Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Literature of Ideas

associated term: Novel of Ideas

Thanks to Comparative Geeks

"Literature of ideas" is an occasional, often casual critical phrase describing writing that serves thought more than pleasure, or content more than style.

Thought and pleasure are never totally separated but maintain a variable balance identified by the Roman poet Horace, for whom the purpose of literature is "To Entertain & Inform"

In a Literature of Ideas, the purpose of informing may outweigh popular literature's normal tendencies to entertain, offer escape, or indulge what we already think.

On the other hand, science fiction and speculative fiction may offer popular, simplistic plots and characterizations as a way to make surprising ideas more acceptable.


Genres, texts, and authors possibly associated with a Literature of Ideas:


science fiction (also speculative fiction)

theo-fiction (theological fiction)

utopian or dystopian literature



Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (2003)

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem (1983)



Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957),

Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace [1869], Anna Karenina [1877]) or Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment [1866])


Teaching Uses: If classic literature is beyond your students, and popular literature is too light and inconsequential, science fiction and utopian / dystopian literature can provide texts with discussion potential that goes beyond literary style or literary history.

Many students consider ideas boring or pointless, but fictional or dramatic representations of people or societies who believe or are affected by ideas can make ideas come to life.

Potential fields of study:







Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas

by Marg Gilks, Paula Fleming, and Moira Allen


Science fiction has come a long way since its early days, when Isaac Asimov defined it as "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings" (Modern Science Fiction, 1953). By the 70s, the genre of science-based ideas had grown; it wasn't just concerned with science, but with consequences. It asked "what if?" What if a world existed in which this or that were true? Pamela Sargent dubbed it "the literature of ideas."

Fortunately, you don't have to be a "techie," or have a degree in quantum mechanics, to write for this genre. Good science fiction, like all other forms of fiction, is about people. It examines the human condition, perhaps in a whole new landscape, perhaps from an "alien" perspective. But it has to be about people, or readers will have no frame of reference, nothing to relate to. Even if there isn't a human anywhere in your story, you're human, and your readers are human. To create that all-important empathy between reader and character, you'll be describing your aliens (or robots, or artificial intelligences) through human perceptions.

For the core of your idea, therefore, you draw on the world around you. Then you ask: What if? How would the world be different with the introduction or expansion of a particular technology? What if humanity encounters aliens? What if a particular event in history had turned out differently? What if a current social issue takes a particular direction? In science fiction, even the most controversial, contemporary topics can be examined under the guise of an alien culture or a distant future.

While science fiction often addresses contemporary issues, that doesn't mean you should scour today's headlines for ideas. Current events become old news very quickly. Instead, let ideas come to you by keeping your mind in "what if" mode as you experience the world around you. Be well-read but also widely read, in fiction and nonfiction, in news articles and magazine features covering a broad spectrum of topics (not just those relating to science and technology). Use television news programs and documentaries as a springboard for "what if."

While much science fiction focuses on the future, history is also a great source of inspiration. Many science fiction writers are also history buffs; it's no coincidence that L. Sprague de Camp wrote the nonfiction Great Cities of the Ancient World and the time-travel novel Lest Darkness Fall. Folklore and mythology also hold a trove of ideas for science fiction stories. Hard science fiction writer Larry Niven uses the unicorn myth in The Flight of the Horse, while Alan Dean Foster utilizes Navajo sandpaintings in his novel Cyber Way.

Ideas can germinate from the smallest seeds. Become a people-watcher. Pay attention when someone asks, "I wonder what they'd do if...?" Tuck weird facts into the back of your mind. Study pictures -- some of Earth's creatures are weirder than anything science fiction writers have dreamed up. Collect those seeds, and let them grow in the back of your mind. You may be surprised by what finally blooms.

You've got an idea? Good! Now it's time to do your research.