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.

Category choice in creative writing

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.