Questions in Fiction

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.”
Paul Auster

What is the role of asking questions in fiction, a question that I regard as rather important in itself. Recently I carried out an informal study to look more closely at the role of questions in the passages I recorded from works of fiction in my commonplace book.

To extract questions from electronic digital record of the second volume of my commonplace book, I simply entered a question mark in the Word Find box and recorded the question found. This is one of the simplest ways a commonplace book can become a research tool.

I selected about three quarters of the questions (227) from 151 separate works of literature. Some like Night Train to Lisbon had a great many questions, others like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had only one, as did John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In most cases I selected questions that had a general application and avoided those that did not raise a larger issue. Those not selected were trivial, uninteresting, or framed rhetorically without seeking information or an answer.

Then I classified each one of the questions in terms of the general topic, issue, or subject that it raised. The first round of this procedure identified 48 categories. Since there was considerable overlap between them, they were combined and reduced in number to 17.

For example, questions initially classified as relating to marriage, friendship, romance, and relationships were combined into the general topic of Relationships. Those concerning memory, thinking, language, and neuroscience, were grouped together as Cognitive, while Life represented a combination of Fate, Luck, Work, and Future

The ten most frequent categories, rank ordered in terms of frequency, along with a few examples are shown below:

Someone to thank you once in a while and tell you you’d done well—everyone needed that, didn’t they? Rachel Cusk Arlington Park

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which comes closer to the truth? Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon
But how do you stop doing something when you are completely unaware that you are doing it? Geoff Dyer Jeff in Venice

Had they stopped playing by the rules because they got nothing following them? Bernhard Schlink The Weekend

It would be interesting to compare novelists on this dimension. Do some employ questioning more than others and if so, what might be responsible for their practice? Do they come from a particular tradition or are they, like Peter Bieri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier involved in a discipline, philosophy, where questioning is a common practice?

Regardless, it reflects a style of writing that is one of probing and wrestling with ideas. Questioning is not a critical feature of the novels I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences.

However, when questions are posed in a work of fiction, I become more engaged with the text and begin to make all the associations that come with my experience and what I know or want to know about the topic. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to think further about the issues he posses and participate with him exploring the story further.

“I learned because I asked questions. It’s the soul that asks, the heart that demands.
Doreen Carvajal The River of Forgetting