Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dialogic versus Didactic Fiction

Additional on the distinction presented in lecture between dialagic and didactic works of literature by way of better understanding George Gissing's fictional method.

It is important to understand that the difference between these two types of novel is not a matter of literary merit. One can no more say that a didactic novel is worse than a dialogic novel (or vice versa) than say that fantasy fiction is worse than naturalist fiction. They are simply both different modes of art. (Although the originator of the terms 'dialogic" and "heteroglossic," Mikhail Bakhtin, did tend to write as if dialogism was an objectively superior artistic method, one is free to dissent from the maker--as I do, for instance.)

Examples of both dialogic and didactic modes can be found among the great world literature. Dostoevsky's Crime & Punishment, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Lady Murasaki Shikibu's Tales of Genji are dialogic in form; Dickens' Hard Times, Emile Zola's Germinal, and Dante's majestic Divine Comedy are each intensely didactic. Indeed, Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost are arguably polemical (Dante's polemic, interestingly, is not theological but rather of the grubby partisan politics of his city-state of Florence.) Furthermore, an author can switch between didactic and dialogic modes: Shakespeare being supreme exemplar.

Regarding preferences between the two modes, didactic fiction tends to draw intense, and binary, reaction. Readers who have prior agreement with the position that the didactic author is impressing will praise the book's artistic merit; readers with prior disagreement will calumniate it. And with a didactic novel, moreover, when it is not done artistically well it is easy for it to be disastrous: a heavy-handed, unsubtle, inartistic bludgeoning of the point; mere journalism rather than art.


Ryan said...

Would you say that Gissing's earlier novels (The Unclassed and Demos, for instance) are more in line with didactic models of fiction?

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Dear Ryan:
I remember Paul Delany saying that Demos sticks out like a sore thumb in Gissing's ouevre for its unambiguous preaching, yet at the same time the direction of the moralising is counter-intuitive.

I imagine we are looking at tendency rather than absolute quality in these dimensions. (And of The Unclassed I am struck by the sincere presentation and non-judgemental attitude of the novel to Maud Enderby's intense piety. This is, in my judgement, a fictional representation of Gissing's own sisters and mother; the former especially toward whom he had a vivid ambivalence -- recall that it was to them that he gave over the care of his son.)

Bakhtin, of course, praised Dostoevsky as the supremely dialogistic author; yet in the novels there is an attitude against Western scientism and toward Christian faith that is on the surface openly polemic. What do we lesser lights then say!