In this piece of literary criticism, I examine the question of how ideas manifest in two contemporary books we might well call “novels of ideas“. The paper’s abstract goes like this:
“Philosophically engaged fiction often employs ideas in ways that reflect the exploitation-exploration dilemma in developmental psychology: by exploiting well articulated theories by enacting their conflicts, or by exploring the uncertainties of puzzling ontologies or moral complexities. We can see this in action in many works, but some novels of ideas seek to defy such categorization, with lessons for readers and writers. This paper analyzes two recent works – The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) and Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen (2016) – to show how they deal with related concerns and settings through very different approaches. While Powers offers an enactment, its complexity seeks to evade the book becoming a simple polemic. McKenzie’s protagonist explores her muddled identity, philosophy and much else while flirting with the enactment of ideas when she does not comprehend.”
“Abstract: I examine the often-denigrated concept of the novel of ideas from its inception, its critical decline, to its relatively recent revival. Using a variant of the exploitation-exploration dilemma in psychology, it suggests that early usage referred to works that exploit philosophical principles – or better put, enact them – by setting philosophical positions in conflict. By contrast, use of the concept for other, and especially more recent works sees characters and plots as exploring philosophical stances. The shift corresponds with the greater attention paid to complexity and ambiguity that are hallmarks of continental philosophy and neopragmatism, and with it greater need to explore philosophical stances through fiction.”
It’s available from Johns Hopkins University Press.
The publishing world for fiction is driven not just by what is novel about a novel, but even more by what other novels a novel is like. That is, by what’s the same, not what’s different. In this paper, I examine how category arise. Drawing on the theory of heuristics and bias, the paper – published in the journal New Writing – shows how the many layers of the industry create dichotomies, based on the availability of a heuristic to the reader, how well the work represents the type, and how the author can create novelty by confounding the heuristic and its bias by shifting the anchor points.
Three dichotomies emerge from the analysis, with parallels but also differences, corresponding to three layers of the industry:
“Plot-led vs. character-led” – mainly in the domain of writing coaches
“Genre vs. literary“- mainly in the domain of mainstream criticism, publishers, agents and editors
“Philosophical vs. psychological” – mainly in the domain of academic criticism.
Philosophical fiction is often called the novel of ideas. Indeed, Wikipedia automatically re-routes novel of ideas to philosophical fiction. I’ll have more to say about that category in other papers.