Lexicon of Meaningless Words: Fiction

fiction (adj.): this text is a work of fiction?

(I don’t read the newspaper–I’m not a fan of fiction.)

Okay, all kidding aside, let’s get a couple of potential misunderstandings out-of-the-way first before tackling the topic at hand.  First, the distinction I’m making is not between truth and fiction.  Fictional works may be filled to overflowing with truth–see James Joyce’s The Dead.  I’m also not suggesting that works whose intention is purely informational (timetables, phone books, weather reports, and the like) are fictional in the sense I’m about to elucidate.  I’m also not impugning the possibility that Truth or truth can be communicated even in narrative form–again, grab yourself a handful of Joyce.  So just what am I arguing?

Lets start with the [un]problematic categories employed by every library from the one with the picture books in Kindergarten right up through the Library of Congress: books that contain stories (henceforth known only as narratives) can be divided into fiction–narratives that do not depict actual events–and non-fiction–narratives that depict actual events.

At various points in my life I’ve been an “only-ist” in both categories.  When I was in second grade the school–and my folks–were extremely concerned that  I had not yet learned to read.  Once I was convinced that there were useful and interesting things in books I became a voracious reader.  However, the argument deployed to convince me that reading was an activity worth learning had the side effect of biasing me against fictional narrative.  So what followed was five-plus-years of getting into trouble–because I was reading volumes of the encyclopedia and the dictionary instead of the “free-reading” books on assigned lists. However, for reasons I cannot fully elaborate, junior high me running through “the classics”–first, The Canterbury Tales, then The Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazof, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, Slaughter House Five, and even War and Peace.  By high school I’d read most of the traditional young adult stuff–Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, Where the Red Fern Grows, Lassie, and To Kill a Mocking Bird plus all the banned books I could get my hands on including Ulysses which served as my introduction to Joyce.  So after graduation I guess it was time for another reversal and I suddenly spent all my time reading art history and biography–the standouts from that period were “non-fiction” accounts of the development of surrealism–including the manifesto laden early 1900s.  I mention this because my life has been characterized by these sea changes according to what have been considered easily recognized categories, so when I say there is no bright line between fiction and non-fiction narrative I do so very much against my own historical self.

So, folk wisdom says the distinction between fiction and non-fiction rests on the relationship between a given narrative and historical events: narratives grounded in actual events are non-fiction while narratives without such a grounding are fictional.  The most simplistic version of my argument is simply that while a narrative may be “grounded in” reality that the mode presentation–the narrative, itself–is necessarily falsifying.  Now, to be slightly more nuanced, we can say that fictionality (falsity) is not binary and the ways in which a narrative is false may differ according to the type of narrative it is–and place it at different points along the fictional/actual spectrum.  This is terribly abstract, so lets consider some examples.

The least fictional narrative I can imagine would be something like the transcript of a person’s life.  Something like this:

“At 6:00 AM Patient Zero woke up…

At 6:00.32 AM and exited her bed.

From 6:01:38 AM to 6:03.02 Patient Zero located her undergarments and put them on.

At 6:33:14 AM Patient Zero exited her apartment and locked the door.

By 10:45:23 AM Patient Zero had infected 1,348 persons.”

However, if we study not only the information conveyed, but the implicit mode of our engagement with the text we can see that even this formal looking text falsifies or fictionalizes the events of its grounding.  First, ask yourself, how was the information presented originally collected?  As a reader this text’s mode of presentation–or narrative perspective–places the audience in Patient Zero’s bedroom watching her get dressed.  Was there anyone actually in her room other than herself?  If the information comes from surveillance devices, why aren’t they mentioned and how could they know with any precision when she “woke up”?  What does “woke up” even mean–gained consciousness, began stirring, opened her eyes, what?  Next consider the gaps in narrative time.  Why are the events between Patient Zero’s getting her gear on and leaving the apartment mentioned?  What about that huge gap between approx. 6:33 and 10:45?  Our modernist conception of truth tends to be a scientific one with precise data points and no gaps in reporting–can a narrative ever even approach that level of “actuality?”

More quickly then, consider this text:

“I felt an odd prickling along my scalp, and glanced over my shoulder to see whether anyone was listening, but the room was empty”

Okay, all the previously mentioned issues are still in play–compressed and expanded narrative time, the mode of presentation assumes a conversation with the “I” or the written memoirs of an “I.”  However, further this account seems to set up an odd situation–the mode of presentation makes the reader feel as though they are witnessing the events depicted in real-time as passive observers, but the claim that “the room was empty” does not square with the way the narrative prepares me to engage the scene.  The first-person narrative is inherently falsifying in several ways.

“The blonde felt an odd pricking along her scalp, and glanced over her shoulder nervously to see whether anyone was listening, but the room was empty.”

Again, all the previous falsifications take up residence in a third-person omniscient retelling of the same narrative.  But we can add a couple more: how does the narrator know that the blonde felt a certain sensation?  How can he access her inner thought life?  Even if we allow that the women told the narrator at some later time period, doesn’t the mode of presentation again conflict with that source–I feel like I am an observer of events, but the women’s sensations could only have been made available to me at a later point in time even she employed a mediating narrator to do the job.  Also, how can the mediating narrator be certain of the causation whose consequence was the blonde turning her head?  Again, even if the mediating narrator was told later we have a conflict between the narrative mode of presentation and actual events.  Also, is there ever only one reason that causes something?  Most events are the results of incalculable numbers of causes.

Now, the temptation when reading the comments above would be to suggest that the non-fictionality of any narrative had little or nothing to do with its formal presentation.  However, even if we allow that the sorts of formal indications of fictionality–selectivity of character, narrative time compression and expansion, narrative mode of presentation–already suggested are insufficient to bleed away the non-fictional narrative and narratives based on actual characters and events, there is still the matter of narratives necessarily reporting monolithic emotional states and simplistic causal chains.

My point is explicitly post modern in the best possible way: the conventions of modernism–qualitative and quantitative precision, hard and fast rules of cause and effect, and an unflagging believe in the uniformity and commensurability of experience–are utterly incompatible with narrative presentations–and indeed nearly every presentation is necessarily narrative.


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