A New Kind of Didactic Novel

By Maeve Maddox

Didactic fiction is nothing new. Aesop’s tales are didactic, as are Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Hesse’s Siddhartha, and Orwell’s Animal Farm. The authors of all these works desired to teach readers a lesson about the moral significance of human behavior.

The word didactic is from a Greek verb meaning both “to teach” and “to learn.”

There was a time that authors could admit to wanting to create a didactic novel and critics were willing to praise such novels for their moral effectiveness. The success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s didactic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) illustrates the effectiveness of using fiction to promote an author’s social ideals.

Beginning in the 1700s, American abolitionists churned out thousands of tracts in their fight to abolish slavery in the United States. None of them produced the effect of the extended abolitionist tract that Mrs. Stowe framed as fiction.

tract noun: a pamphlet, leaflet, or folder issued (as by a political or religious group) for propaganda.

In the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel in the world. According to what may be an apocryphal anecdote, when Mrs. Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he remarked, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Modern readers expect a textbook or how-to book to be didactic, but modern critics usually perceive didacticism in a work of creative fiction as a flaw:

George Orwell was better at essays than at novels. His most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, are clunkily didactic, especially Animal Farm

George refers to Dickens on the first page of her earnest but perhaps overly didactic novel, What Happened Before He Shot Her.

O’Connor has been criticized for being overly didactic.

Odets’s inability to escape this 1930s pigeonhole is reflected in the intensely ideological, even didactic, nature of his plays. 

Unlike many other Soviet filmmakers, whose works are boldly and aggressively didactic, Alexander Dovzhenko’s cinematic output is personal and fervently private. 

Now, however, a fictional genre called “the startup novel” has emerged, written by experienced and “wanna-be” entrepreneurs. These novels encapsulate blueprints for successful entrepreneurship in plots that employ action and intrigue. Apparently, entrepreneurs are reading them to learn the techniques of starting a business.

Entrepreneur Orr Ben-Zvy says that after reading “almost every [nonfiction] book on Amazon’s 50 best sellers for business and the next 50 for entrepreneurship, he “discovered something counterintuitive: fiction [is] much more useful than nonfiction.”

His search for a fictionalized account of how to achieve financial success with a startup company led him to Eliot Peper’s novel Uncommon Stock (2014), a book credited with being the first of its kind. According to a blurb on Amazon, the Uncommon trilogy has “attracted a cult following in Silicon Valley and is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon.”

The genre that romanticizes and describes the process of starting a business has blossomed since 2014. An Amazon search for “financial thrillers” brings up pages and pages of titles.

I haven’t read one yet, but I intend to. I’m curious to see what kind of moral message this new didactic genre has for its readers.

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6 Responses to “A New Kind of Didactic Novel”

  • Francesco Varrato

    Even if it is not central to the story, I think that Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, has been the first fictional character in my readings who started a company. At the time the name startup didn’t exist.

  • Kelly

    Fascinating. I’d also like to know what the writing is like — whether it’s worth reading simply as a work of fiction.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The didactic novels of Ayn Rand, such as THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. I disagree with them almost entirely, and I disagree with Rand’s philosophies as have been explained in works of nonfiction by other authors, such as Isaac Asimov.
    Still, they were intended to be didactic, even though lots of people (like me) don’t pay any attention to them.
    L. Ron Hubbard also wrote didactic novels that are a complete pile of malarkey, and I wouldn’t read any of them.
    Dianetics and Scientology are all pieces of nonsense and pseudoscience, but some people read them anyway.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Alexander Solzeynetsin (sp.) wrote didactic novels like THE GULAG ARCHIPELOAGO that explained just how EVIL the communist system was in the USSR, and especially during the times of Josef Stalin.

  • Precise Edit

    Could it be said that all literature is, to some degree, didactic?

  • Maeve

    Precise Edit: Very much so. The sleaziest or frothiest novel of whatever genre teaches its reader the author’s views on life.

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