The Gimmick of the Novel of Ideas


Arts & Culture

Thomas Mann. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Arising by most accounts in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the novel of ideas reflects the challenge posed by the integration of externally developed concepts long before the arrival of conceptual art. Although the novel’s verbal medium would seem to make it intrinsically suited to the endeavor, the mission of presenting “ideas” seems to have pushed a genre famous for its versatility toward a surprisingly limited repertoire of techniques. These came to obtrude against a set of generic expectations—nondidactic representation; a dynamic, temporally complex relation between events and the representation of events; character development; verisimilitude—established only in wake of the novel’s separation from history and romance at the start of the nineteenth century. Compared to these and even older, ancient genres like drama and lyric, the novel is astonishingly young, which is perhaps why departures from its still only freshly consolidated conventions seem especially noticeable.

The techniques that stick out against the generic norms listed above appear across modern and postmodern texts with striking regularity. They are: direct speech by characters in the forms of dramatic dialogues or monologues (The Magic Mountain, Point Counter Point, Tomorrow’s Eve, Iola Leroy, Elizabeth Costello, Babel-17); overt narrators prone to didactic, ironic, or metafictional commentary (The Man without Qualities, Tristram Shandy, Elizabeth Costello); and flat allegorical characters (Faith and the Good Thing, The Man without Qualities, Against Nature, Moby-Dick). Also prevalent, to a lesser extent, are experimental formatting (Moby-Dick, Tristram Shandy, Diary of a Bad Year); sudden, unexplained, narratively isolated outbreaks of magic in a predominantly realist frame (The Magic Mountain, Elizabeth Costello, Artful); and even a curious thematization of the “device” or gimmick as such (Tomorrow’s Eve, The Magic Mountain, Clear: A Transparent Novel).

Whether executed as science fiction, bildungsroman, or more recently, the satirical form Nicholas Dames calls the “theory novel,” the novel of ideas is “artful,” with all the equivocality this term brings. Willingness to court the accusation of relying on overly transparent stylistic devices is a consistent, perhaps even cohering feature of a notoriously unstable genre. Scholars have therefore obliquely acknowledged the novel of ideas’s predilection for contrivances. Claire De Obaldia’s groundbreaking study of the “essayistic novel which appropriates existing material,” for example, describes it as a “fundamentally ambivalent product,” confronting its authors with unusual “demands of literary integration.” For all of their “tremendous size,” the novels of ideas of Proust, Musil, and Broch are paradoxically “fragments,” sharing German Romanticism’s divided loyalties to a “uniquely self­ conscious intellect and an equally self­ conscious anti­-intellectualism.” Even in magisterial (if tellingly unfinished) works like The Man without Qualities, the inclusion of essayistic excerpts induces “a mutual interruption of theory and fiction,” a disruption of “narrative continuity and totalization” undermining the systematic spirit of the “conceptual” as much as the imaginative pleasures of mimesis.

Focusing on the labor that the effort to synthesize fiction and ideas requires, De Obaldia comes close to instating the gimmick at the heart of the essayistic novel. If this move never happens, we can understand why. Predisposition to gimmickiness is just that: a predisposition. It hovers at one crucial degree of remove from gimmickiness itself, which already presents its own complications. Historical arguments about genre, such as that the “novel­ essay” is a response to a European crisis of modernity, as Stefano Ercolino maintains, or an “art form … peculiar to twentieth-century literary history,” as Hoffman argues, are contestable, as they should be; aesthetic judgments made about entire genres inevitably prove more so. But aside from ontological difficulties posed by its virtual and aesthetic character, the gimmick­-proneness of the novel of ideas seems to have been avoided primarily because it is an intellectual embarrassment. Philosophical fiction should be a serious enterprise, we think, impervious to the gimmick’s compromised form. But what if a susceptibility to the gimmick—and to the comedy that so often attends it—is finally the one feature that consolidates this equivocal genre?

In Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley places this doubt in the mouth of a character who is a novelist, commenting on the “tiresome” device of the character used as “mouthpiece.” In one of the several chapters titled “From Philip Quarles’s Notebook,” freestanding mini­ essays on the craft of fiction, “modern intellectual” Quarles gives us a quick rundown of the genre’s “defect[s]”:

Novel of ideas. The character of each personage must be implied, as far as possible, in the ideas of which he is the mouthpiece. In so far as theories are rationalizations of sentiments, instincts, dispositions of soul, this is feasible. The chief defect of the novel of ideas is that you must write about people who have ideas to express—which excludes all but about .01 per cent of the human race. Hence the real, the congenital novelists don’t write such books. But then, I never pretended to be a congenital novelist.

The novel of ideas is characterized here as an intrinsically un-novelistic, “made-­up affair” (and once again, by one of its own practitioners): “the real, the congenital novelists don’t write such books.” As the “mouthpiece” puts it, “People who can reel off neatly formulated notions aren’t quite real; they’re slightly monstrous.”

Even late modernists undertaking the integration of “neatly formulated notions” into fiction feel compelled to highlight the novel of ideas’s equivocality as a novel. It is an equivocality that therefore cannot be entirely chalked up to antimodernist reactions to violations of classical narrative, bourgeois preferences for culturally consecrated forms, or mass audience preferences for literary entertainment.


In The Philosophy of the Novel, J. M. Bernstein describes the novel as “a vast schematizing procedure, a search for modes of temporal ordering which would give our normative concepts access to the world” and thus a “constitutive role in our comprehending experience.” This joins two ideas: Kant’s claim in the Critique of Pure Reason that pure concepts like “freedom” can only be made accessible to experience if given a temporal structure; and Lukács’s opposition of “conceptual form” to “life” in Theory of the Novel. Since Lukács thinks of “form” in the novel as “abstract and conceptual,” and the “life” it seeks to represent as “secular and causal,” “in order for conceptual forms to attach themselves to empirical life they must be … routed through a temporal sequence which can be matched to empirical events which possess a different order of determination.” The problem finds its solution in the relation between story and discourse, in which the novel shifts between two orders of event determination, a “causal order of events” (succession or discourse) and a “narrative (formally figured) order of events” (totality or story). Arguably the essence of narrative, the story/discourse relation underscores Lukács’s account of the novel as a “dialectic of form­ giving and mimesis, where form demands immanence and the world mimetically transcribed resists form.”

But the novel of ideas throws a wrench in this dialectic. Because it is uncertain whether the presentation of an “idea” in the discourse of a novel like The Magic Mountain counts as an event in a sequence existing independently of the representation of events, the genre tends to short-circuit or simply dissipate the tension between story and discourse that makes narrative so inexhaustibly rich. Discussions of time, suffering, justice, and so on are part of the “life” represented in The Magic Mountain; the same goes for the discussions of vegetarianism and animal consciousness in Elizabeth Costello. Yet for all this, it is hard to think of the ideas presented in either novel as constituting plot. As Bernstein writes:

[The] more reified the represented world of the novel, the greater will be the distance separating event and plot, which is to say, the more difficult it will be make a plot (and hence a theme) out of the presented events; and the more difficult this primitive narrative act the more meaning will come to reside at the level of form alone, and hence the more questionable will be the authority of the narrative or, at least, the less verisimilitude will be a possible source of authority.

The “more the divorce of form from life becomes manifest in the novel, the more fragile, artificial, or purely literary will novelistic schemata appear.” Here the relation between story and discourse, or the reader’s ability to shuttle between events and the representation of events, begins to feel weak or oddly irrelevant. Perhaps this is why novels of ideas tend to be serial rather than chronologically textured, as reflected in the disconnected, interchangeable “Lectures” in Elizabeth Costello, or the picaresque episodes of Faith and the Good Thing. Perhaps it is also why in The Magic Mountain, a “time­ novel” featuring characters tellingly “withdrawn” from time, Mann devotes the majority of his narrator’s didactic speeches to the literary handling of temporality, including the contrivances this manipulation demands. Here and elsewhere, unschematized ideas reflect the social fact of reification. The very “life” or experience that each novel “mimetically transcribe[s]” is dominated by abstractions, resistant to temporalization and thus narrative integration.

Northrop Frye puts it bluntly: an “interest in ideas and theoretical statements is alien to the genius of the novel proper, where the technical problem is to dissolve all theory into personal relationships.” The novelist who “cannot get along without ideas” or who “has not the patience to digest them the way [Austen and James did] instinctively resorts to … a ‘mental history’ of a single character.” Perhaps accounting for the reduced character systems of novels like Against Nature, the use of the often solitary “intellectual hero as mouthpiece for authorial justifications” also commits the novel to what Hermann Broch contemptuously calls “conversational padding.” As De Obaldia glosses:

The term essayistic novel calls into question the idea of progression; it suggests that the (initial) essayistic material has not been “dissolved” into the fabric of the novel after all, but plainly stands out of the narrative strand. The offence is not so terrible when the essayistic reflections are “motivated”: in most novels, the essayistic appears in the form of reflections or digressions which are taken over by the characters … Yet this is the procedure which Broch, precisely, rejects. His contempt for the choice of the intellectual hero as mouthpiece for authorial justifications is unreserved: he regards this strategy as “conversational padding” and “absolute kitsch,” and accuses not only Musil, but also Gide, Mann, Huxley of indulging in it.

It is here again a modernist author of a novel of ideas who is pointing out its tendency toward “absolute kitsch.”

“Realism has never been comfortable with ideas.” In this outbreak of direct address by the recessed narrator of Elizabeth Costello, in which Broch’s disliked “mouthpiece” technique is unapologetically embraced, our attention is drawn once more to the problematic nature of the novel of ideas by a practitioner. The narrator’s interruption happens in our reading of what we assume is a story but are eventually told is a “lecture,” implicitly performed to an undescribed audience into which the reader suddenly finds herself conscripted. At the same moment, the narrator is vanquished by an undescribed lecturer, enacting the very strain on novelistic realism described: “It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations—walks in the countryside, conversations—in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them.”

Yet “embodiment” often replicates the problem Coetzee’s self-canceling narrator identifies. For this solution cannot do much when characters are as abstract as the ideas they personify. Perhaps this is why Mann’s paradigmatic novel of ideas puts bodies rendered inert by ambiguous illnesses at the center of its story, highlighting the etiolation of the aspect of character Lukács calls “intellectual physiognomy.” Ideas and illness are thus not only provocatively coupled in The Magic Mountain, as Eugene Goodheart argues. The theme of physiological weakness points to the weakness of the very appeal to characterological embodiment as a solution to the problem “ideas” pose to narration. No character in either of these novels develops, least of all the protagonists: Coetzee’s allegorical double Costello and Mann’s “grotesque innocent” Hans Castorp.

Nondevelopment is, in fact, one of The Magic Mountain’s official ideas. Indeed, its paradoxical narrativization and the temporal monotony ensuing from it, reflexively discussed in chapters titled “Eternal Soup” and “The Great Stupor,” brings out The Magic Mountain’s experimental comedy. As Goodheart notes, the world of Mann’s characters is an “achieved” world, in which the “ideas that circulate … represent forms of existence for which there is no real future.” Hence the “irony of Settembrini’s progressivism,” which takes the form of “an obsolete idea with no prospects.” Mann’s novel of modern, progressive ideas is in short a novel about the “failure of ideas.” It is not just that “[if Hans] and the reader learn anything, it is that the ideas that occupy such a large space in the novel are untrustworthy or worse.” The narrator’s irony seems to ultimately target “the character of ideas per se.”

Something wrong about “ideas per se” also seems hinted by the late irruption of the supernatural in Mann’s novel. In “Highly Questionable,” featuring the séance in which a medium calls up the ghost of Hans’s cousin Joachim, the rationally inexplicable event is as paradoxically striking for its curious lack of impact on the narrative, which simply resumes after the incident, undisturbed. The inorganic imposition of supernatural (but narratively inconsequential) magic seems to almost ensue from the buildup of technical contrivances that the novel finds itself forced to use in its efforts to integrate similarly externally imposed “ideas.”

I could say more about magic as a deus ex machina. For now, though, we need to entertain a more basic reason for why the “novel of ideas” remains an object of critical skepticism. As Mary McCarthy asks: Aren’t all novels “of ideas”? Can one intelligibly speak of a novel without ideas? If not, why pretend to a subgenre that is somehow special for having them? In an enactment of this problem, Lionel Trilling’s essays show him wavering between treating the “novel of ideas” as exception and norm: at times as an emerging form endemic to late twentieth­-century “mass-ideological” society; at others as a synonym for the novel per usual, rooted in class conflict since the dawn of the nineteenth century. Like the gimmick on which it so frequently relies, the “novel of ideas” is an equivocal thing. Is it really a thing?

But it seems time to embrace rather than continue circling cautiously around this genre’s “Highly Questionable” nature. Rather than hunting for less embarrassing ways to stabilize it, we might define the novel of ideas precisely by its intimate relation to the gimmick form. Incorporating the suspicion that attends a genre into its definition has benefits, including that of making the definition more concrete. And so: there is a will to ideas on the part of some novels that drives them toward the use of three obtrusive techniques—techniques that cannot help but obtrude by working directly counter to the genre’s diachronicity, flexibility, and other oft­-noted strengths. Allegory, direct speech by narrators, and direct speech by characters: these ancient didactic devices undermine the novel’s claims to contemporaneity. They distance the novel from its métier—narration—and systematically push its form closer to those of the essay, lecture, or play. Moreover, as a genre in which storytelling strains to accommodate synchronic concepts—inverting Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in which philosophy rediscovers its reliance on diachronicity, narration, and a kind of free indirect style—the novel of ideas recalls one of gimmick’s fundamental features: its appearance of “working too hard.”

Direct speech by characters involves privileging what narratologists call scene, in which story and discourse time coincide. This dramatic tempo contrasts with those at which the novel uniquely excels: summary (fictional events unfolding over years are briskly accounted for in a single paragraph or even sentence) and stretch (a story event taking up less than a second is recounted over several pages of text). Theater cannot do stretch without recourse to special effects like film, which has to rely in turn on special effects like slow motion. Film struggles with summary, resorting to devices like montage or peeling calendars. Summary does not come easily to theater either, which manages it through expository speeches by characters. In short, when the novel’s dominant temporality becomes the “real time” of scene, as opposed to psychological stretch or historical summary, the novel is no longer in its technical wheelhouse but that of another genre. Indeed, stretch and summary are the only temporal modes in which an innovation entirely unique to the novel has been able to develop. Free indirect discourse, in requiring the grammatical third person, cannot take place at moments of direct speech by characters. Nor can it take place in the direct speech by narrators which gives rise to the “pause,” in which discourse time is maximal and story time is null.

Do the techniques the novel becomes compelled to adopt to incorporate preexisting “ideas” inevitably push its form closer toward the play? Hoffman comes close to suggesting this, noting that the novel of ideas brings out the “drama [already] implicit in an idea,” when understood as “point of view which a person holds and upon which he acts.”48 The fact that the novel of ideas is more of a “drama of ideas rather than of persons” commits it, moreover, to one remarkably simple contrivance that might well remind us of the default setting of the well­-made play:

Each character … has given him (if little else!) a point of view drawn from the prevailing intellectual interests of his creator. On this point of view the character stands, wavers, or falls. Thus, implicit in this type of novel is the drama of ideas rather than of persons, or, rather, the drama of individualized ideas. The structural requirements of such a novel are perhaps simpler than they at first appear. One requirement is to get these people, or as many of them as is possible, together in one place where circumstances are favorable to a varied expression of intellectual diversity. The drawing-room, the party, the dinner—these are all favorite points of structural focus.

Similarly, in The Drama of Ideas, Martin Puchner notes that if we broaden the definition of drama from dialogue written for performance to a looser “family of forms” privileging “character, direct speech, scene and action, to the exclusion of narration and interiority,” one can “claim that the dramatic is realized not only in plays but also in certain novels.” If one example of this is the experimental novel, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick with its Shakespearean monologues, or Joyce’s Ulysses with its 150­-page Circe episode, the other is the “novel of ideas.”

Another group would include the novel of ideas, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Thomas Mann, which depends heavily on dialogic scenes of intellectual discussion in the tradition of Plato. Rather than calling those moments examples of “typical” novelistic hybridity, it is more appropriate to think of them as dramatic moments in the novel, with the narrator, retreating into stage directions, giving over the scene to the pure action (and dialogue) of characters. If from one perspective this looks like the incorporation of drama by the stronger novel, from another, it looks like the invasion of the novel by a newly resurgent drama.

Reversing a more familiar account of the novel as a form uniquely capable of assimilating others, Puchner sees the novel of ideas as a subset of an older, larger tradition he calls “dramatic Platonism.” In a sense, the novel’s desire for “ideas” makes it not so much philosophical as dramatic.


Sianne Ngai is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Ugly Feelings and Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, winner of the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. Her work has been translated into multiple languages, and she has received fellowships from the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Excerpted from Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, by Sianne Ngai, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.