Oil and Water: The Philosophical Novel

I’m going to shift away from the philosophical content of The Story of B and get to Daniel Quinn’s actual writing. In case you haven’t noticed, this book I’ve been reading isn’t a nonfiction book where Quinn lays out his ideas in a neat and orderly fashion, explaining in detail his meaning and citing sources for the historical and anthropological claims he makes; it’s a novel.

Before I begin my scathing post, let me just say three things:

  1. The good friend who recommended this book told me he didn’t care for his writing. Considering that I value greatly this friend’s opinion on all things literature, I didn’t come in expecting Bukowski or Hemingway.
  2. In Quinn’s defense, philosophical novels aren’t easy to write. Some have done worse (Sophie’s World, for example) and some have done better (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in this case). It’s difficult to want to write an actual story and get ALL your ideas out there.
  3. I’m comparing story and philosophy to oil and water; things that don’t mix.  However, one thing that gets the two to bind is soap (this is why we use soap when we wash our hands). The soap to get story and philosophy to bind is good storyTELLING. You can have your cake and eat it in the philosophical novel IF YOU DO IT RIGHT!

The trouble is that you a) come off preachy in a setting where people don’t want you to preach, b) sacrifice creativity and originality for your thoughts, and c) never cite sources for your claims (which I’ve been griping about). What’s driving me crazy is that Quinn does ALL of these things really without caring, it seems. Let me address these in turn.

  1. I’m sure that Quinn thinks his writing is creative, but the plot really only exists in this novel solely for the sake of Quinn putting forth his ideas (this isn’t exactly a bad thing, but I’ll get to my problems there in a bit). He’s using cliche plot devices (who HASN’T used the idea of Roman Catholic Church conspiracies at this point!?) and very weak characters just to drive home his ideas, and he doesn’t have to do that! Some of the great philosophical works of all time are, in fact, novels!  Look at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy: two men in Russia who, while communicating in nonfiction form in some cases (at least with Tolstoy), crafted wonderful and amazing stories that not only captivated the reader, but also communicated revolutionary ideas and philosophies! Every great piece of classic and contemporary literature recognizes the context it speaks from and exploits it!

    Quinn…not so much. We’ve got a priest checking out a guy to see if he’s the Antichrist who becomes that guy’s disciple. Everything else is proving why the “Takers” (in this case the Roman Catholic Church) are wrong and the “Leavers” are right. For someone who graduated with an English degree, I expect better.

  2. CITE YOUR DAMN SOURCES! Forgive my language, but this irks me to no end.  Not only is it entirely misleading to promote truth based on speculation, but it’s bad scholarship. I know Quinn doesn’t pull his thoughts out of a vacuum, but when you make claims (as he does in Ishmael) that the book of Genesis was “written by Leavers to explain the evolution of the Takers” and that it was “later adapted” to suit Judaism and Christianity, you had better come forth with good archaeological and historical evidence to back that up.

    Now, it’s not always easy to work that into a story. It IS a novel, and footnotes don’t always work in novels. Robert Pirsig had an easier time of this in his work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; he stuck to philosophy, and philosophy is indeed a lot of speculating, but he still pointed to the works he was talking about(such as Plato’s Phaedro and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching). When your philosophical ideas extend into history, science, and anthropology, it’s time to abandon your story and start writing responsibly.

  3. As for getting preachy, you can get your ideas across without hitting people over the head with them! It takes practice, perhaps years of work, but you can do it! If you acknowledge the context in which you write, and you use it to show where your ideas come into play in that context, people will get the message. If you’re going to write philosophy, then write it, but if you’re going to write a story and communicate some philosophy with it, you have to work that philosophy around the story, not the other way around!

OK, I’m done for now.  There’s still a whole section of this book entitled “The Public Teachings” which I have left to go through (these were the public lectures of B which the priest in question attended).  I’ll be talking about these over the next day or two, then give a summarizing review at the end.  See you tomorrow!

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2 thoughts on “Oil and Water: The Philosophical Novel

  1. Sounds like Quinn could’ve benefited from framing a Socratic dialogue in which to insert his woeful ideas. Or perhaps it just goes to show that a good writer makes her work look effortless while a poor one will elucidate his every potential difficulty. A comparison of writers to baseball players might be fitting at this point.

  2. Pingback: Review: The Story of B by Daniel Quinn | Reading To Live

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