It occurs to me, rereading Tom Jones, that a novel can get across the life of an idea better than a treatise or a tract.
It’s not just that a novelist can sell a reader on her idea better than a nonfiction writer can his. It’s that the idea can come across more fully, more like what it is: an idea enjoyed, feared, implemented, resisted, expanded upon, corrupted, corrupting. The idea as obsession, as communication, as liberator, as oppressor.
When I think about expressing ideas in fiction, though, I face facts. I’m not attracted to stories as much as I am to language and to ideas, to abstractions. Here’s how I know. I never read fiction for plot. I wore out two Bibles by the time I was thirty, and in them, the law, the histories, and the gospels — basically, the narratives — show some modest wear. The epistles, those redoubts of instruction and abstraction, are in tatters.
I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve never watched a minute of television drama made since 1970. (That’s about the last year I watched a local news broadcast, too: local news has most of the news stories.) I also don’t remember jokes, anecdotes, names, or faces. I often tune out, and sometimes interrupt for the gist, when people start telling me stories.
One last piece of evidence. We had to recite cases in law school. I never got the facts straight. My contracts professor once asked me, pointedly, in front of a hundred of my peers, “Have you read this case?” I had — I really had — but it didn’t take.
Nevertheless, I’ve read a dozen books by novelists on how to write novels. My friend Michael, who also never writes fiction but at least is an excellent raconteur, reads them and passes them on to me.
Get the idea? I don’t do stories. But I’m enamored of them, crazy about the idea of stories.
Here’s another obstacle. Writing fiction about ideas is out of vogue. It’s fine to have a theme and all, people feel, but any greater role for an idea makes the fiction seem enthusiastic or polemical.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think an aversion to overcrowding fiction with ham-handed, ideological agendas is a matter of the age we’re living in. I find a universal truth in the notion that good fiction, even a good parable or fable, can’t be first and foremost a vehicle for its message. But we’ve taken that truth to an extreme, I think because we have so few universally held myths stout enough to hang our ideas from. (Myths I can handle. Tell me a story a thousand times, set it to liturgy and holidays and commentary, and I can remember it. Hell, I’ll serve at its altar.)
The most recent book Michael gave me was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. (A dozen books on writing fiction, and I’m only now reading Dillard’s classic?) She says:
People love pretty much the same things best. A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree. . . .
Why do you never find anything about the idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Dillard asks. Because (she answers) it is up to you. (67)
But does Dillard confuse wood for spark, or purpose for fillip? As a college writer-in-residence, Faulkner tells that story about Caddy’s underwear, but I don’t think it’s why he took up writing fiction. The vision of Caddy climbing a tree just got him going, to hear him talk about it.
But what if it’s an idea I want to burn? I could find a spark anywhere for writing about it, but do ideas legitimately burn in fiction anymore? And the kind of fiction I’m thinking of doesn’t have ideas as mere theme or adornment. These ideas are the work’s backdrop and its reason for being. (You probably have clicked around this site enough to get some idea of my ideas. It doesn’t take many clicks to do so.)
George Steiner thinks Dostoevsky’s characters burn ideas:
Dostoevsky’s heroes are intoxicated with ideas and consumed by the fires of language. This does not man that they are allegoric types or personifications. No one, with the exception of Shakespeare, has more fully represented the complex energies of life. It means simply that characters such as Raskolnikov, Muishkin, Kirillov, Versilov, and Ivan Karamazov feed on thought as other human beings feed on love or hatred. Where other men burn oxygen, they burn ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism 289)
Intoxicated with ideas and consumed with language? Maybe I’ll give up the thought of writing and become a Dostoevskian character.
But Dostoevsky, and not just his characters, burned ideas, particularly one:
Writing to Maikov in 1870, with reference to the projected Life of a Great Sinner, the novelist confessed: “The fundamental idea, which will run through each of the parts, is one that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long: it is the question of the existence of God.” This torment was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s genius; his secular instincts – the power of the story-teller, the inborn sense of drama, his fascination with politics – were profoundly conditioned by the religious cast of his mind and by the essentially religious quality of his imagination. . . . Around “the question of the existence of God,” Dostoevsky’s novels elaborate their special vision and their dialectic. They raise it now by affirmation and now by denial. The problem of God was the constant impulse behind Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and ultra-nationalist theories of history; it made moral discriminations of the utmost insight a necessary art; it gave the activities of intellect their pivot and tradition. (287 – 288)
Even if I had a fraction of Dostoevsky’s talent, are we in an age where our novelists or their characters can burn ideas like oxygen? Here’s where the idea of the idea-as-backdrop comes in. Steiner feels like Dostoevsky’s generation of Russians had a rendezvous with destiny:
The contemporaneity of religious fervor and poetic imagination in nineteenth-century Russia, the dialectical relationship between prayer and poetry, was a specific historical circumstance. It was no less rooted in a moment of time than was that coalescence of occasion and genius which made possible Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. (321)
Our mythologies, which Steiner believes “can be of diverse orders: political, philosophic, psychological, economic, historical, or religious” (232), aren’t as deeply rooted as those in nineteenth century Russia (319).
That may be why some English and American writers are skittish about ideas in literature. We’re diverse and disconnected, and while we’ll scream about politics, we rarely talk about it in the context of great ideas. There’s little mythological (in Steiner’s broad sense of the word) bottom in our literature, so our literature can’t hold ideas. It’s like variations on a musical theme when the theme’s gone. The variations clash, and everyone sounds insensitive to how the others are playing.
Rebecca West considered “a failure to recognize the dynamism of ideas” as the chief flaw in English literature. Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to John Berger’s Selected Essays, takes issue with Craig Raine’s notion, which Dyer feels is prevalent in England today, that “We need ideas, but not in our art.” “This belief,” Dyer responds, “is a serous blot on the English literary landscape” (xii).
Steiner feels a need to reorient us to the notion of ideas in novels before he examines Dostoevsky’s:
In suggesting that a novel may be a façade or a mask for a philosophic doctrine, we involve ourselves in error. The relationship between thought and expression is at all times reciprocal and dynamic. (232)
Tom Jones and The Brothers Karamazov have been the chief pillars of my novel reading from high school on. Tom Jones is a comedy set over a wide period of time with a friendly narrator; Karamazov is a tragedy in compressed time with a hidden narrator, a kind of stage director. The books are so different.
But Tom Jones and Karamazov are both about ideas. They’re both political and religious novels, though not in the sense of All the King’s Men (political setting) or the Left Behind series (religious indoctrination). They both examine political theory and religious doctrine without falling into tract or allegory (despite Tom Jones’s “Allworthy” and “Thwackum”). They extend beyond their ideas to touch something universal, something that readers who aren’t enamored with their ideas – indeed, readers who reject them – may still draw life from. In other words, while the novel serves the idea, the idea serves the novel more.