Genres 101: Today’s Lesson – Philosophical Fiction

Filed in Genres 101 , The Quirky Lover Posted on August 31, 2011 @ 11:10 am 2 comments

It is getting increasingly harder to find genres we haven’t talked about yet, so for today, I had originally planned to take a look at the origins of books/literature, going back to Ancient Greece as a starting point. But in starting to look into it, I found another topic we haven’t covered yet that was, in some ways, related to novel beginnings. I decided, instead, to take a look at Philosophical Fiction and its cohorts.

Starting from that time in Ancient Greece, when dramas were performed, modern ideas of politics and philosophy were ingrained in the performances. They usually were created for the Dionysus Festivals and were a pretty big deal back then. The fact that a place was set in the theatre as an alter or seating area left specifically for Dionysus, one of the Greek Gods, shows how important the theological aspects were in each play. This is also easily translated to the moralities that were highlighted and encouraged.

What does this all have to do with literature? Well, it is the basis of all books that discuss the “human condition”, including works in the areas of Science Fiction, Dystopian/Utopian, and something called Bildungsroman (see Wiki entry here for source). Anything we read that has an underlying message about how life should be lived, class distinction, morals, what could be done to improve life, or, alternately, what would happen if any number of tragic scenarios were to arise all contain elements of philosophical thinking.

My definition above pretty much sums up the main genre of Philosophical Fiction, with the exception of the meaning of life (which we’ll talk more about in Existentialism). But it is the works that can be listed under this category that I want to look at now. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates are all progenators of philosophical thinking, but in more recent times, names like Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Huxley, Ayn Rand, Sartre are all well known authors in this field. The “most well-known modern example of a modern philosophical novel” (according to Wiki) is Freidrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. Scarily, I have about half of these names on my own personal bookshelves (though I don’t actually remember reading them, lol). A couple of titles that surprised me as falling into this genre are Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, mostly because I had heard of them as great books, but never realized their content. I’m adding to my list now…

Existentialism is, in my opinion, the much more difficult concept under the umbrella of philosophical thinking.  This is because it deals with emotions, beliefs, and that pesky “meaning of life”. From Wiki: “Existential philosophers often focused more on what they believed was subjective, such as beliefs and religion, or human states, feelings, and emotions, such as freedompainguilt, and regret, as opposed to analyzing objective knowledge,language, or science.”  Making all of these elements ever blend into all people’s beliefs seems such an impossible task, as we all have our own ideas about, well, basically, everything. This has never stopped anyone from writing about it. But, in dealing with human complexities, it does (or should)  broaden a readers experience and knowledge base for better informed ways of living and interacting with our fellow humans. Examples of existential writings include: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and works by Kafka. Existential writings themselves branched out to Absurdist fiction, Nihilism, and its own brand of “angst” that appear in many famous works of literature.

Bildungsroman is a term used in literary critique that “focuses on the psychological and moral growth” of a character, which would obviously play a large part in character driven novels. It seems to be a fancier name for the “coming of age” novel, and would highlight the character’s views of live , their disappointments, mistakes, and ultimate triumph into maturity. This seems the much less complicated form of Philosophical Fiction, more a “purpose of life” type story. Titles that feature this format include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini, among many, many others.

When first hearing about philosophy or, especially for me, existential writings, my eyes tend to glaze over at the thought of not having the smarts to get through such a novel. But, looking at the bigger picture, there are many levels to these types of books, some more palatable than others for the average reader. And once again, looking into these genres, I feel the need to check out some of these titles and give them another try…especially when I have so many on my shelves (I’m starting to think I have a real book addiction now :-p ).

Is is just me that steers clear of these (in most cases) intense novels? Have you ever gotten into a philosophical debate, even the one about the tree falling in the forest? What other great Philosophy or Existential work should I be looking for as I try to broaden my own horizons? Is this a genre that’s as popular now as it once was or is it just crazy English students (like myself) that have to read it? I’m looking forward to hearing your take on this one 🙂

About Jackie

Jackie is a quirky mom, living in Ontario, Canada. She's a bookkeeper by day and a book lover by night. She also blogs at The Novel Nation and writes occasionally for Heroes and Heartbreakers.

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  • LSUReader August 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    I haven't been in a "philosophical debate" since I took Ancient and Medieval Philosophy in college.

    Bless you for tackling this topic for the rest of us!

  • Sheree August 31, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Hm, the last "philosophical debate" I had was years ago with my then coworkers on how we were all prostitutes but we sell our brains (in terms of ideas) instead of our bodies. Does that count?

    Frankly, I deemed myself too old for "that philosophical nonsense" by the time I was 25. Sure, it was fun to debate over nothing, or converse about nothing, when I was a student but not so much after graduation, when the "earthly matters" of jobs, housing, paying back student loans, etc. took precedence. Beside, "Waiting for godot" was pointless.

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