Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and cliched - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.
What lingered? The tight writing? The apt similes? The arching metaphor? No, the subtext. Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".
Subtext is created by crafting together elements of story which point to deeper meanings than what is being played out on the page. Elements such as staging, dialogue, description, inflection, irony - yes the very things we use to create plot, we also use to create subtext. And it is wholly intended. It is crafted, meant to be there, lingering below the surface, unexpressed but as solidly present as the characters themselves. They are the invisible threads that hold the story together, make it compelling, and give it meaning.
In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson creates John Ames, a Reverend, elderly and ill who writes to his too young son about his life in hopes of imparting something of himself to the boy who will grow up without his father. Listen to all that is not said here:
"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."
The unexpressed yearning in this short passage caused me to lower the book to my lap and stare out the window, thinking for a long time. It made me want to call my children in from the backyard and hold them.
There is a small but growing number of Christian fiction writers who have allowed their theology to move from obvious and stated, to the realm of subtext where - though whispered, and even unspoken, it speaks to the the soul of the reader with great efficacy.
It is difficult to discuss sub-text, but that shouldn't stop us trying. Can you point to a book that has lingered with you - spoken to you in whispers? Can you point to a scene in a book that spoke of something with such clarity without actually speaking of it?
Writers, how have you begun to use subtext in your writing?