The Novel of Ideas vs Novels that Contain Ideas

“Never try to convey your idea to the audience. It is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.”– Andrei Tarkovsky

Novels must have ideas to be any good, but Novels of Ideas are rarely any good. This is one of the fundamental paradoxes of writing fiction. The goal of the Novel of Ideas is usually noble, devoted to educating the reading public about one crisis or another, as espoused by the author. But the results of idea-driven fiction are too often leaden, with dull characters, unbelievable action, and long passages that are long on didacticism and short on drama.  

Yet novels that are bereft of ideas rarely rise above the level of the page turner, and even then, bore the reader long before the final page is turned. 

We can sort our way through this literary paradox by considering the original Greek word for drama, Δράμα, meaning "to do, to act." Δράμα in Greek is pronounced "drama," just like the English, Spanish, Italian, and Czech variants of the word. The idea behind the term is universal. To dramatize an idea is to play it through characters (to do) in action (to act). The author's ideas must rise naturally from characters in pursuit of their needs, rather than be imposed upon the characters by the political needs of the writer. This is the difference between characters who seem to spring living from the page, and paper-puppets who serve mostly as mouthpieces for the writer's opinions, however noble those opinions may be.  

Nabokov says it best when he writes about one of his books, "Despair has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer ‘ideas’ than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot."

And of course, Nabokov's books overflow with ideas, social commentary, and psychological insight. Few would argue that his novels are bereft of ideas. But his novels do not wear those ideas on their sleeves; instead the ideas rise naturally from the dramatic action, expressed by the dilemmas the action presses upon the characters. Even though he didn’t write Novels of Ideas, his novels contain ideas that can take a scholar’s lifetime to explore.