Academic journal article Style

Can Fiction Become Fact? the Fiction-to-Fact Transition in Recent Theories of Fiction

Academic journal article Style

Can Fiction Become Fact? the Fiction-to-Fact Transition in Recent Theories of Fiction

Article excerpt

Most recent theories of fiction adopt pragmatic-contextual approaches that incorporate "fiction" as a historically variable category. Accordingly, the semantic composition or stylistic properties of a given text are less essential in determining fictionality than the readers' generic expectations: texts can be given different determinants in time and in regard to different frames of reference. This also means that there are no isolated features in texts such as single "fictional" sentences that could dictate whether some text is fiction. What is important in defining some text as fiction is the information we gather of the text' s genre, the criteria that dictate the way we first classify and then read some text as fiction. These criteria, in other words, enable us to relate new texts to other texts that we have already categorized in a certain way. This is also why Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865-69) or William Carlos Williams's alternative history of the United States, In the American Grain (1925), are regarded as fiction although they document historical and social facts, or why Jules Michelet's Histoire de la France (1833-67) is history despite the invented elements that recur in it. Crucial in determining the text's status vis-a-vis fact and fiction are the conception of the narrator's or the speaker's intention and the audience's generic expectations. (1)

The pragmatic-contextual argument also entails the possibility of historical changes between the categories of fact and fiction. It is common to argue that certain historiographies or skillfully written memoirs, for instance, can attain a fictional status over a period of time. Thus, History (440-430 BCE), by Herodotus, or War (431-411 BCE), by Thucydides, not only can be read as fictions today but perhaps are now first and foremost fictional. Further, it is also perhaps commonplace to state that this process can be reversed, that fictional texts may cease to be fictional. Ruth Ronen, for instance, argues in Possible Worlds in Literary Theory that not only can texts originally written as history or as philosophy be fictionalized (that is, converted into fiction) but that "at a later point in cultural history" the text's "fictionality and actuality can be relativized to a cultural perspective (legends about Greek gods were presumably treated as versions of reality by people in ancient Greece)" (76). In a similar vein, Marie-Laure Ryan, in her Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, emphasizes that the author and the reader may assess differently the relation between the actual world and the fictional world. A text meant as nonfiction therefore may be received as fiction, or vice versa. What looks like a surrealist poem could be an entry in the diary of a schizophrenic patient, or "what looks like the genuine love letters of a Portuguese nun could be the invention of a seventeenth-century French author" (46). Here Ryan must be thinking of Lettres portugaises traduites en franfais (1669) by Gabriel de Lavergne de Guilleragues, also commonly attributed to a nun called Marianna Alcoforado, supposedly translated from Portuguese. (2)

It is interesting that at a later point in her book, Ryan must restate her argument about the possible historical change of generic expectations owing to the lack of examples concerning fiction becoming factual. Obviously, if anything could be read as fiction, or fiction as fact, the very distinction between the two would also lose its meaning. Any individual, writer or reader, may of course choose to actualize fiction, or to assess the relationship between the actual world and the textual world as he or she likes, but Ryan is careful, in general terms, not to claim that fiction could become real (fact). She points out: "It is hard, however, to find convincing examples of the second possibility: I can only come up with the case of Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, who significantly happen to be themselves characters in fictions" (Possible 76). …

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