From the Writer’s Desk: Writing that is “Implicitly Philosophical”

I’ve written before about my appreciation for John Gardner, a novelist who also wrote the books On Moral Fiction and The Art of Fiction. (I recommend both of these to anyone who’s serious about fiction writing.)

One of Gardner’s most often-quoted-statements comes from his book On Becoming a Novelist:

“A true work of fiction does all of the following things, and does them elegantly, efficiently: It creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind; it is implicitly philosophical; if fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us, in the end, not simply as a thing done, but as a shining performance.”

I’ve read this quote to my fiction writing students for years. But only this summer did I realize it addressed a very common problem in the works of novice fiction writers. Sometimes I finish the last sentence of a story and I want to ask the question, “So what?”

I had this experience a few weeks ago, when one of my students turned in a story about a man who goes with a friend to a protest march and gets shot by an anxious police officer. That’s a sad thing—someone losing his life. As a reader facing this significant loss, I wanted to give the story proper reverence. But this story made it hard to do that. It’s as if the story said, “Here is a sad thing that happened—a death.” Then the story abruptly said, “Goodbye!”

“So what?” I wanted to know. “What does it mean?”

While talking with the student about the story, I realized that John Gardner could help. Referring to the quote above, I asked the student, “What is ‘implicitly philosophical’ about this story?”

I didn’t ask the student, “What’s the moral to the story?” I’m not talking about didacticism. A didactic work of fiction is one whose primarily purpose is to teach a lesson. (And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with didacticism in its proper context. An instruction sheet on how to set up your new tent should teach you something—how to put up the tent. A story in a Sunday School lesson also should be didactic.)

Being “implicitly philosophical” isn’t the same thing as “teaching a lesson.” In fact, the “implicitly philosophical” isn’t even the same as the “explicitly philosophical.” A philosophical monograph would involve the “explicitly philosophical.” But something “implied” is beneath the surface, between the lines. I take Gardner to mean that good fiction implies philosophical questions about life and living.

What kinds of philosophical issues do we see in good fiction? Too many to number. But here are three examples: “When is it good to question … or trust?” “What does a child owe a parent?” “When is it right to lie?” Notice that these aren’t answers, but questions, which may indicate one difference between didactic and philosophical fiction—asking questions rather than giving answers. In part, this is the job of the fiction writer. Not to suggest solutions to life’s problems, but to leave the reader with really good questions.

My student and I talked about his story and the possible questions it might imply. We came up with a few: “When should someone die for a friend?” “Why do accidents happen?” “When is it right to take another’s life?” Of course, he left with more work to do—that’s a good thing—but I hope he also walked away with a better understanding of fiction.

As a final example, let’s look at 17 Miracles, the recent film about the Willie Handcart Company in 1856. At the heart of the movie is Levi Savage, who fears that the company is leaving too late in the season and will meet disaster. History tells us he was right. Even though Savage is a respected leader in the company, he’s voted down. The company sets out for the Salt Lake Valley despite the dangers. Then Savage makes a tough choice. He chooses to go with them and serve as best he can.

Of course, the implicitly philosophical question is, “What does it mean to disagree with a group of people, but still chose to assist and support them in their cause?” That question is even more interesting when we consider it’s opposite. Often we tell ourselves stories that go like this: “If you think a situation is wrong, you should flee that situation and those involved.” Which way should we go then? Should we flee from those we disagree with, or should we help them? That’s a philosophical question with no easy answer.

Perhaps, then, the implicitly philosophical aspects of a story involve not the one and only right answer, but an answer, open to interpretation.

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2 Responses to From the Writer’s Desk: Writing that is “Implicitly Philosophical”

  1. “So what?” is one of the three questions Orson Scott Card asserts that fiction writers must answer for their readers. The other two are “Oh, yeah?” and “Huh?” He calls them, respectively (in the case of this comment), hope, faith, and clarity.

    I like the idea of connecting the implicit philosophy of a story to hope, even though that may not necessarily be what every work of fiction does or should do. The ones that I cherish and feel I have gained the most from certainly do.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like that formulation. Constitutionally, I have a tendency to suspect universal formulas of what a novel “ought” to be, but I can’t find anything to dislike about this one.

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