Aside from utopias and related genres, the metaphysics of stories is my most enduring monomania—one I can precisely trace to a single influence. During my formative journey through such topics as ontology, aesthetics and philosophical anthropology, the British writer Raymond Tallis was key. And in his incisive early essay ‘Notes Towards a Manifesto for a Novel of the Future’, collected in The Raymond Tallis Reader, he begins with a statement to which I often return, ‘In my more honest moments, I am inclined to admit that I find only two things in the world truly fascinating: metaphysics and gossip.’ It’s an arresting dichotomy that demands unpacking.
For Tallis, under the heading gossip could be included the particular events and facts of a life, but metaphysics encompasses the general reality that is then articulated in people, places and how they behave, into those events and facts. If we want to say that Philippa sits in her room mourning the loss of her Parakeet, a final gift from her estranged friend Judith, then merely conveying this and the subsequent events constitutes gossip. By contrast, the questions this scene throws up—the roots of Philippa’s grief, her ontology (the nature of her being), the ethics and meaning of her former bond with Judith, why certain events follow—is metaphysics.
Writing is teachable—putting aside Romantic fantasies about innate artistic ability or channelling an authentic self. Yet my gripe with many attempts to teach writing is a tendency to focus more, if not exclusively, on gossip and how to communicate gossip, to the exclusion of metaphysical enquiries. This does not result in novels, short stories and microfiction without a metaphysics—it is impossible to write about a person, for example, without some notion of what a person might be and what this means. Rather, we find tales without a coherent, worked out or interesting worldview. Just writing that Philippa mourns is necessarily positing something about Philippa, but without realising what is being posited the writer will have little of interest to say on Philippa’s grief.
Without metaphysics in mind, writers run the risk of stitching and reanimating a disjointed Frankenstein’s monster of received ideas. This is because they fail to give thought to the fundamental characteristics of the world contrived in their novel. They fail to consider things such as the nature of time, the basis of meaning or the requirements for human flourishing within this world. For instance, a story that follows a linear, perhaps eschatological progression from an Eden towards a final judgement might spontaneously loop and suggest, without reason, a history of archetypal repetitions. Or, to be less grandiose, a novel that has suggested a bleak, indifferent and clichéd nihilism might culminate in the glibbest Pollyanna bliss, because it has not consciously defined its metaphysics.
It is not that stories should be barred from setting up red herring answers to questions such as how to live well, but that the turns I mention are not planned reversals; they are merely the quite apparent consequence not having an answer to the philosophical questions the story must pose. The pessimism of a character might be a step towards an affirmation of their existence, but the novel risks stumbling if it does not know whether it wants to redeem its hero or even what it thinks about redemption per se.
As an editor and a teacher, when I write a report on a manuscript or give a lecture on creative writing, I try to stress these questions. I find so many aspiring authors are gifted at gossip—having cultivated such a talent for storytelling, they are attracted to narrative fiction. Gossip is not easy either—plot holes are as perilous as metaphysical abysses. But too many writers demonstrate an ability to structure a story, only to have nothing to say beyond that Philippa sat in her room mourning the loss of her Parakeet, a final gift from her estranged friend Judith. And worse, these stories then have no reason or explanation as to why things follow the progression they do.
Not being able to think about metaphysics through narrative is impoverishing. Going back to my other monomania, when Thomas More wrote Utopia, the contribution he made to the already extant nonfiction genre of the political treatise was to create a living world in which to situate his beliefs. All too often, while we are able to conjure richly imagined living worlds, they can lack the ideas that give them depth and make some contribution to our understanding of our ourselves, environment and society. Moreover, we permit parasitical, often objectionable metaphysics to infest our texts in the guise of ready-to-hand clichés. That is why every writer must also be a metaphysician.