A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: literature

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fictional Genres

Olga’s latest essay at Middle Earth Reflections is about escape. As usual, it got me thinking. The way Tolkien and Lewis thought of escape, it’s necessary for modern people. The modern world delivers material benefit on a scale that would have been unimaginable even three hundred years ago, but it comes at a social cost – we all have our little boxes, and we have to stay in them or the system grinds to a halt. People want to expand themselves. They “don’t want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart” [1]. We don’t like being confined, no matter how well it pays, so “escape” is now (more or less) recognized as a legitimate desire, and a (more or less) valid purpose for literature.

But what about life before the industrial revolution overthrew the tyranny of Malthusian economics?  We can get an idea from folklore: many fairy tales involve people doing extraordinary things to get food. Children in mid-twentieth-century America had trouble understanding why, if someone offered to grant a character any wish they could think of, they’d ask for a roasted goose. Chapter 1 of Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre [2] explains why: People were starving. Literally, the best thing they could think of was a decent meal.

Darnton isn’t the first to say that. Here’s Abraham Maslow: “Another peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, Utopia can be defined very simply as a place where there is plenty of food.” [3]

Maslow's hierarchy of Needs

Hierarchy of Needs (1943)

Which brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  (You only need to read that link if your boss has never hired a management consultant – to everyone else it’s a cliché.) It seems relevant to the classification of fiction into genres.  Hypothesis: Escapism is an important part of all fiction; different genres appeal to readers whose needs are at different levels.

Tolkien gave us the top of the pyramid. Darnton gave us the bottom. What about the rest of the levels of the hierarchy?

The second level from the bottom is “safety”. According to the hypothesis, there should be a literary genre in which people whose safety isn’t assured can read about characters who are threatened, but manage to triumph and find safety at the end. There is no difficulty finding two: Mysteries and thrillers fit the bill exactly. They are, respectively, #3 and #4 on the sales list. Nothing can be done for the corpses in Chapter 1 of those books, but the protagonist escapes danger with reassuring frequency.  “Escape” is literal, in most cases.

The third level up is “love”. (Most updates to Maslow’s work say “social” here, but I shall stick to the original term because we’re talking about “social science”, and “social” is too weak a word to do double duty. “Love” is not. Like Maslow’s, my readers all know how many definitions the word “love” has.) It is easy to find genres here, too. Romance novels are #2 on the list of best-selling categories of fiction for adults. I’m going to put bibles here, too. They’re #1 of all kinds of books ever sold. It’s a bit of a stretch, because bibles generally go under non-fiction (despite the unicorns). However, etymologically, religions exist for the purpose of forming a community; books are an important part of that; and they fit the hypothesis so well that I can’t pass them up.

For those whose physiological needs are met, who have a safe place to exist, and are solidly placed in a group, the next level of need is for “esteem”. Originally, status within the group was the focus. Now, self-esteem is added to this category. At this point an Idiosopher might get into trouble: Are “novels” genre fiction? The 19th Century novels, from Jane Austen onwards, which caused the form to have its enormous impact on culture, are about little else than the pursuit of social status. In the more egotistical 20th Century, self-esteem joined the more venerable pursuit. General Fiction, or as I think of it “Muggle Fiction”, is #1 on the sales list. If it didn’t provide entertainment featuring characters finally getting the esteem they deserve, there would be large gaps on those shelves.

At the top of the pyramid is “Self-actualization” which is where we started. Fantasy and fiction (to a great extent) contain a strong streak of self-actualization, providing escape from the confinement of the bureaucratic economy. Role-playing games have become so popular that they belong here, too, though that would involve jumping over to a different medium.

So, what is left?  According to this hypothesis, most lines on the Publishers’ Weekly chart can be filled in immediately.

Rank Genre Maslow Level
1 General Fiction Esteem
2 Romance Love
3 Suspense/Thrillers Safety
4 Mystery/Detective Safety
5 Graphic Novels (multiple)
6 Classics (multiple)
7 Fantasy Self-Actualization
8 Science Fiction Self-Actualization
9 Religion Love
10 Action Adventure Safety
11 Occult/Psychological/Horror Safety
12 Western (multiple)

There is no prose genre that doesn’t fit into one of the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  The hypothesis holds up well.  The lines marked “multiple” are due to Publishers’ Weekly breaking up books by how to sell them, not by their literary characteristics.  Graphic Novels and Classics can have any kind of thematic content. They could easily be separated into the other classifications.  Westerns are the same, though I’d bet the vast majority are actually thrillers.  Westerns used to be much more popular.  They’re down to about 1% of sales now, and I doubt they’ll exist as a separate genre much longer.


Other people have added other levels to the hierarchy since 1943. I think they’re not so well justified as the original five. Maslow himself suggested there might be other levels, but I’ve stuck with the basics. Except this one, which has a deep ring of truth and should not be missed.

Social-science experimentation in the 1940s wasn’t so bland and statistical as it is today. Maslow, speculating on a possible experimental test of the second tier of the pyramid, suggested: “…the child might be confronted with an exploding firecracker…”  I’d love to see how the Institutional Review Board responded to that proposal.

Works Cited

[1] Sting,“Invisible Sun”, Ghost in the Machine, 1981.

[2] Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Basic Books, 1984.

[3] Maslow, A. H., “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, 50, p. 370-396, 1943.

Tolkien meets the Oulipo

An Epitome of the Idiosophical method

(The core of Idiosophy is that the idiosopher can be misinformed and incorrect at every step in a logical process, and still arrive at a meaningful conclusion.) Our starting point is an earlier post, on which Tom commented, wondering what the “Ents’ Marching Song” would sound like in Latin.

1. The riposte humorous:  Hexameters! Longfellowish sprawling hexameters.

2. Noticing a flaw in the joke: Wait, no. Archy the cockroach liked hexameters because he had six feet. Ents all have two feet.

3. Transfiguration: But ents have lots of toes. Ent-latin should have big feet with lots of syllables.

4. Observation: They do. The first line is definitely one long foot. I suppose it’s possible to argue that the second line is a jumble of small troches and dactyls, or maybe iambs and anapests with stray syllables at either end, but that’s not how I hear it.

In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the spring.
Ah, the sight and the smell of the spring in Nan-Tasarion!

LotR, III, iv

5. Following the thought wherever: How could we construct a sound-pattern for big feet that makes them into poetry? Alliteration is matching the sound at the beginning of the foot. Rhyme is matching the sound at the end. If we’re just using iambs and troches, rhyme and alliteration are our only choices. With big feet, though, we have the possibility of matching sounds elsewhere. That would be a novel poetic structure!  Dactyls have three syllables. Can we match the middle consonant?

6. Noticing that someone smarter is ‘way ahead of me:  “Errantry” has lots of that kind of central sound-match. It’s neither rhyme nor alliteration, but my ears enjoy it the same way.

he built a gilded gondola
to wander in and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender…

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 3.

7. The unexpected arrival:  J.R.R. Tolkien was a Modernist writer, and “the most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression.” This is what my heroes in the Oulipo are interested in, too.  This is derived from a root as mathematical as any of their self-imposed constraints.

Up at the top of the page, I promised a meaningful conclusion.  Coincidentally, Dimitra Fimi just published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement about world-building.  She points out that writing speculative fiction is about creating a different set of rules from those we see in the world around us, and writing your story in strict adherence to those rules.  But, she says, that’s exactly what the Oulipians do, except they’re doing it at the level of the text, while fantasy and science-fiction writers do it at the level of the story. So it’s entirely reasonable that JRRT was doing this on purpose,working on both levels at once.

Gargantua on Drinking

Doré's Gargantua

Gargantua, by Gustave Doré

Today is Whanne that Aprille Day on Twitter, when we celebrate old languages.

Here’s my contribution, from Gargantua, Book 1, Chapter 5, by François Rabelais.

An almost-Socratic dialogue on drinking, law, mortality, and sports physiology.  Or maybe it’s more of a symposium.


— Qui feut premier, soif ou beuverye?
— Soif. Car qui eust beu sans soif durant le temps d’innocence?
— Beuverye. Car privatio praesupponit habitum. Je suis Clerc. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— Nous aultres innocens ne beuvons que trop sans soif.
— Non moy, pecheur, sans soif. Et si non presente, pour le moins future, la prevenent comme entendez. Je boy pour la soif advenir. Je boy eternellemeut, ce m’est eternité de beuverye, et beuverye de éternité.
— Chantons, beuvons un motet.
— Entonnons!
— Où est mon entonnoir?
— Quoy ! Je ne boy que par procuration !
— Mouillez-vous pour seicher, ou vous seichez pour mouiller?
— Je n’entens poinct la theoricque; de la praticque je me ayde quelque peu.
— Haste!
— Je mouille, je humecte, je boy. Et tout de peur de mourir.
— Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais.
— Si je ne boy, je suys à sec. Me voylà mort.

I own a strange old volume of Rabelais in English translation, which seems to be samizdat to get around the old Comstock laws. It translates that passage this way:

Which was first, thirst or drinking?  Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst?  Nay, sir, it was drinking, for privatio presupponit habitum. I am learned, you see. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum! We poor innocents* drink but too much without thirst. Not I, truly, who am a sinner, for I never drink without thirst, either present of future, to prevent it (as you know) I drink for the thirst to come; I drink eternally, this is to me an eternity of drinking and drinking of an eternity. Let us sing, let us drink, now for a catch, dust it away, where is my nogging? What, it seems I do not drink but by proxy. Do you wet yourself to dry, or do you dry to wet yourself? Pish, I understand not the rhetoric, (the theoric I should say), but I help my self somewhat by the practice.
Enough! I sup, I wet, I humect, I moisten my gullet, I drink and all for fear of dying. Drink always, and you shall never die. If I drink not, I run aground, and I die.

* These words bear allusion to what is said of some innocent people who are tortured with water forced down their throats to make them confess.

Here is my translation:
— Which came first, drinking or thirst?
— Thirst, for back in the days of innocence, who’d have drunk without being thirsty?
— Drinking, because privatio presupponit habitum. Arguments in Latin always win. Foecundi calices quem non fecere disertum!
— We innocents never drink too much, unless we are thirsty.
— Not me either, and I’m a sinner. Maybe I don’t have a thirst right now, but I drink as a preventative. I drink against the thirst to come. I drink eternally, because through an eternity of drinking, I drink in all eternity.
— Let’s sing and drink a motet!
— Let’s intone in tons!
— Where’s my ton-kard?
— What are you talking about? I only drink by proxy.
— Do you wet yourself to dry out, or dry yourself out to get wet?
— I don’t understand anything about theory, and I don’t have much use for practice.
— Enough!
— I wet, I humidify, I drink, and all from fear of dying.
— Well, keep drinking forever, and you’ll never die.
— If I stop drinking, I’ll be all tapped out.* And that’s as good as dead.

creepy figure

Why sports physiology?  Because the sinner’s philosophy is what all coaches say now – start drinking before you get thirsty.  Renaissance French rules, avant la lettre, if you will.

* A regret: English doesn’t have a slang term for “broke” that overlaps with slang for “sober”, so I couldn’t translate that last pun correctly.  This is a shameful lacuna in my mother tongue.

Works Cited

Rabelais, F., La vie treshorrificque du grand Gargantua. Françoise Joukovsky, ed.  Paris, Flammarion, 1993.

Rabelais, F.,  The Works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from the French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations. Privately printed, who knows when or where.

This will not faze them

The book I’m reading right now has three levels of authorship.  (Searching the Web for the phrase “levels of authorship” leads you to a maze of twisty passages, all alike, most leading to swamps of tedium and despond.  This link doesn’t.)

The book is The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley. Or is it The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley?  Or is it one of the other possibilities?

One reason I love librarians is that they can catalogue this book “by author”, file it on a shelf, and then find it again later.  Librarians can handle anything.

Historical note:  When I first read this book (after a reference in Foucault’s Pendulum), it was in German. I mentally translated “Die chymische Hochzeit von Christian Rosencreutz” as the “Chemical Wedding of” C.R., not the “Chemical Wedding by“.  That was only the first of many bruises I got from attempting to read a book in renaissance German (in Fraktur!) after learning modern Hochdeutsch in high school. I knew I was going to like Crowley’s version when correcting that mistake was the first sentence in his Introduction.

Modern note: It never ceases to delight me that I can just pull up 400-year-old texts from my dining-room table.  Living in the future is in many ways awesome.

Canons and Chains

In which your Idiosopher considers how to measure an author’s cultural depth.

Brenton has a quotation from a letter by C.S. Lewis that seems to say nice things about the way I’ve been approaching literature. Lewis doesn’t like the idea of canonical lists of books that youngsters should read. I don’t like canonical lists either, unless I’ve read everything on it and can feel smug therefore.  The only time I’ve ever gone and read books because they were part of a canon, it was Michael Dirda’s list of the “100 Best Humorous Novels.” (Alas, no link. It was in the Washington Post, long ago.)

Un jour viendra où l’on montrera un canon dans les musées comme on y montre aujourd’hui un instrument de torture, en s’étonnant que cela ait pu être!
(Someday we’ll exhibit canons in museums, as we do now with instruments of torture, amazed that such things could ever have existed!)

Victor Hugo

What Lewis prefers is a sort of terrain-following model, as one work you love leads to other writers, in a long chain of culture.  It’s not linear, of course. It’s more like following a river through its delta.  Some streams split and merge, some flow straight to the sea, some spin around in eddies and backwaters.

For me, on the science fiction/fact side, one chain was Asimov → Clarke → Niven → Dyson → Feynman → Dirac  → Einstein. [1] On the fantasy side, there’s a chain that goes Tolkien → Ursula LeGuin → Mervyn Peake → E.R. Eddison → Lord Dunsany → Thomas Malory → Medieval romances. [2] To be absolutely accurate, the latter chain should start with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, the libretto of which I read before Lord of the Rings. The chain has a kind of “V” shape in time, bouncing off World War II.

There’s a nice idiosophical vein here.  Lots of people measure the cultural significance of a work by how many arrows lead from it.  LotR, by this measure, might be the most culturally-significant work of the twentieth century, since arrows lead from it to a large section of modern bookstores and the entire art of fantasy role-playing games.[3]  That’s the azimuthal direction, if you will. But maybe there’s another dimension:  Might it be of interest how long the chains are, as well how many chains originate there?  The depth to which authors connect into existing cultural structures seems orthogonal to their azimuthal impact, and might yield interesting insights.  The fact that the metric will be biased towards books enjoyed by teenagers may be entertaining, as well.

Quantitative data to rank various authors by chain-length can be obtained from elderly scholars.  They’ll have to be elderly, because these chains are only visible in hindsight. It seems easily parallelizable, hence ideal for the Web.  The job could be a lot of work, but if you like talking to classicists and medievalists anyway, it wouldn’t be much of a chore.

[1] The linked pages were for fun; they’re unrelated to my own research.
[2] The lectures of Corey Olsen are in there at the last step.
[3] The Tenth Art, I think.

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