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Tuesday, June 13, 2006


An essay by J. Mark Bertrand

The best novels are not didactic, they are peripatetic.

The word didactic, of course, means “intended to instruct,” but it carries connotations of pedantry and moralizing. To be didactic is to wear one’s spectacles on the tip of one’s nose.

Peripatetic is an altogether more active term. Quite literally, it means “to walk.” Although the peripatetic school of philosophy was founded by Aristotle, who is said to have wandered back and forth while giving his lectures, I have always associated the term with Socrates, a thinker from the streets. I can imagine him walking and thinking, thinking and walking, working out a line of argument as he rambles, bringing a pattern out of confusion.

In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner argues that just as scientists have their ‘scientific method,’ fiction has its method, too. “Fiction goes after understanding,” he writes, “by capturing, though imitation, ‘the ineluctable modality of the world’—that is, characters who subtly embody values and who test them, with clear but inexpressible results, in action.”

In other words, just as the scientist validates theories through experiment, the novelist tests ideas through character and action. He works them out through the process of story, thinking on his feet.

That is peripatetic fiction.

“What would happen if….”

It’s the question that drives all fiction.

That ‘if’ can contain a person, a situation, or even an entire world. The ‘if’ is the given, but it isn’t the story. The story is the ‘what would happen,’ the working out of the ‘if’ through character and plot.

As a novelist, I can know the ‘if’ before I begin to write, but I never fully know the ‘what would happen’ until it has happened, until I’ve worked it all out on the page. The ‘if’ is to me what a hypothesis is to a scientist—good as far as it goes, but useful only as a starting point. To turn the ‘if’ into a novel, I have to apply my method.

“I didn’t know what I really thought until I tried to write it down.”

How many times have you heard this before? Perhaps the simplest way for the average person to discover what she really thinks about a subject is to have to write it down. How many times has the blank page or blinking cursor clarified a muddled mind? How many of us begin with the intention of setting the world straight, only to find once the words are down that we have nothing really clever or useful to add to the conversation?

The same thing happens with writing. Sometimes an ‘if’ never develops into a ‘what would happen’—at least, not in my hands. I’ve had plenty of ideas that would be perfect for someone else to write, but only a few that have worked perfectly for me. Not because I couldn’t think of anything to write, but because I couldn’t think of anything different to write.

If the writing comes too easily, if a chapter seems to be “writing itself,” that’s often a sign that the author is channeling stale ideas, plugging in scenes and characters she’s seen a thousand times before. That’s not so difficult. Most people can jumble the familiar pieces and reassemble them in a reasonable way. Some make a living at it.

Good for them.

The test of a peripatetic novelist, though, is that she works things out for herself. She doesn’t borrow from the public domain if she can help it.

“Begin with the end in mind.”

You can write without taking such chances, of course. To borrow a phrase from Stephen Covey, you can “begin with the end in mind,” skipping over the process of testing. Maybe the result will be didactic, and maybe it won’t. But it will never be peripatetic, because the peripatetic novel must be worked out. It must be packed and unpacked, layered and fractured and puttied over. It is a disarmingly complex thing, because it involves the whole engagement of a human mind—the author’s. Which is why peripatetic novels often require the whole engagement of the reader’s mind to appreciate—something many novels simply do not require.

“Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu.”

This is the axiom of the peripatetic school of philosophy. “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses.” A warrant for empiricism, certainly, but also not a bad piece of advice for novelists. Ours is not an abstract labor. We deal in particulars, in the realm of the senses. We create scenes by observing details and mannerisms, eschewing arguments in favor of images and impressions.

At some point, every novelist sets aside her notes and says, “Let’s run with this and just see what happens.” I doubt there are very many writers, for example, who ruthlessly outline individual scenes in advance. Most of us are content to bring characters together in a particular place with only the vaguest notion of what needs to result, and we’re prepared to make do if an entirely different, unexpected outcome follows.

Peripatetic writing applies that same willingness to the entire project. The novelist says, “These are my ideas. These are the characters who subtly embody them, the people I will test through action. Now, let’s see what happens.” The incidents of plot, the moral choices of heroes and villains, all of it becomes a working out of ideas, a process of discovery in which the author finds out what she really thinks. Whenever the results seem stale, when the paths are too predictable, too familiar, the peripatetic novelist backs up and tries again, dealing as much as possible with raw materials and avoiding pre-manufactured characters and plots.

In essence, the novelist’s method is incarnational. When Gardner talks about the relationship between character and idea, he doesn’t say that characters “stand for” or “represent” certain ideas. Instead, he uses the word “embody.” To embody an idea is to pull it down from the ether of abstraction and give it physical presence, to locate it in the tangible world, to situate it in the aforementioned realm of the senses.

The process ought to hold great mystery for Christian novelists, who profess faith in the word made flesh. As a metaphor, incarnation has been applied to the arts by Christian aestheticians for some time now, but it seems particularly apropos in fiction. Embodiment is essential to our creed. We shuffle off this mortal coil in hope of a happy return. Deep down we have this conviction that things aren’t meant to be abstract, so an art form that depends on making them solid serves us well.

“...clear but inexpressible…”

So the peripatetic novel is a laboratory where ideas are tested and conclusions of one sort or another are drawn. Gardner says these results are clear, but they are also inexpressible. This is why book discussions, as rewarding as they are, tend to be inconclusive affairs. Readers can’t help feeling that when they reduce their experience of the novel to an ‘opinion,’ they have failed to do justice to what really happened on the page. The book’s truth can’t be easily distilled into a slogan—if that were possible, the author wouldn’t have needed to write a novel to express himself.

Of course, we have read more than our fair share of books that can be reduced to slogans. (There is even a school of thought in publishing that holds that any book that can’t be so reduced—then transferred to an index card, a business card, or the head of pin, depending on the theorist—is not, commercially speaking, even worth writing.) But these were not peripatetic novels. They were not records of an author’s search for truth. They were merely vehicles for a truth he already possessed.

The painter Edward Knippers has something interesting to say about the relationship of art to the art object—in this case, the relationship of the idea to the story. “With propaganda,” he writes, “I can look at the art object, get the idea, and then have the idea with no further reference to the art object. There is no longer any symbiotic relationship between the idea and the object. I think fine art has a symbiotic relationship with the object. You cannot have the meaning totally separate from the object at hand.”

This comes from Knippers’ essay “Subject and Theme” collected in It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. The symbiotic relationship between art and object, between the message and its means of expression, is what makes the truth of a peripatetic novel both clear and inexpressible. When the truth is distilled, like flesh pulled away from bone, it ceases to be what it was. In a sense, peripatetic novels lend themselves to interpretation by resisting the most definitive pronouncements.

I’ve been re-reading a fine example of the peripatetic novel recently, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. A few years ago, some friends got together and decided to read every book on the Modern Library Top 100 list, starting with #100 and working our way up. The Moviegoer is #60, a nice round number that gives those of us who’ve read all or most of the intervening books a real sense of accomplishment. Seven of us gathered for the Percy discussion, and everyone loved the book. We had a hard time, though, accounting for how it kept our interest. There’s a lot of alienation and apathy, but not a lot of action. What was it that kept the book moving forward?

My theory was simple enough. The Moviegoer is that rare thing, a novel of ideas that, like a math problem, shows its work. Binx Bolling, the smug, detached but somehow endearing protagonist, has undertaken a philosophical search, and Percy seems to have immersed himself in the search as well. As a result—and I can’t even begin to explain how this happens—the reader joins the search, too, at least in sympathy. Binx walks and talks his way through a problem, and it’s Percy walking and talking through him. Because of that deep commitment of artist to art, the reader finds himself walking and talking, as well, without ever having made the decision to do so.

It is a remarkable feat of peripatetic writing, a better illumination of this line of thought than anything I could offer (which is why I mention it now, at the end of my piece, and not at the beginning, which would have made my musings irrelevant).
Of course, what the method produces when applied by me or your will look completely different than Percy’s clear, inexpressible result. That’s the method’s beauty.

Peripatetic novels have a process in common, not an outcome. They don’t look alike. (Who would want them to?) The only thing they share, really, is a high order of creative engagement between the novelist and his work, and a willingness to discover unanticipated conclusions.
And all it takes to write one, at the end of the day, is a willingness to walk.

J. Mark Bertrand is a writer who lives with his wife Laurie in Houston, Texas. He has a BA in English from Union University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he worked as production editor of the literary magazine Gulf Coast. For several years, he served on the board of a non-profit organization that promoted literature, theology, culture studies and fellowship in Houston. Now, in addition to teaching on the faculty of Worldview Academy, an academic summer camp for high school students, he is the fiction editor at Relief Journal. Mark's first novel, The Pattern of Wounds, is now being shopped around for publication. His recent fiction has appeared in The New Pantagruel, Hardluck Stories and InFuze Magazine, recent nonfiction in The Wittenburg Door and Fire By Nite. His flash fiction has appeared in Flashing in the Gutters. His story "Strings" is forthcoming in The Ankeny Briefcase.


  1. WOW! I'm going to have to break this into three days to absord it all, Mark! It's wonderfully instructive, or should I say didactic? ;)

    Seriously, this is good stuff - meat for writers and I thank you.

  2. Wow...that gave me a brain freeze...LOL...I'm going to have to print it out and reread it several times.

    Gina...I bow to your prowess with words!

  3. Great stuff as usual, Mark.

    I particularly liked this nugget: "They were not records of an author’s search for truth. They were merely vehicles for a truth he already possessed."

    I've been reading Percy's essays and have the Moviegoer in my To Be (re)Read pile. Thinking about moving it up now.

  4. Bonnie, that would be Mark's prowess, but I think that was just a typo.

    Mark, thanks for that. If I wasn't half asleep, I'd have something intelligent to say but just know I enjoyed it. A little mental squinting now and again keeps us on our toes! Thanks for doing that. Great essay!

  5. Lots of good stuff in there. I'll probably read it over more than once. I suppose Jesus used both didactic and peripatetic teaching methods -- the Sermon on the Mount and parables both work. I like the idea of novel as laboratory and characters embodying ideas.

  6. LOL...I was squinting too...sinuses and the subject...that's why the typo..LOL

  7. I was watching the movie The New World this week and was mesmerized by it. Not so much the story. Everyone knows some form of the Pocahontas story. But this version albeit came from John Smith's memoirs were shown through the beauty and grace of the Alonquin people,which made me and if my grandmother had saw it before she passed very proud. What I liked most about it was that nothing was cliche. Every frame was like a discovery, so I felt as if I was discovering this New World (England if I were Pocahontas or America, if I were Smith or love...the whole movie was about the beauty of discovery and I never saw anything like that before. So your discussion here strikes a bright cord with me. I hope my writing becomes more illuminating because of it.



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