Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are You A Hedgehog, or a Fox?

My hedgehogosity, or lack thereof, has been on my mind for the last two weeks, since I learned of the existence of hedgehogs and foxes.

"The Hedgehog and The Fox" is an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.  Writing in 1953, Berlin drew on an apocryphal bit of Greek lore:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The idea being that to avoid being captured or killed, the fox has a whole bag of tricks, whereas the hedgehog's one defense (curling into a ball covered with spikes) is a doozy.

Berlin used that to divide writers into two categories: foxes and hedgehogs.

Foxes included James Joyce, Aristotle, Moliere, and Balzac.  Hedgehogs included Proust, Ibsen, and Dante.  Berlin's division was based on his view of their writing: Hedgehog writers, he said, view the world through a single defining idea that illuminates all of their works.  Fox writers, on the other hand, draw on a wider variety of experiences and their work cannot be boiled down to a single theme.

Berlin didn't judge one to be better than the other; he viewed the classification themselves as somewhat arbitrary and a game, but noted that "every classification throws light on something."

As I said, since I heard about the phrase, I've been wondering if I'm more fox-like or hedgehog-like in my writing.  At first glance, it would seem I'm a hedgehog.  I write in a variety of genres, voices, and styles, straightforward literary fiction to experimental almost-poetry (and poetry. I write poetry, too.)

But Berlin's classification looks more at one's worldview and whether there's a unifying vision to it than at superficial features, and in that light, I think I might be more of a hedgehog. I spent some time considering first my novels, and realized that each could be said to feature a character who in some way or other is cut off from the world around him or her.

In Eclipse, Claudius spends the story drifting through space, or in an asylum/prison (depending on which viewpoint you adopt) and reflecting on a childhood where he had few friends, if any (again, depending on what you believe to be true.)

Temporary Anne, my latest horror story, features a woman so evil that even Hell can't hold her, and if ever there was someone who was isolated it would be her.

Up So Down is a literary novel, but the main characters, "Bumpy" and his sister Sarah, each are going through changes in their life which cause them to draw back from others or withhold part of themselves from new people.

And in the After, Saoirse rejects the very idea of Heaven and her perfect family around her, spending her time trying to get away from it.

the After also features
a tree, and William Howard Taft,
but that's only to be expected.

There are other similarities between all my works, but that was the first one that leapt up at me: all my protagonists tend to be loners through a mixture of choice and destiny.  You can see that in other characters of mine, too Rachel, the amnesiac lesbian zombie charged with saving the 73 dimensions is another notable one, and my latest short story, Sea (on Inky, click here to read it) features a kid who was washed out to sea and spends his entire life there.

It's not as though all things I write have that theme; I'm sure there are some stories where teh characters aren't loners.  Maybe Rafael the giraffe who tried to save the world by stealing Noah's Ark? And the stories themselves aren't always about the person being a loner: Andrew, when he reviewed Temporary Anne, noted that if you read my books you can usually see the questions I was mulling as I was writing the books, and that's true: whatever I happen to be thinking about at the time tends to work its way into my writing in one way or another (although if you read my blogs and then read my stories, it may be hard to sync one to the other, as I usually wait to post stories for a while.)  For the last year, for example, I've been writing stories about God and creations of the universe and related subjects.

But the smaller topics of your writing may not be the overarching theme of your writing, and if you take a moment to step back and consider what it is you really write about, it may surprise you. (Or not, perhaps you consciously choose your themes.)

As Berlin said, all classifications shed some light on things, and seeing how you would classify your own themes in your writing is instructive. I had never thought before about the similarities between what I thought of as different kinds of writing. Now that I know, I can both work on developing that theme, if I choose, or make a conscious effort to escape it and write about other things.

If I can, because what Berlin didn't say, and what is for us to decide, is whether a hedgehog can ever stop being a hedgehog.


The author, shown cutting out a paper elephant.
(The elephant has rejected his role in society and
decided to try to become a stockbroker, but the
guys on Wall Street don't want him to
be part of their club, and then one day
the elephant falls in love with the evening star and asks
her out, only later to be crushed when he learns she's not
a star at all, but the planet Venus.)*
*Now I might actually write this.
Prior to today, Briane Pagel would have thought himself more of a dugong.  You can find the aforementioned novels on sale on Amazon by clicking here.  Read a monthly short story from him on Inky magazine, and check out his short stories, essays, and poems on lit, a place for stories.

Oh, and if you want to read that giraffe story, which is really quite amazing, click here.


  1. Maybe authors are a little hedgehog and a little fox. It probably depends on how broadly you're defining the themes.

  2. Looking at what I've done so far, it would be fair to say "hedgehog" about me. So far, I've chosen to write about themes relating to growing up. However, if you could see the things I'm working on and the things I have in planning stages, you'd probably say "fox."
    I don't think it's bad to be a hedgehog writer when you keep doing it through different lenses, unlike, say, David Eddings, who only wrote about one thing and did it the same way over and over again. Once you've read The Belgariad, you don't need to read anything else by him, ever, which is kind of too bad to have to say about any writer.