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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

COLLECTED ESSAYS ON LITERATURE AND CRITICISM:

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EXPERIMENTAL FICTION NOW


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INNOVATIVE WOMEN WRITERS


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AMERICAN POSTMODERN FICTION


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REALISMS

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BETWEEN SILLINESS AND SATIRE:BLACK HUMOR FICTION


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MANY WINDOWS: ON EXPERIMENTAL FICTION


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A WIDER ANGLE: AMERICAN FICTION AT THE PERIPHERY


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« Pyschological Occurences | Main | A Wedge Between Writers and Readers »

03/26/2008

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susan

It's not just a case of history versus fiction--which to me, is separated more by fact (as much as possible) versus fantasy--in that human communication has its limits and that translates into how we attempt to retell an experience. Verbal skills simply cannot describe the taste of chocolate or the touch of a baby's hand on your face with any accuracy that comes close to handing someone a bon bon or holding a baby.

You're right then; new ways are the paths--none of which will ever encapsulate the actual.

Pacifist Viking

Of course I'm reminded of the classic 13th chapter of John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman," where the novelist enters the book to admit that he doesn't know what his character is thinking.

But Fowles was much concerned in his fiction about the way an author "plays God," knowing that the supposed "freedom" of the characters was just a fiction itself, as the author was in fact in total control of the nonexistent characters (he said as much in interviews).

I think this is further evident in that Fowles published a revised edition of "The Magus" without ever really telling us to do away with the original edition. As readers, we can try to put together what "really happened," but we have to recognize that in fact "both happened" (since both editions exist) but furthermore that in fact "neither happened" (because it's fiction!).

Brian

It's always an interesting conversation to have, histories vs. fiction, but it doesn't seem like a very important question, really. Despite all the talk of psychologies and consciousnesses and fiction's ability to explore these in their characters, it's all to no avail: the characters are fictional, as are their psychologies and any attempt to describe them. When writing about historical figures, there's very little we have to work with--a few dates, concrete accomplishments, if we're lucky (speaking from a literary point of view) a battle won or lost or a list of well documented sexual trysts; the reality is that the whole character is simply a figment of the author's imagination. How could the author have any more insight than a historian regarding a historical figures personality, perceptions, emotions, etc? It's all speculation. History is history. Fiction is fiction.

Pacifist Viking

We also shouldn't underestimate the degree to which history is fiction. It's creative art to make meaning of events and people of the past (reading multiple biographies of the same person make this clear).

Jim H.

My flaying of Lepore's New Yorker piece itself having been flayed, I rise not necessarily defensively but simply to remark that just as the evidence of our senses is all we, as human beings, have to go on in grasping the world and understanding others (whether through inference or induction) so the proofs for our model "realities" and our illusory characters in fiction must, by analogy, derive from sensory descriptions. This was a glaring lacuna in both Lepore and James Wood. As a psychiatrist once told me when discussing an orthopedic matter: "I can understand it fairly well, but it's from 100 feet above."

As Husserl does with his phenomenology, so we must bracket [reality] to reflect upon the ways in which fiction operates. We are concerned about the way [reality] is presented in fiction. And our point is that it must be presented through the [consciousness] of the character or narrator. Again, [consciousness] is bracketed. We know it's fiction. But the illusions of reality and personhood in fiction are made more vivid by siting them in, yes, words that tie them to sensory experiences to which the reader can relate.

My latest post at http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com shows how even the metafictionists you mention in your post (Beckett, Burroughs, Barthelme, Sorrentino—as well as DeLillo, Pynchon, and Gass) rely on the description of sensory experience to drive home crucial metafictional points.

Best,
Jim H.

btw: Thanks for the forum space for substantive, meaty discussion.

Steven Augustine

Dan:

"There is neither a 'consciousness' to enter nor a 'subject' whose consciousnesss is revealed. There are words on a page."

This "debate" is dear to my heart. I argued as you do in the cited passage, in a comment thread at The Valve, over a year ago. A sweaty workout. One notion I argued against was the supposed "morality" (or lack thereof) of a Mr. Humbert Humbert; a morality which would, of a necessity, require his impossible "inner-life". Even minus the question of an inner-life, the fact that Humbert's (or any character's) "fate" is a fixed schematic removes any hope of Free Will, without which "morality" is meaningless.

I argued (amongst other points):

"Characters in a work of the imagination don't exist and therefore can't be said to have thoughts or personalities or behaviours...how can we (reasonably, or fruitfully) use the ultimately human descriptor set of 'Morality' to address phantoms? Instead we use the appropriate descriptor set of Aesthetics (specifically Literary Aesthetics) to evaluate them. Humbert is no more a moral question than 'he' is a Newtonian one. (In my opinion.) The illusion that we can apply moral questions to 'him' at all is a tribute to Nabokov’s art (I'm willing to wager that issue rarely comes up regarding flatly written characters)."

The fact that this even needs arguing is an indication that the "spooky art" is taken for granted (falsely domesticated, reduced)in the minds of too many otherwise smart, careful readers. Which, frustratingly, limits the range of discussion (when we can't get much further than Square One because we haven't even defined it). A Telenovella (real humans pretending in real time, more or less) is one degree of illusion; Literary Fiction is several magnitudes of illusion *beyond* that: but I don't think many people make that distinction.

The wider implication of the fact that the literary Humbert Humbert, or Hazel Motes, are just "words on the page" is that they attach to zero *objective* reality; they "exist" only as thoughts unique to every reader's mind, as do the novels and stories they come to us in. Until the human mind is *standardized* and/or readable itself, the various schools of systematic talk about Literature will rise and fall, willy-nilly, like all the other fad diets of Prescription, Proscription and Oracular Speech.

When we talk about Literature we're talking about a very special order of dreaming-awake or daydream... "Directed Daydreams", maybe? The "Truth" we get from this activity remains particular to ourselves and is non-transferable. Which is, surely, what's so cool about it?

Steven Augustine

Jim H:

"...our illusory characters in fiction must, by analogy, derive from sensory descriptions."

I'm not even sure about *that*, Jim, because there are plenty of novels/stories (many of them German! laugh) in which a 1st Person Narrator is a philosophically-inclined talking head, unspooling kilometers-long ribbons of ideas, with very little attempt at invoking the senses (or the body) in order to drive home the points. There's a kind of person (almost wrote "German" there) who considers that a purer literature, even.

But even when the sensual descriptions are piled on, the essential illusion (that there are creatures thinking and doing on the page) misleads us in all kinds of ways.

joseph duemer

"The historian cannot say how richly succulent the juice from the veal loin Henry IV ate the night he learned of Richard II's death tasted as it dribbled down his chin."

The veal juice, if it was on Henry's chin, didn't taste like anything, since it was on his chin, not his tongue. This observation is not mere pedantry. The sentences of both fiction and history must be accurate to experience before they can be true, whatever one means by true. The reader, putting him or her self into the hands of the writer, out to be able to expect certain assurances . . . In the sentence above, a rhetorical gesture knocks over the lamp of meaning. Or was that the mirror? (That same rhetorical gesture also, briefly, makes us imagine Henry tasting Richard's death instead of the veal.) What was it Ezra Pound said? "The test of a man's [sic] sincerity is to be found in his technique." Words matter.

Ian

Isn't it all by imputation? But the words have to do the work and therein lies one problem with so much Realist fiction, this perception that the words are simply transparent vehicles for sensory description or physical description or character or feelings. So you get Oprah who asks her readers to react to the work by how closely it correlates with some experience in their lives. Or the "from the heart" bunch who were issued some kind of chest port at birth that allows them insert a pen and the material just flows out.

Dan Green

"My flaying of Lepore's New Yorker piece itself having been flayed"

Nothing like a flaying was intended. There's just a point of contention here that provokes debate.

No Answers

An excellent post, Dan. I wish I could express things as well as you do.

Fiction is, among other things, a particular way of using language, and what exactly it addresses is therefore as often as not a secondary product. It's for this reason that contrasting "fiction" and "history" often does little to elucidate the subject of contention. It's also for this very reason that it would be impossible to say which were a more "accurate" account of past events. The two simply don't meet sufficiently upon a common ground that they can agree to differ.

brewdog

I can't help but feel that those readers who expect a certain historical exactitude in their fiction (and I would argue- a certain kind of fictional realism in their history) have been irreparably damaged by some bad English (literature) teachers in school.

At the expense of mindful expansiveness, these readers, even those who consider themselves somehow elevated in fluency, taste or other measure, want to taste either Henry's veal loin or Cleopatra's loin. They seem to value that which is (fictionally to be sure) tangible over that which is even slightly metaphysical, to the point where we can predict the offensiveness invented/forged memoirs based solely on the idea that the words in memoirs are supposed to somehow be true.

I can't help but go back to the idea that is popularly attributed to Flaubert- the idea that in fiction, the inclusion of select few details in a narrative actually creates a more effective verisimilitude than the exhaustively detailed realism which prevailed elsewhere. Shouldn't we, as readers, as writers, really just accept every text on a spectrum and understand that fiction & history are not mutually exclusive?

Nigel Beale

Of course fiction can "do more than pretend to "enter into the consciousness" of people"...but I'd suggest that the most satisfying reading experiences occur precisely when this happens...satisfying, and 'best,' if we choose to rank the relative merit of different kinds of fiction.

Kelley Griffith,writing about how to write about literature, addresses the differences between history-fiction. I summarize as follows:

While both attempt to create ‘reality’, fictional worlds are potentially more complete and coherent than historical worlds. Fiction writers can produce facts at will, and fit them into a coherent plant (Don Delillo’s Libra). "They can enter their characters’ minds, look into the heavens, create chains of cause and effect, pierce the future. They must establish at least an aesthetic order, possibly a philosophical order too. They must build conflict into their worlds. Events of history are not always characterized by conflict, events of fiction always are.

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