One of the main problems with fiction (not non-fiction or polemics) is the problem of moral & story. How do you create fiction that has a point but isn't overly moralistic? In my undergraduate days, I determined that good fiction was fiction which didn't have a moral, that is fiction that presented a story without "taking sides." I then discovered that in order to continue to back that theory, I would have to throw out Crime & Punishment, Austen, Conrad, not to mention C.S. Lewis, so I decided that trying to come up with generalizations about fiction was a waste of time, and I graduated.
But the problem still remains. Orson Scott Card has dealt with it (in his wordy way). Bernard Shaw dealt with it (in his very wordy way) by deciding that there was a little difference between a fictional play and a political polemic (he's wrong). C.S. Lewis even brought it up. Stephen King mentioned it. The upshot, from all these writers (except Shaw), is that story should come first no matter what. Story will prevail in the face of meaning and point. I can attest to that, having found that when I start a story with theme, it is either incredibly bad or the story takes control and whatever I thought the theme would be has ended up being something else.
But none of this addresses the fact that many people do read books and come away going, "Wow! Wow! What a story! What a mass of human emotion! Yes, this speaks to me," and they think, "It's because it has meaning,"and then they sit down and try to do the same thing and end up with horrible stories about "How Grieving Helped Me Understand My Dog" or whatever. And then everyone says, "Why did it fail? It had pathos. It had meaning."
My theory is that it fails because not only does story have to come first, but because theme should be as crafted a thing as the story itself. And I think this is what throws people. I know that for me it seems like MEANING is this separate thing that should be valid in and of itself. This is where the whole Applying Literature to Oneself approach comes from. It is the idea that the themes or meanings or ideas that come up in stories are separate from the stories themselves and since, as often happens with me and my friends, you CAN discuss themes separate from their stories, this perspective would seem to have merit.
But I would argue that from the writer's point of view (and therefore from the reader's point of view since it should be our primary objective as readers to understand the text no matter how self-involved we are feeling), this business of theme being a separate entity from story doesn't work. Rather, the theme or meaning or point is as created a thing as the story itself.
I don't want to imply that fiction writers just grab a theme out of anywhere and make it work. Well, maybe they do, but an honest writer is working with his or her own material (to a certain extent) and therefore his or her own ideas (to a certain extent) and will produce something that he or she actually thinks (to a certain extent). But this isn't the truth police which is why it is pointless trying to decipher whether Shakespeare was an atheist, agnostic, Anglican or secret unilaterialist. He was a writer. He took whatever material was to hand, even material from his own life, and made something with it. I think that this is where the critics fail to understand writers. They think that writers or artists are sentimental fools who just love humanity. But in fact writers and artists are conniving, hard-hearted beasts who will use any sentiment in order to make something work.
That's the point: it has to work. And simply starting from the premise: Does this work? is half the battle. It might not. (And quite frankly, I send the stuff out anyway--I'm hard-hearted enough to want money, no matter what the product is.) But the question has to be asked. Does it work? Is there set-up/pay-off? Is the story internally consistent? Do the characters behave in accordance with their given characteristics? Does the theme pay-off? If it doesn't, why is it there? Is there plot? Is there closure? Does the story's "world" make sense?
As someone said in class on Monday, "All writing is an act of preservation," that is, all written works are made things which stand outside the stream of life-as-it-is-lived (until reading them makes them part of one's life-as-it-is-lived, but if I go any further down this path, I'll end up in metaphysics, so, uh . . . back that train up). I've never been a big fan of the "story just tells itself" idea of writing. I believe that the author is always in control. On the other hand, once you reached a certain point in a story, it--and all the stuff referenced in the previous paragraph--demands a certain ending. If the author doesn't like that ending, they can go back and alter the characters, the plot, the set-up, etc.
Of course, if I could write this way, I'd sell everything I create. But, after all, there's the idea and then there's, well, life-as-it-is-lived.