All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

A not-so recent literary event at the LSE Space For Thought festival chaired by TLS editor Michael Caines considered the following question: Is There Life in the Novel of Ideas? After hearing two considered responses from the academic Peter Boxhall and novelist Jennie Erdal (the latter bringing a philosophical sensibility to what it, essentially, a philosophical genre), the novelist and commentator Andrew O’Hagan sought to negate the debate by declaring that ‘every good novel is a novel of ideas’ (35’11). But for the gentle prodding of the chair, the discussion could have wilted and died there and then, such was the declamatory force of O’Hagan’s proposition. O’Hagan then undermined his own case by conflating the novel of ideas with the avant-garde novel and experimental novel.

Image © Penguin Books

At the time I felt that this was wrong-headed but was unable to articulate my ideas on the spot. Well, a month has passed in which those ideas have had time to gestate, so now I’ll try and put them down here. Let’s take Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Few would doubt that this is a self-consciously philosophical novel with an all-pervading idea in phenomenology, an idea through which its protagonist and plot are enframed. Likewise, Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is self-consciously tackling the idea of totalitarianism. The idea percolates through every page. Character, plot, dialogue, and setting are all enmeshed within these ideas and help to convey them. Here, then, are two very obvious novels of ideas, one philosophical, the other political. We might also think of the novels of Dostoyevsky and Iris Murdoch. Modern examples might be those that dabble in meta-fiction and deconstruct the idea of trying to write a novel whilst writing one: Paul Auster’s whole back catalogue; Ben Lehrer’s 10:04; Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., and other ‘novels of the No’, to quote a phrase from the latter novel. There are the self-consciously avant-garde, pseudo-philosophical novels of Tom McCarthy – Remainder, C, Satin Island. There is John Lanchester’s political novel, Capital, tackling the financial crisis. There are sci-fi novels dealing with Articifical Intelligence and android ethics, like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The canon is not lacking for examples. What O’Hagan was driving at in his provocative, even wilfully contrarian comment, was that novels necessarily contains ideas, whether or not their authors intend for them to be there.  The thinking here seems to be that when you write down a scenario in which characters engage in dialogue in whatever setting, then ideas will be there, too, in the very fabric of this contrived fictive space. It’s as though he believes dialogue, descriptions, characters, plot are the same as ideas. It seems reductive, far too reductive. More than that, it is a perverse misunderstanding of what is generally accepted to be meant by ‘a novel of ideas’. Which is what, exactly? Interestingly, at no point did anyone in the room, audience and panel alike, attempt to define the term, ‘a novel of ideas’. Neither does the Oxford Book of Literary Terms, nor the OED. Blackwell’s Reference Online uses the term ‘philosophical novel’:

The philosophical novel can be minimally defined as a genre in which characteristic elements of the novel are used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical questions and concepts. In its “purest” form, it perhaps most properly designates those relatively singular texts which may be said to belong to both the history of philosophy and of literature, and to occupy some indeterminate space between them. Today the term is often used interchangeably with the more recent concept of the “novel of ideas,” though some theorists have sought to establish a clear division between the two (Bewes).

It lists Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Julie, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea as ‘relatively un-contentious examples of the form’. However, the entry does note that ‘the philosophical novel is marked by an exceptional plasticity’, illustrating this point with other less avowedly philosophical novels, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, whichhave also been read by critics in such terms’. We risk veering towards O’Hagan’s point here, but then the ideas of Austen’s novel are surely made apparent in its title; she has clearly built a romantic drama around the negative human traits of pride and prejudice with both moral and satirical aims in mind. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.) also finds room for an entry on this subject:

Image © Penguin

The philosophical novel is usually understood as that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a specific philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, and sometimes aesthetic.

It offers the moral philosophy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as one example, before listing others:

[…] the novels of George Eliot or Proust’s analysis of memory and identity in A la recherche du temps perdu. Characteristically, such philosophical ideas are illustrated rather than asserted, as in Middlemarch, where George Eliot shows us various forms of egoism. In the twentieth century the novels of Sartre presented existential themes more memorably and vividly than his philosophical writing, and Camus’s The Outsider is a paradigm of the philosophical novel.

Crucially, this resource explains what difference this makes from both ends of the writer-reader divide:

The free exploration of literary space in interpretation is thereby placed within bounds set by the philosophical presuppositions of the novelist. Interpretation is not only limited by the text but also by the recognition that a certain philosophical standpoint is involved.

In other words, the author of a novel of ideas reasserts his authority over the text, which would seem to nullify Barthes’ assertion of ‘the death of the author’ usurped by an all-powerful reader free to interpret texts as they please.


So where does all this leave Andrew O’Hagan and his reductive view of the novel of ideas? In need of reassessment, I would suggest. It seems to me that those novels like Nausea whose central idea can be summed up in a word or short phrase should be used as a genre benchmark. Other parameters for genre classification could also include the following: how much of the novel is suffused by this central idea? Are the characters motivated by it or engage with it? Does it influence the setting, the atmosphere, the lexis, the plot, or the entire fictive world as ‘totalitarianism’ does in 1984? The ‘novel of ideas’, then, is not really a radical piece of classification. It simply states that a particular novel has an overarching idea as its central conceit, which was purposefully put there by the novelist. Forewarned is forearmed. It both aids the reader in his reading and the critic in his interpretation, and helps secure the writer’s intentions from ‘death of the author’-style postmodernist assault. Everyone wins. Where’s the harm in that?

Featured image by Pimthida and used under a Creative Commons license.

One thought on “All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s