Vintage fiction book

Where the Philosophical and Literary Collide

Hugh D. Reynolds attended the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop that was held at Oxford Brookes University on June 1-2, 2017 and supported by the APA Berry Fund.  Here, Reynolds reflects on his experience and views about philosophical fiction.

Why did you attend the philosophical fiction writing workshop?

I owe a debt to fiction for carrying me towards philosophy.  To the extent philosophy was taught at all in my school, it was in the Religious Studies class, which led me to dismiss it. Years later–as a somewhat jaded physics teacher–I began reading the fictions of Borges and Calvino. They opened up whole new perspectives on my restricted world. Then I found Geoffrey Klempner whose ‘Pathways to Philosophy’ programme employs simple but engaging stories to introduce big issues in philosophy.

Several years of formal, part-time study followed, but none of it dislodged the notion that stories might be an important way to ‘do’ philosophy. I was delighted to find that there are a number of serious-minded philosophers who agree with me! Until the workshop I was a little embarrassed to talk about fiction as a philosophical tool. My keenness to use it seemed to undermine claims to being a ‘proper’ philosopher. In the British Society of Aesthetics workshop, in the assembled delegates’ insights, I found vindication and encouragement to keep telling tales.

Should philosophers write fiction? 

Philosopher’s shouldn’t have to write fiction; different craftspeople wield very different favourite tools. Fiction can help wider audiences access complex ideas in the ‘safe space’ of a story. But it’s more than a teaching aid; an encapsulation of some prior thinking. I find it assists the thinking itself, not least because you’re forced to put ideas into some sort of action on the page.

Fiction is a test bed. For me that means not only in its content, but in its form too. Metafiction, forum theatre, the experimental approaches of groups such as Oulipo, research projects such as Ambient Literature – these push creative boundaries in non-trivial ways. Ways we could learn from. There is a freedom, an audacity and a confidence to ‘play’ in literature which is lacking in traditional academic work. As Andrew Gallix says of Oulipo:

They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice.

Can we say the same of ourselves? Are we attempting to uncover what philosophy could be, rather than professing what it should be? I aspire to explore the intersection of philosophical and literary spheres – to use that space actively – as a reader and writer – not just analyze it in the manner of a turgid aesthetic or critical study.

What did you learn at the workshop? 

The most important ‘take-home’ for me was a point stressed by Eric Schwitzgebel: philosophy should be defined by topic (e.g. “inquiry into biggest picture framing issues“) not method. Adhering to this doctrine wholesale will – of course – scupper our chances of becoming, or remaining, members of the academic in-crowd. I do think it’s a healthy provocation though; a reminder of the staid forms of output that academies expect of us.

Let me tell you of another session though – rich and animated, if the least philosophically minded. It was run by author and creative writing tutor James Hawes. I’ll outline just a few of the top tips he shared; how some chimed with me, and some fell flat to my ears.

Evoke don’t inform

Although you need a governing idea or guiding principle behind your story – it should never be explicitly stated by a character. This needs confronting head on if we’re dead-set on communicating a particular message with directness and clarity. There is a loss of authorial control here. It requires trust that the reader has the wherewithal to receive the evocation, to create an ‘appropriate’ sense of it on their own terms.

No-one ever says what they mean; ever! […] Get people lying as soon as you can”

This is another steer away from straightforward and reliable orientation of your readers. It leads me to wonder if there are issues which lend themselves to a disorienting technique – to going with the fiction; abandoning certainty precisely where there is none to cling to anyway. Or else the lies are told in such a clumsy or knowing way that they are all easily found-out; truths are thus reinforced by the satirical enunciation of untruths.

What I find odd in so many of these ‘winning formulae’, keys to creative writing success, is that they often encourage ambiguity of content, but insist on strict adherence and certainty in structural form. Contrast the two dictates above with the following:

People need to know what kind of movie they’re watching; otherwise they’ll not know how to respond”

I’m not sure I always want my readers to know how to respond – particularly when the point I’m raising is that there is no one right way to respond. My mission is often to unsettle, to disrupt preconception and learned-response. Why should that disruption not take place in the shape of the piece itself? Why only let-rip inside a tired old-form? Hawes says: “Your readers are searching for clues; all they have is what you give them.” So the formulaic balancing act is to reassure and protect your readers – to give them enough to go on, within a form they feel happy about – whilst drip feeding a little uncertainty into the standard mix. Here’s another recommended ingredient:

Heroes should always decide in response to something, never on their own”

The alleged risk is that – if a character arises who is already full of contradictions (by which I read: “if a character is all too human“) then they will bore the pants of your readership. Seek instead, a dramatic excuse; an external event that shows the character being put into a state of contradiction. In drama it seems, ‘shit happens’ that keeps-up the narrative ante.

Can’t acts and action make room for more reflective episodes though? No Hamlet has convinced me that, prior to his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage, he was the life and soul of every party. Already full of inner turmoil – something happens to push him over the edge. The most celebrated speech in English drama – all this being and not-being – is internal, a monologue – but it can only come in a context of external events.

Hawes is keen to tell us:

I’m not talking to geniuses, I’m talking to the 99.9% that need a set-up.

My trouble is, it’s those geniuses, the mould breakers, that most inspire. Hawes references the child at the end of Tarkovsky’s film Stalker; a glass moved by a mysterious force over the edge of the table. If you are Andrei Tarkovsky you pick and choose which bits of dogma to ignore. If you’re a philosopher – genius or not – I hold that you have to select the advice that’s going to serve your purposes as a philosopher-writer.  Or else, ditch your big ideas and just write a blockbuster thriller instead.

Have you written philosophical fiction before? 

My first forays into philosophical fiction have been in writing for the stage. I found myself rubbing-up against the received wisdom that narrative is all important; that your big ideas need to make way for a ripping yarn. (Hawes: “No-one cares about plot!” – it can be ridiculous, it doesn’t matter – “but you do need character.“) It turns out I was doing something even John Buchan favoured: “sewing events together retrospectively.”  I later read about Stanley Kubrick’s ‘non-submersible elements’ – key features, scenes or concept of a piece that are sure to keep it afloat.

I talk to a lot of playwrights who aren’t hung up on high-concept, messages and meaning. The play is the thing and they’re still essentially treating Aristotle as their go-to dramatic guru. What if you free yourself from the need to stage what you write? Desert the dream to make money from your art by fitting in with your reader’s cultural upbringing? What if you’re proud to write for a specialist audience, such as fellow students of philosophy? What if you were to firmly grasp Louis Aragon’s approach:

I write to find out what I’m thinking, not the other way around.

These are some of the questions I’ve been busy asking myself when I should have been writing.

What sort of philosophical fiction are you writing now?

My fiction writing is both sporadic and episodic. At the moment I’m doing a lot of non-fiction writing (critical essays and the like) in amongst a lot of shorter prose-poetry. I’m finding that an awareness of story and narrative technique is seeping into lots of this writing. I’m interested in mixing up expectations of form – breaking out of a story to present ‘faction’ – breaking out of a piece of long-form journalism to tell a taller tale. If I’m less confident in creating such mash-ups in my academic work, it’s because I’m still a beginner in my field. However, everything I heard at the Philosophy Through Fiction workshop suggests that I don’t need to abandon my creative writing – but draw from and feed into it – to develop as a fully-fledged philosopher. Tremendous thanks to organiser Helen De Cruz  at Oxford Brookes, and all those involved in it.

Hugh D. Reynolds is a teacher, writer and learning project manager based in Bristol, England. You can read more about his philosophical and other exploits at hughdreynolds.com.

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