Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Novels and worlds

As the length increases, the possibilities for good novels initially increase. It may not be possible to write a superb novel significantly shorter than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But eventually the possibilities for good novels start to decrease, because the length itself becomes an aesthetic liability. While one could easily have a series of novels that total ten million words, a single novel of ten million words just wouldn't be such a good novel. Indeed, it seems plausible that there is no possible novel of ten million words (in a language like human languages) that's better than War and Peace or One Day or The Lord of the Rings.

If this is right, then there are possible English-language novels with the property that they could not be improved on. For there are only finitely many possible English-language novels of length below ten million, and any novel above that length will be outranked qua novel by some novel of modest length, say War and Peace or One Day.[note 1]

So, there are possible unimprovable English-language novels. Are there possible unimprovable worlds? Or is it the case that we can always improve any possible world, say by adding one more happy angelic mathematician? In the case of novels, we were stipulating a particular kind of artistic production: a novel. Within that artistic production, past a certain point length becomes a defect. But is an analogue true with worlds?

One aspect of the question is this: Is it the case that past a certain point the number of entities, say, becomes a defect? Maybe. Let's think a bit why super-long novels aren't likely to be that great. They either contain lots of different kinds of material or they are repetitive. In the latter case, they're not that great artistically. But if they contain lots of different kinds of material, then they lose the artistic unity that's important to a novel.

Could the same thing be true of worlds? Just adding more and more happy angels past a certain point will make a world repetitive, and hence not better. (Maybe not worse either.) But adding whole new kinds of beings might damage the artistic unity of the world.


Cyrus Pacquin said...
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Heath White said...

It seems to me that the reason great novels have a maximum length has to do with the cognitive capacities of readers. LotR is just beyond six-year-olds; it would not be a good novel (trilogy) to them. Adult readers, on the other hand, can handle that level of complexity.

By the same token, the world as a whole is beyond me as an artistic creation; I cannot see its artistic unity. Perhaps, though, that is just a cognitive limitation of mine. God, presumably, could handle any level of complexity so long as there was an underlying unity to appreciate.

But if this is so, I do not see any reason to believe that complexity would ever begin to detract from the greatness of a world. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t add anything, at some point, either.

On a different note: your suggestion of unsurpassable possible novels opens the door to an ontological argument for their existence. For if there are possible unsurpassable novels, then we cannot say: there is no such thing as “an unsurpassable possible novel” because there could always be a greater one. (Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo, reprised by Plantinga.) But any existing novel surpasses any non-existing novel in at least one respect, namely existence. So unsurpassable novels must be not only possible, but actual!

Alexander R Pruss said...

LotR is not beyond all six-year-olds. :-)

That said, I think you may be right. Not so much that novels could be arbitrarily long, but that one could have new literary forms--call them hypernovels--that could be arbitrarily long.

One interesting question, then, is whether a superb novel can be compared with a superb hypernovel.

I think some comparisons across genres are possible. Any sonnets I could realistically write would be far inferior artistically to War and Peace, and any sonnet I could realistically write would be far inferior artistically to Hamlet.

Those are all cases where a really poor F is compared to a superb G. There may also be cases where one can compare a superb F to a superb G. A supremely good limerick would surely be inferior to a supremely good epic poem.

But would a supremely good short story be inferior to a supremely good novel? I am not sure. And would a supremely good novel inferior to a supremely good hypernovel? Again, I am not sure. There may be incommensurability here.

Mike Almeida said...

While one could easily have a series of novels that total ten million words, a single novel of ten million words just wouldn't be such a good novel

I'm not sure how one could know this. In all of metaphysical possibility, there is no good novel that is 10 million words? Worlds in which readers read ten thousand times faster? Worlds in which readers live ten thousand times longer? Worlds in which the imagination of authors is thousands of times the imagination of Homer?