Choosing A Subject
In writing non-fiction, the choice of a subject is of the first importance.
For non-fiction, unlike fiction, is usually sold before it is written. The author has to sell his bare idea to the editor before it has been dressed in the charms of literary form or style, and this means that the subject must manifestly be a good one, or it will never be approved and published at all. Moreover, the range of possible subject-matter is so vast including, as it does, all knowledge that the danger of choosing unwisely is considerable.
The difficulty lies in the fact that, although the reader cannot see the world truly through the veil of his desires, he tends to ignore everything that is not somehow connected with his desires. Other things are not, to him, “interesting.” Somehow, we have to overcome this difficulty.
It may be overcome.
For though our reader will not eat unleavened bread, he is willing to eat bread that has been leavened. It is our task to understand the difference between dough and yeast, and to learn how these may be combiners to make the bread our reacher likes.
This is a valid distinction, not always understood, between subject and subject-matter. The distinction is not only valid, but important. For the writer who is successful in making the two march along together will be fortunate; while conflict between the two may make things very difficult.
By subject-matter, we mean the things and people about which an author writes: for example, aviation, the French Revolution, domestic difficulties, young love, animals, or seafaring. This general subject-matter may be anything, provided the author loves it, feels at home in it, is interested enough in it to learn all he can about it, and to take the pains to make his reader enjoy it too. The author who commands such a field of human interest and uses it consistently also has the advantage of a steady market for readers who like that sort of thing. They win remember him as the purveyor of stories about that subject-matter, and will look out for his work, knowing that they can always depend upon him to please them.
In finding such a general subject the author is lucky if he hits upon one already endeared to the public by writers who have labored before him. That is why the classics are for the most part composed of folklore: folklore is simply subject-matter which has been processed already, tried out on the dog a million times, written and rewritten, told and retold, until it has achieved a form that is sure-fire in its appeal. The reader’s mind is hair-trigger in its reaction to such material; a touch is enough to arouse interest.
Of course, fresh material may be handled so that it too becomes accepted, though that generally takes time and patience. When Jack London first attempted to self stories of the Northwest, he found no ready market waiting and had to self his “Call of the Wild” for a song. Nowadays one need not be a Jack London to self Northwest stories; the public has been created, and a market exists. Northwest stories are staple literary wares.
So it is with other subjects. Thus, if a man were to write of France, he would probably meet with most success if he chose the period of the French Revolution, since (in addition to its dramatic events anal its connection with American history) it has been written about so often that readers are all prepared to understand and enjoy it. Just so, in American history, the Civil War offers better material than the War of 1812. Actually the subject-matter may be no better, but it is far more salable because the public is already interested, already understands the background.
Of course, not every writer can pick and choose at will. He must use what rouses his own imagination. For, unless his imagination moves freely among his materials, he will turn out inferior work. And his imagination cannot move freely among things in which he has no spontaneous interest, things for which he has no strong feeling. Naturally he will feel more at home in what he knows well, though knowledge of the subject-matter is of less importance than a profound interest in it.
Next: The Author’s Subject