Novels of Ideas

I stumbled across a lovely phrase that really stuck with me in a Crash Course video the other day: Novels of Ideas.

A novel of ideas (which I shall be calling NOI for the sake of simplicity), according to John Green, is a novel that is “primarily about its ideas” rather than being about the story itself. This includes books such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, George Orwell’s 1984, and many more. Now what do all of these books have in common besides being a NOI? I hate them.

“A novel of ideas is only as good or as bad as its ideas.”

– John Green

I must agree with the above sentiment from John Green, which is expressed in the video that inspired this blog post/rant/discussion. A NOI is, after all, written to teach a moral and therefore is better to be read in philosophy class rather than read for fun. It wants to teach you something, is a genre (overwhelming) written by old white males, and is (thankfully) going out of style in more recent years. It seems that today NOI are being published overwhelmingly in the Christian Literature genre. In these novels there is a very easy to find ‘flaw’ in the main character, and, once it is resolved, she (because that is almost always who the main character is) is able to settle down with a Good Christian husband and lead a Good Christian life. This is a bit different from NOI where often there were religious themes, however, there was seldom such a happy ending. (Please don’t think I’m mocking any religion by comparing it to NOI, I am not, I am however, not a fan of Christian Lit.)

Another thing that could be compared to NOI (and, for that matter, Christian Lit) are the ancient epics which tell tales of humanity and its many, many, many flaws (take for example The Odyssey by Homer where the main character messes up constantly, has PTSD, murders a ton of people, and is still regarded as a great hero). Epics were written to tell tales, but at the same time they were meant to teach important lessons (because many ancient religions lacked a ‘main’ religious text similar to The Bible or the Quran, people had to read into the texts to see how they were supposed to act. As such you could justify almost any action in Ancient Greece, including sleeping with your mother (I’m looking at you Oedipus).

I believe a NOI is not the same as a satire. A NOI takes itself very seriously and thinks it is an interesting work, a satire, on the other hand, does not take itself too seriously (on the outside), and knows when to take a break from the lesson and throw in some fun. At the end of the day the author of a novel of ideas is – for better or for worse – trying to impose their moral views on you rather than just tell you a story.

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten. None are undeservedly remembered.”

– W.H. Auden

Is that a bad thing? Of course not, there are many books that both tell a story and teach a lesson. Harry Potter by JK Rowling comes to mind. Harry Potter is, at its core, a book about the most true form of magic: friendship and love. But very few would argue that it is not still a good story. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien teaches about the value of friendship and over coming differences and the strengths of the underdog. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire teaches the very true lesson that incest will not end well and rape will be ignored as long as the perpetrator is a good looking or powerful man. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins manages to tackle some of the same issues as 1984 – like governmental power and media bias and corruption – and still tell a very interesting story at the same time.

So, now for the big question: what do you think about a so-called Novel of Ideas?

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