Bad writing – a review of The Philosophical Practitioner

The Philosophical Practitioner has a great concept – it’s about a thirty-six year old ‘philosophical practitioner’, who gives out advice based on philosophy. It just fails to live up to … well, anything much at all, really.

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The concept is one that I really like. Philosophy applied to everyday life, with a wise-cracking smart-ass detective style character, a la Harry Dresden. In fact, apparently there really is a philosophical practitioners association. Just think how cool this could be. People would come in with questions – good questions – and the protagonist could answer them, drawing on different theories. There’d be so much scope – I haven’t read much philosophy, but I think even I could brainstorm a few plots on ethical dilemmas, problems about knowledge, and logic. It feels to me like the kind of plot line that Neal Stephenson would do really well with. 

But so far (and I’m far enough in that I feel happy making a judgement), the book falls down quite badly. It’s telling, I suppose, that it was published by what looks like a ‘pay to publish‘ agency. The first flaw is that – none of the answers his characters give are interesting. The questions aren’t awful ones. They’ve included one about why bother getting up, another about loving one’s spouse, another about whether the self really exists. They’re not bad starting points, and they seem like reasonable ‘real world questions’. But the …. ugh, I hesitate to use the word philosophy … seems to come down to a few smart-ass questions, without any actual contribution. Most of the conversations seem to last a few sentences, if that. Seriously, Larry Abrams – go read some Neal Stephenson. He doesn’t get everything right, but he does this part really well

The other thing that bothers me about the novel is that there’s some consistent objectification in there. Sure, there are what strikes me as a few nods to the importance of gender equality –  he includes a female programmer as a client, and probably says something else about it in one or two places. But almost every description of a female character includes something about the clothes she’s wearing/her haircut/her body/the way she moves. Perhaps it’s some kind of reference to the noir genre, but … well, it’s not carried over to much else in the novel. 

A final comment – perhaps less of a specific critique, and more of a reason why I won’t be recommending it – is that the writing’s poor. There’s a certain authorial voice that I think ends up reflecting more of the writer and their assumptions than it does of the world they’re  observing. Writing is a craft, a thing that takes time and effort, finding a way to put all the detail and beauty and strangeness of the world around us into words (simple, beautiful, complicated, as needs be) that others can understand, and perhaps experience a little of what the writer’s trying to create. But when it’s done poorly, you feel as though you’re in a cardboard box, and not in a real world that’s been created for you. 

It’s always hard to write – one of the hardest things is transporting the enormity of human experience, or the cool idea that you’ve just had, into a good piece of writing. One of my favourite quotes is from Flaubert

human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. 

So the idea is excellent, but the execution hasn’t lived up to it. But if anyone else writes another novel on philosophical practitioners, I look forward to reading it.

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