Enacting ideas in fiction, or exploring them?

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.”

You can read the full paper in the journal New Writing.

#literary criticism, #novel of ideas, #enactment, #exploration, #The Overstory, #The Portable Velben

Enactment and exploration: two roles for philosophy in the novel of ideas

Here’s a theoretical perspective on the novel of ideas, published in the journal Philosophy and Literature.

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.