Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University, but she prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has been writing philosophical fiction for about five years and her stories have been published with Magnolia Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction Break, Halfway Down the Stairs, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, and other places. She is currently writing fiction about sex and about privilege. Howard-Snyder shared with me some of her thoughts about writing fiction, as well as the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017.
Should philosophers write fiction?
I do not believe that philosophers should write fiction. This is not to say that I believe they should not write fiction, just that the idea that anyone has an obligation to write fiction is absurd. Perhaps if no stories existed, there would be some obligation to create some, but as it is there are more than enough stories and people who want to create more. That said, if you are a philosopher who would like to write fiction, I say, “Go for it!” If you do it well and your work has philosophical content, your department and university ought to treat it as part of your scholarship.
Why did you attend the philosophical fiction writing workshop?
I attended the philosophical fiction writing workshop because I love to create philosophical fiction, and because I wanted to learn how to do it better, meet other people with the same interest, and think philosophically about issues in fiction. I was especially impressed by the presentation by Jim Hawes that offered some advice to newbies writing fiction. Although I did not agree with everything he said, I found new insights and good reminders in his talk, especially the importance of not screwing up one’s first page, and the importance of having a guiding idea that carries through the whole story and organizes it. I also especially enjoy Eric Schwitzgebel’s talk about what philosophers have to contribute to fiction. I particularly liked the idea that fiction writers often deal with quasi-philosophical topics and when they do their treatment could benefit from the skills of philosophers.
Can you tell me about one of your favorite pieces that you’ve written?
One of my short stories about faith–and the ways it can go wrong–was recently published in a philosophy journal. It’s called “The Pearl of Great Price“. The central character, Janet, a single mom in a dead end job, is drawn into a multi-level marketing scheme, Benevite, by an unscrupulous salesman. She is encouraged to believe in herself and her dream and to give everything she has to it. She is fed the cliche that you can achieve whatever you want if you try hard enough. In the end, her faith in her dream leads to many losses, including the loss of her relationship with her child. Her pursuit exhibits many of the standard features of faith, belief, desire, resilience, tenacity, passion, and yet she does not save herself. The story is not meant as an indictment of faith in general, but as an acknowledgment of the fact that faith can be a vice and an exploration of when this might be so.
More about Frances and her philosophical fiction writing can be found here.