Literature and Philosophy

Philosophy has always had an odd place in the novel, and vice versa. So often will philosophers refer back to great writers just to make their points clearer, and so often will great writers refer back to philosophers just to add a basis for their ideas. It is even gotten into that habit that philosophers have written novels. This has been an immensely popular phenomenon. Philosophers like Voltaire, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard have all written novels and the like that help to better demonstrate their philosophy. In the same realm, writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Byron, Goethe, and Proust are hailed for the influence on philosophic thought as well as literary value.

So first of all, what can be said that causes the relationship between philosophy and literature? The most obvious answer is that in literature everything down to the diction and structure of the novel can contribute to the point. Take Camus and his novel The Stranger. The main character, Meursault, narrates the story in the stream of consciousness style that was so famously popularized during the modernist period. The sentence structures vary, mostly consisting of short concise statements strung together to display the total indifference, in even towards beauty found in words. The Stranger brings us those famous opening lines: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” So from the very beginning it is apparent the philosophical standpoint of the narrator. That of nihilism. The story continually displays it, the total indifference towards his mother’s death, murder, imprisonment, injustice, and sex. Every part of this novel forms a cohesive philosophy used by Camus in his philosophical essays to further make his point about the destructive effects of nihilism.Read More »

Writing Advice From John Steinbeck

Whether a fan of his writing or not, John Steinbeck has been integrated into the American canon and shaped the way American literature has been perceived, moreso than any other writer has done. In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Not only have his works been frequently taught in schools around the country, his books have also been subject to numerous book-burnings  and demonstrations; which is the landmark of any great writer.

At times Steinbeck was hesitant towards interviews, but the Paris Review has recently compiled a mix of different conversations, interviews, and writings about his art. It’s broken up into different sections, such as “On Work Habits”, and “On Publishing” for ease of finding the best piece of advice. But there’s one section in particular that sums it all up best. It comes from a section titled “On Getting Started” but it’s an excerpt from a letter Steinbeck wrote to someone asking for advice. Read More »

Finding a Voice in Your Writing

To all fiction writers, and even nonfiction writers, one of the most discouraging issues encountered is to find a suitable voice for their writing. Often times when reading the work back over they’ll find that it is too dull or or that it is unmemorable. This is a simple issue but it is also a crucial issue. Some writers are so outright with their voice that just by a single excerpt readers will know who’s work it is. Other writers are more subtle with their voice. Just to get a general idea of what voice is, this video nicely explains.

The first thing to do is it actually identify what you’re trying to say. Take fiction for example. When crafting a story the writer has to consider what point of view would fit best and what tone the story should have to be the most effective. Some writers will change certain things about the voice of each story to fit the story best, other writers will remain constant with their voice and craft stories specifically to fit that. But in both cases the writer makes decisions to get their point across in the most beneficial way. Once the writer has identified what they’re trying to get across then they’ll make their choices accordingly.Read More »

How to Critique Writing

Something I’ve noticed about the small crowd of writers that I’ve met, is that they hardly find time to read anything other than literature. What I mean is that the normal person will read that World of Warcraft book or that new space exploration book being made into a movie, but the person who considers himself a writer will only read the fields he concerns himself with. Like for instance it’s natural for a literature writer to only read literature, or for a science fiction writer to read mostly science fiction.

But the major downside to this is that they’re isolating themselves from learning to look at things a new way; this goes for everybody. If I had stuck to what I knew five years ago, I would only be reading books about WWII and video games but I branched out. I started to read literature, science fiction, and nonfiction, really anything I could find. And as a writer and as a person that made all the difference.Read More »

The Art of Keeping Silent

One thing I’ve discovered is that words truly do have power. There are two things that give words power: 1) The meaning behind its use, 2) the way the words are used. It’s a crude example but consider this. Nobody likes hearing a derogatory phrase in daily life, like the N-word. I don’t have to explain the meaning behind the word, the hate and the history that goes with it. That is the meaning behind its use that makes it unpleasant. But say you’re watching an old west movie and a character mentions it because that’s just how they spoke, then its use  is understandable. In today’s world that would be unacceptable and rightfully so, but in the movie it is the context of it that counts. That’s what confused so many people about Obama’s use of the N-word last month, the word itself is obviously full of hate but the President of the United States using it in a non discriminatory way took people by surprise.

We’ve been told since elementary school the phrase “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all,” which for the most part nobody follows. What that phrase leaves out is that our silence can have as much power as our words do. Think about the controversy this summer with the confederate flag, how did the story play out? Well the same way as every major news story. First there was an incident that sparked it, then the blame falls on somebody. In this case it was the confederate battle flag, at the Aurora shooting it went to how much ammunition people could buy, after Columbine it went to violent media. Often times these accusations are justified but regardless the blame has to go somewhere. After blame was placed there was an immediate backlash of people defending the item being blamed. The controversy grew and other stories were spawned from it, and suddenly the whole thing disappeared. People got tired, they stopped talking about it and moved on to something else.Read More »

The Purpose of Writing

The purpose of writing has always been for the writer to convey a message to the reader, but I think this escapes many writers today. The majority of writing is not focused on what it says rather how it says it. Many political writers will spice up their writing with sophisticated language and complex terminology to attract the higher educated crowd.

The most obvious problem with this is that you’d be ignoring the main audience of the piece, which happens to be the largest demographic. If the average person reads a piece with a needlessly large and obscure vocabulary then he may conclude that the writing serves no purpose for him, then he will shy away from all writing like it. If you write for the every day person not only will you have a larger audience, what you write will be more effective.

Orwell said it better than I ever could in his essay Politics in the English Language. He analyzes many things about political writing, such as how writers will purposefully blur their meaning for a political purpose. For instance Orwell says:

“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements

A powerful passage. The essay goes on with more detailed examples. The first thing any reader needs to understand political writing is to educate themselves on rhetoric and the devices writers use. By doing this you can defend yourself from false and overtly biased statements in the media. We can see in the quote that effectiveness is not a substitute for honesty. The phrases writers use may be easy to understand but they don’t serve the best interest of the people if their meaning is hidden.

Obviously if a person has to sugar coat their meaning they are afraid of the reaction. So what would writing look like if it was as candid as possible? Take for instance the famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  In 1972 he was hired by Rolling Stone to cover the presidential campaign of George McGovern, and in the process he revolutionized the way political writing was done. He was a brutally honest writer, never even attempting to conceal his meaning. Here’s a quote of his about Nixon’s funeral:

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

Of course that quote is nothing but name calling, but Thompson makes many great points about it. There is nothing dry about his writing, it’s candid as all hell and gets the point across. A modern political writer may say “Nixon was a heartless autocrat that left an enervating stain on the country that can never be cleansed. His legacy will be one of deceit and crookedness that reminds the people of a darker time in our nation’s history.” Both quotes say pretty much the same thing but the first one was much more entertaining and can be more easily consumed.

The simpleness of writing applies to all of it’s forms. If a book is so full of pretensions and complications that it is difficult to read then why read it? The author failed in the purpose to smoothly convey their message to all people. Instead they are keeping the knowledge for the highly educated and serves no purpose for the common man. Orwell mastered this art. It also has historical background. Take Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Part of the influence of this pamphlet is that it was easy for the common man to read and therefore the ideas spread more easily than the other pamphlets of the day. In fact Washington had it read to every man in his army, which considering the condition of the day is significant. Paine’s writing was honest and to the point. This document encouraged the Americas to rebel against England and succeeded, something a more frivolous document couldn’t have done.

So when writing Orwell gives a list of things that every writer should consider about each sentence:

1. What am I trying to say?

2. What words will express it?

3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

1. Could I put it more shortly?

2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

These are things every writer should keep in mind when writing a piece. Purposefully making your writing sound sophisticated does nothing except guarantee most people won’t read it. There is nothing wrong with sounding simplistic. People forget that education is not only meant for the higher classes, but that ideas are meant for all people of the earth. The point is not to shy people away from your message but to spread it. More messages should be written as so. Honesty and clearness are the true traits of effective writing.

The Sins of a Dystopia

So I recently read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a dystopian novel set in a collectivist society. Ms. Rand has gathered a cult following, yet she is almost as universally mocked in the literary field as she is in the philosophical field. Anthem is a short read, only about 100 pages long so you can power through it in an evening. I didn’t take away anything from the novella other than how not to write a dystopian novel.

A dystopia depends on a few factors. First of all it depends one some aspect of society taken to the extreme. For instance in 1984 it was the surveillance state and governmental control taken to the extreme. In Anthem it was collectivization and the abolition of individualism taken to the extreme. These are meant to show the flaws in these aspects of society and to raise awareness of the world around us. However the obvious flaw in this is that anything taken to the extreme is bad. I could write a dystopia on if every person owned more than one cat. Of course a few people owning more than one cat is okay, but if every person did then the earth would soon be overrun with our feline masters. See how the scenario is taken to the extreme? Most things can be good in moderation but we can analyze and criticize anything when taken to the extreme.

Another trait of dystopian novels is the parallels between the dystopian world and the world we live in today. This is the reason sales of Orwell’s 1984 sharply rose after the uncover of the government surveillance program in the United States. This makes for that eye opening realization about our real world that people like to connect. It is the same with Brave New World. It is to make the reader keenly aware of some aspect they may not have noticed before, and then warn them of the implications of it. In the cat example above, the reader would then realize “Hey, there’s a lot of cat owners around. Most own more than one cat. I should probably do something about this, it’s kind of eerie, like that book I read.”

One reason I was not a fan of Anthem, was not because my acute dislike of Rand, but because it truly did not add anything new to the argument. I am not offended at was she was arguing against, but simply how bad her argument was. As I mentioned above, since one aspect of society is greatly exaggerated it is quite easy to poke all day at that trait. I displayed that in my cat example. There was no great realization of any sort, when it ended it simply ended. What I’m trying to get as you can’t simply point out the obvious flaws of a society, you have to make the reader come to a great epiphany, usually through the parallels of society I also mentioned.

So be weary when writing your dystopian novels. This does not mean all dystopian stories are in vain, because as we have seen they have a great deal of effect on society. But make sure to do more than point out the flaws, anyone can do that for anything. Dig deeper than that. Make the readers take something away from it, drive them to a moment of realization, do not simply use your writing as a vehicle for your opinions as Rand does. And to the readers, always be critical of what you are reading. Do not just take the author’s word for it, think about what the text says what flaws the author has.

For those who are curious to read Ms. Rand’s Anthem, I would not sleep well if I suggested to you to buy it. It is simply not worth it. But, there is a free edition on the kindle store for those especially curious. Even if you don’t have a kindle, you can download it and read it on your phone through the free kindle app. Here’s the site for the free e-book.