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I'm not talking about maximalist novels, or experimental literature or metaphysical literature. I'm talking about books where the author is not interested in making it easy for the reader to figure out what the main point of the work is. These works rely on the "ah-ha" or "eureka" experience that we feel when we struggle to figure something out then finally get it. This would even include the poetry of Propertius as well as medeval allegories such as Piers Plowman. However, to the best of my knowledge Faust II could be described as the first major work in Western Literature (discounting Propertius and medieval allegories) to work in this genre, then maybe Beaudelaire and the French symbolists. Some of Dickinson's poems could be included in this genre and she was mostly writing between 1860-1870 but in Prose I would have to say that Ulysses would be the first major work in English would belong to the puzzle genre.

Not all experimental literature would belong to the puzzle genre and you could make an argument for and against that all puzzle literature is experimental. I say this because with some experimental literature it is easy to get the point of the work on the first reading. I would define experimental literature as any literature which does not adhere to the orthodox method of storytellings which to encapsulate in one sentence would be something like putting characters into a conflict then narrating the key events which lead to the resolution of the conflict. Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish experimental works from puzzle works (or since 'puzzle' is not an adjective I'll use 'enigmatic') because it is difficult to draw the line between experiment and tried and tested. For example, these days we've seen so many instances of films where the director chops up the narrative and makes it hard to follow that this can no longer be called an experiment but is now an acceptable thing to do and one that the audience can follow, albeit a small audience. So although such films are no longer experimental, they are still considered puzzles which require work on the spectator's part to understand.

I also want to distinguish the puzzle genre from the metaphysical genre. So 'metaphysical' as defined on the site philosophyinfilm is defined as:

  1. A metaphysical film addresses questions related to the field of metaphysics in its narrative, either directly or indirectly.
  2. A metaphysical film uses the unique elements of the filmmaking process (cinematography, editing, special effects, etc.) to direct attention to the question of “reality.”
  3. A metaphysical film uses visual effects to transcend reality in a way that implicitly asks (or attempts to answer) metaphysical questions.

It should be obvious to think of a literary work which is difficult to understand but whose main point does meet one of the conditions above.

So what I'm asking here is have literary critics already given this genre a formal name? More examples of this genre would be: Finnegans Wake, Gravity's Rainbow, the Cantos by E. Pound, the poetry of Octavio Paz, H Crane, Sylvia Plath, certain films by Fellini, Goddard, David Lynch, etc.

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    Why would a poet write like this? // Dante’s Inferno, Irish myths, // Scripture — all keys to what the poet meant. // It seems a waste; what earthly use // To toil for years, and then produce // An indecipherable monument? // But surely, all those poets must hope // That when for meaning their readers grope, // They look beneath the meter and the rhyme, // The surface beauty of the snow, // And find the hidden blooms below // — And that the effort makes these finds sublime.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 25 at 11:07
  • Propertius' poetry do not belong to a puzzle genre, and I think genre is not the right word here for what ties these works together.
    – cmw
    Aug 25 at 12:23
  • @ Shor, well, I googled the poem to see if it was you who wrote it and I've concluded that you were the author, so, good job.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 26 at 3:44

1 Answer 1

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The name puzzle novel has been used for this genre. See this Goodreads list.

David Lodge discusses this genre in his 1971 essay The Novelist at the Crossroads, without supplying an agreed-on name for it:

To the novel, the non-fiction novel, and the fabulation, we must add a fourth category: the novel which exploits more than one of these modes without fully committing itself to any, the novel-about-itself, the trick-novel, the game-novel, the puzzle-novel, the novel that leads the reader (who wishes, naïvely, only to be told what to believe) through a fairground of illusions and deceptions, distorting mirrors and trap-doors that open disconcertingly under his feet, leaving him ultimately not with any simple or reassuring message or meaning but with a paradox about the relation of art to life.

Lodge comes up with his own name of problematic novel for this category, which definitely includes many puzzle novels, but it seems to me that it is broader than the OP's desired genre of puzzle novels.

So my conclusions are

  1. it doesn't have a standard name among literary critics (or at least, it didn't in 1971),
  2. "puzzle novel" has been sporadically used for this genre.

I can't actually think of a better name.

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  • It seems to me that there are several subgenres of puzzle novels. There is the kind where the book is meaningless unless you figure out some of the puzzles (e.g., Joyce's Finnegans Wake). There is the kind where figuring out the puzzles is irrelevant to the plot or theme of the book (e.g., Nabokov's Lolita); the puzzles are there solely for the reader's entertainment. And there is the kind where figuring out some of the puzzles upends the reader's understanding of the book (e.g., Gene Wolfe's Peace, although it also has additional puzzles). My favorite is definitely the third kind.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 26 at 15:04
  • Does this stackexchange community have a discussion section? If so, this topic should be moved there. Anyway, since I divide literature into two categories, those where the author is trying to do everything possible so that the reader understands what is going on as easily as possible and those where the author does not. The motivation for the second category would be that the author understands that the 'eureka' affect, that mental high you get from figuring something out is a powerful contributer to the reader's enjoyment.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 27 at 11:20
  • That being said we can now start subdividing this genre based on the methods authors use for creating the eureka affect. One, obscure the topic, so Finnegans Wake obviously fits this condition, though it used a huge range of techniques to create the eureka affect. Two, obscure the scene's relations to the main topic. It's clear from the beginning that Fellini's 8 1/2 is about a director trying to make a film, but in each scene it's not clear how each scene contributes to the drama of a director trying to produce a film.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 27 at 11:26
  • I could go on but SE character limit makes discussion hard. If you want to discuss further, please continue on a different website.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 27 at 11:27

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