Philosophical Fiction: A Subgenre You Need To Know About (My Top 9 + 1)
For me it started with the novel Demian by Herman Hesse.
I was meant to read it for an English class; however, I’m fairly certain that I skimmed the book then faked my way through the test (sorry Miss Kolsrud). But, as instructed, I had bought my own copy and thankfully held onto it.
It was several years later, after the prison camp of forced learning called high school was over, that I returned to Demian. With its spooky, Freudian cover art, I intuitively knew there was something important waiting for me within its pages. I was traveling in the Czech Republic at the time, on my own, in the middle of winter no less. Back then there were no smart phones, no Google maps, no Airbnb, not even email. I just showed up in Prague with a suitcase, a pea coat and a terrible cold. And after negotiating my way into a cheap pension, I headed out into the city, with a book in my pocket, and a determination to find life’s meaning.
After fortifying my cold with some hot mulled wine from a holiday market, I stumbled down a narrow side street where I happened upon a subterranean bar with steamy windows and the promise of Bohemian adventures. I stepped in, fumbled through ordering a Becherovka and a beer, then sat in a corner doing my best to look as if I belonged. I was, of course, the poster-boy for awkward dork. I was alone and hungry — hungry for…something. And in the pocket of my pea coat was that book I had brought, Demian.
That was when it happened. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep that night, because for the first time I experienced the existential feeling of falling, with my whole being, into a book.
Demian wasn’t just good. It’s wasn’t just a compelling story, or well written. No, this book somehow possessed the power to warp the world around me. It made me feel like I had just learned I was some kind of imposter attempting to blend in with the real human beings around me. And this bar I was at, physical reality itself, was no longer solid, but only the surface layer to a much deeper unknown world.
This book was having an effect on me like no other … but why? How? Wasn’t it just a simple coming-of-age story? Or was the story perhaps, like the not-so-solid world around me, only the top layer to what I was reading? Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to this book, hidden between the words, as if Hesse had written it in two languages: one for my conscious mind, and another for some other part of me — a more essential me that was buried beneath my socially constructed identity.
As years passed, I found more of these special books. They were always novels, fiction, and yet somehow more real than most of the non-fiction books I had read. Stories with the power to tap into a deeper side of reality, perhaps only accessible through metaphor.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned there is an actual name for this subgenre of books: Philosophical Fiction.
Now, I’m sure there’s an elite gang of vengeful academics out there ready to put a hit out on me for my subjective, layman’s definition of Philosophical Fiction. But I feel strongly that this genre deserves to be broader than the likes of Nietzsche and Sartre. In fact, the word “philosophy” itself needs to be rescued from the classroom, because there is an essential human instinct, a longing to understand, that for many like myself, is looking for home. We need a neutral term that is inclusive yet not confined to the opposing camps of “spirituality” and “science.” We need “philosophy” back, as a living practice, in our everyday lives, and I believe that includes in our fiction.
In today’s achievement driven, information-overload world, the novel seems to have sadly gone the way of film. It is for entertainment. To relax and forget the busy day. But storytelling is not just for entertainment. No matter the medium, a fictional story has the unique ability to reach deep within a person’s subconscious, to places that are rarely accessed through direct information. And just as a good story has the power make us forget who we are, a more-than-good story has the power to wake us up. And that is why you need to know about Philosophical Fiction.
My Philosophical Fiction Short List: I purposefully avoided many of the classics of the genre — Brothers Karamazov, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and books by Kafka, Camus, and Proust — and instead tried to share some novels that are less obvious choices that, at least for me, made the world around me shimmer and warp.
1. & 2. Demian and Steppenwolf — Everything Herman Hesse wrote belongs in Philosophical Fiction. Of course Siddhartha is his most well-known, and The Glass Bead Game won him the Nobel Prize. But Demian and Steppenwolf are like two monolithic bookends on the life of a person in search of truth. Demian pushing up against the awaking of a young seeker, while Steppenwolf holds back the fear of old age and turns it into a doorway. Both contain the power to warp the world around you.
3. The Razor’s Edge — Summerset Maugham’s classic about a man who decides to “loaf” instead of follow the conventional trajectory of a life expected of him. Written in 1944 this book was for me a wonderful reminder that the West’s interest in self-discovery wasn’t invented in the 1960s. The philosophical aspects of this book, like with Hesse’s novels, are rooted in the Eastern traditions — the title itself refers to a verse from the Upanishads: “Rise, wake up, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor.”
4. Kafka on the Shore — When asked who my favorite author is, I will usually say Haruki Murakami. The Wind-up Bird Chronicles is perhaps my favorite of his, but Kafka On The Shore is a close second and a great place to start if you’ve never read him before. He is a wizard at bending reality and exposing haunting glimpses of our subconscious realms. My favorite description of his writing came from my friend Chris Ferreira, who first introduced me to Murakami. Over a glass of wine he told me, “Imagine you’re walking down a quiet residential street and you notice that someone has left their garage door open, and for no particular reason you decide to go stand inside it. That creepy-yet-exhilarating feeling you have, being somewhere you really shouldn’t be with no logical reason, that is what it feels like to read a Murakami novel.”
5. The Fountainhead — I wasn’t sure about including this one, as there are a lot of strong opinions about Mrs. Rand and her ideas. But this book made a big impression on me (it was another one of those “stay up all night in the corner of a bar” experiences). Despite walking around for a few months after reading it thinking I was Howard Roark and acting like I was better than everyone else, the novel’s message about individualism vs. collectivism is an essential idea to dig into. Also, if you’re an artist of any kind, The Fountainhead will play out your struggles between artistic integrity and selling-out in epic proportions.
6. Foucault’s Pendulum — Before the DaVinci Code, before the X-files, before the endless conspiracy videos all over YouTube claiming to “reveal the truth!”, there was Umberto Eco’s classic. The story is a complex labyrinth of secret societies, the Illuminati, alchemy and the occult. Underneath all that fun stuff, Eco brilliantly explores the dangerously thin line between seeking out truth and madness, a theme that runs deep within my own novel. Oh, and if you just happened to be in Paris while reading this book, I suggest you go see the actual Foucault Pendulum inside the Musee des Arts et Metiers where much of the book takes place.
7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane — This is one of Neil Gaiman’s least fantastical, creepy-crawly books and therefore, for me at least, one of his deepest. Underneath his genius storytelling, there are big philosophical ideas bubbling up to the surface. Many of the more esoteric ideas come through in the form of questions rather than answers (which is a sign that you’re reading good Philosophical Fiction). Magical Realism and Philosophical Fiction could be seen as close cousins and The Ocean at the End of the Lane belongs in both genres.
8. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare — A hidden gem if there ever was one, and possibly the best title ever. Just read the first chapter of G. K. Chesterton’s metaphysical thriller and if you aren’t hooked, I will buy it off you (I keep giving away my copies). It’s an Edwardian cloak and dagger with endless twists and turns, and underneath it all Chesterton takes the classic “Good vs. Evil” theme and rightly reframes it as “Order vs. Chaos.”
9. The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin — This book is rumored to be the inspiration for the movie Ground Hog Day. As a translated work, the writing can be a bit stilted, however Ouspensky’s exploration of Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence, the concept that we live the same life over and over again, is absolutely world-warping. In fact, you might even, ironically, find yourself reading this book over and over again, as I did. Ouspensky’s lesser known short stories, Talks with the Devil, I also recommend as compelling Philosophical Fiction.
10. What Lies Beyond the Stars — How dare I sneak my own book in this list, with such giants from the subgenre no less?! Well, it’s here because whenever I’m asked the frightening question “So, what’s your book about?”, after my self-sabotaging impulse to kick the person in the shin and run dies down, I try to explain that it is Philosophical Fiction. The problem is no one knows what that means, which ultimately is why I decided to write this blog post. Yes, my book has engaging characters and a thrilling, page-turning plot. But beneath the fiction, is another book. Layered throughout the narrative are the many philosophical ideas and questions that I have wrestled with throughout my own life. Some of these layers are out in the open, easy to find, while many are intentionally buried, deep down beneath the entertainment, in a language meant to connect with a longing inside certain readers who are perhaps sitting in the corner of a bar, resisting the pull of their smart phone, wishing to discover an unknown world.