The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

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