Cracking into existentialist literature

I often refer to myself as an existentialist novelist, so I thought I’d prepare a post explaining what that means as well as recommending other novels written within this genre.

Existentialism, in general, is a philosophy with its roots in the works of the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard, who was active from around 1847-1855. While the heyday of artists referring to their works as existential has largely passed, you can still fit most modern literary giants into the category “existentialism” without much effort.

In a nutshell, I describe existentialism like this: The recognition that life is inherently meaningless, and that it’s up to us to create our own personal meaning in life. This is to say, an existentialist does not believe that you will someday “win” life and cause the credits to roll (either by triggering an afterlife or otherwise). Rather, life is inherently chaotic and absurd, and we must find peace and happiness in the face of this fact. Chiefly, we have two conflicts: We feel very important and our minds create narratives out of our lives in which everything revolves around us. However, we also routinely face the fact that life is chaotic and that humans die for little or no reason.

That said, ‘existentialism’ has a more general definition involving any question of the nature of our reality or our purpose in it. While this is an accurate definition, it does not adequately explain the philosophy.

The primary philosophers in this field (in chronological order) are Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre – though Nietzsche and Sartre both rejected the label, their philosophies really are explorations within the broader guidelines I set in the paragraph above. Where I’m particularly influenced is in Sartre, but also his contemporary Camus. These are both French thinkers who survived the Nazi invasion of France, which brings me neatly to what I feel is the real rise of a worldwide acceptance of existential theories – World War II.

Aside from a few outliers like Nietzsche, philosophy before World War I and II is quite a bit rosier than what came next. Philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson were still guiding American lights, with ideas about rugged individualism and a reconnection with nature. Something about seeing millions of people, innocent or otherwise, hurl themselves into the meat grinder of the world’s largest wars started to sour people on the idea that the universe was a kind place built for humans to thrive. Post World War II, it seemed a bit more likely that the universe was a cold and uncaring place and that only our fellow humans decided how kind or otherwise it would be.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were the post-war French thinkers who drove existentialism home for modern society. While Sartre perhaps is rightly credited for being a greater philosopher, I can safely tell you that Albert Camus is a much better novelist. The milestone existential novel, and in my opinion the greatest existential work of all time, is Camus’ “The Stranger.” The world tends to agree – indeed, the book earned Camus a Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Stranger” (also translated as “The Outsider”) is a French novel written in stark, plain terms about a man named Mersault who has no humanity of his own and only reacts apathetically to the events around him. He is a character study in a man fully consumed by the absurdity of modern existence, a man who truly believes that life is meaningless and yet hasn’t “come out the other side” to create meaning for himself, or even attempt to understand it. Through Mersault’s journey, each reader receives a mirror into their own view of the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence.

You’ll see these themes in all of my novels. In Keep the Ghost, Sean is driven to question the value of a human’s place in society and indeed their own view of themselves when he’s forced to fake his death and assume an entirely new persona, freed from everything that made him a person in his past life. These themes are further explored in Shadow Box and the upcoming Kill the Ghost.

In The Blue, Derek confronts the meaningless of reality itself as he is thrust into a situation in which everyone around him is trying to decide on their own version of reality – an inherently paradoxical exercise we engage in daily.

And in [sic], a group of teens embrace chaos by creating a game in which their lives become governed by random chance and forced choices. After all – if life is meaningless, and change is inevitable (two conclusions that I find hard to escape) then what harm could come from embracing these two facts and living life in their honor?

You’ll find themes stemming from Sartre and Camus’ work from a bevy of famous American literary figures. Books I’d recommend, including handy links to Kindle versions of the work, include…

  • Kurt Vonnegut – chiefly Slaughterhouse V, but really all of his works.
  • Joseph Heller – Catch 22. Incredible post-war existentialist novel.
  • Ernest Hemingway – Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s greatest novel explores existentialist themes without really becoming an existentialist novel in a postmodern sense (more on that in another post.)
  • Chuck Pahlaniuk – Fight Club. This is a great example of existentialist literature from an American author who is still active to this day.
  • Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot. While better experienced as a play, this is largely regarded as one of the most important existential and postmodern plays of our time.

To one degree or another, you can find existentialist traits in the works of John Green (“Fault in Our Stars“), Jack Kerouac (“On the Road“), Philip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep“) and countless other modern works. For a more comprehensive list of novels with existentialist themes, I’d recommend this GoodReads list¬†of the of the best existentialist works of fiction… and not only because my novel [sic] comes in at #93.

–Scott Kelly



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