It Starts With a Question: Jarret Middleton on The Philosophical Novel

Posted Thu, 9/01/2016 - 10:40am by  |  Category: , ,

What are some examples of big philosophical questions? The existence of God, the nature of creation, how we can tell whether or not we exist, the relationship between God and humans, humans amongst each other, the human against itself. Spirituality, existentialism, morality, becoming, technology, the future, time, the persistence of love.

In one way or another, so much of the fiction we read either starts and ends at the crux of one of these arguments or visits more than one of them along the way. Personally, I had a non-conventional path to writing fiction. I was led to fiction by way of philosophy. The style and weight of the sentences. The constant, unrelenting positing of questions and offering a thousand different approaches at an answer. That was what I gravitated toward, and then I began to look for it in works of fiction.

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Right away, I noticed Marguerite Duras sounded like Jean-Paul Sartre, except better, offering imperfect and often trapped characters as living examples of the existentialism Sartre wrote about in his theory. Thomas Bernard was the perfect nihilist, sounding like Emil Cioran far before True Detective did. John Hawkes and Don DeLillo were masterful phenomenologists, plying away at image and perception until a transformation had taken place, one you were totally unaware had occurred. I discovered Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jean Genet, and Celine constructed their erotic, thought-heavy prose using those same narrative techniques that the more lyrical, aphoristic philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had employed.

I went on to learn about all the other tools writers are supposed to have in their toolbox—character arc, inciting incident, plot, tension, denouement. Those are the essential building blocks for creating lasting structure in your work. But I never lost that fascination with the narrative voice that posits a question and then wades into the depths in an attempt to find an answer. Hell, I just love prose that begins by identifying a problem. Any problem. Then does its best to demonstrate the nature of the problem, using those building blocks at their disposal. Once we admit there is a problem, then go to great lengths to understand it, only then can we make a concerted effort to solve it. Usually the problem is never neatly solved, but you are changed along the way.

That, essentially, is the course of any novel you pick up. The best fiction starts with a problem, whether in voice or in character and plot. Whether or not a character rises above the conditions set out before her changes with each story told, it is the generative force of an unanswered question, that agitated state of not knowing, that propels a reader through the landscape, staying with the character through to the end.

Even if the problem is not solved, the question was posed. It was acknowledged and understood, or it was embodied and felt, and we were transformed the way the character was transformed. That is one of the ways fiction is so good at creating an integral space for experience and change like nothing else can. As writers, that is what we seek. It is why we pick up a pen in the first place. To ask questions we didn’t even know needed to be asked and find out where they lead. —Jarret Middleton


Jarret Middleton, author of Darkansas (Dzanc Books) and the novella An Dantomine Eerly and co-founder of Dark Coast Press, leads a workshop this fall on the philosophical novel. The six-session course is designed to help writers develop rumination, inquiry, and effect in their work by taking an in-depth look at the techniques used by Beckett, Kafka, Didion, Duras, and others. Whatever your style, learn to “express only that which cannot be expressed.”