Here I’ve always thought Ray Bradbury’s 1953 iconographic novel Fahrenheit 451 was about censorship. Not so, says the author in an interview that has just come to my attention. Amy Johnston, writing in the tabloid, LA Weekly, says Mr. Bradbury is adamant in insisting that his novel is not about censorship in any way.
Mr. Bradbury vehemently contends that he wrote the book as a warning against television, which was becoming widespread in 1953. He wanted to show that watching the tube would kill reader’s interest in books.
I’m not alone in believing this futuristic novel is brilliant on every level, beginning with its title. Paper ignites and burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.
But I’ve discussed this novel with many writers and readers over the years. Without exception, they thought its main theme was censorship. Reviewers do, too. Countless authors writing countless essays agree it explores the effect government censorship had on that particular culture. When the people in their extremity are reduced to memorizing entire books to save them for posterity, the message is clear. Burning books make them infinitely more precious.
A worthy piece of fiction can have several themes, some deeper than others. Sometimes a writer won’t know what h/she is writing about until a novel is finished, or ten years have passed, whichever comes first.
In nonfiction books, articles, essays and think pieces, you must know your theme upfront. You tell your reader what you’re writing about. You present a thematic statement, very specific and clear as a bell.
Not so with fiction. A log line is a sound bite for your novel. It probably won’t mention what the book is actually about. I’ve written many novels and only once did I know the theme going in. I’ve always been intrigued by how individuals handled personal power. So my theme was that familiar old saw, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
And I wondered what would happen to a man, or a woman, if they were given unlimited power? Five-hundred pages later, I had my answer. The most ethical person would find it difficult to retain even a scrap of his or her humanity if given god-like powers.
A novel’s theme will seem different to different readers. I saw a lady rush up to Tom Townsend at a conference and enthusiastically explain what she thought one of his young adult novels was about. Tom squinted at the ceiling, shrugged and drawled, “Works for me.” Tom was unthreatened by what his readers thought his books “meant.” Some authors feel that way, others do not. And that poses an interesting question. Does a book belong to its author or its readers or both?
Ray Bradbury is still fighting for what he says his theme was when he wrote his masterpiece over six decades ago. Dear Mr. Bradbury: We readers do not believe your book is about television killing (burning) books. We have always believed that Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship. Ask anyone. #
Thanks for the insightful essay, BK!!!