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Representative Fictions | The Nation

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Representative Fictions

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The recent history of non-Western fiction recapitulates the Western experience in another, less happy respect: the novel's tendency to attract hostility, even persecution, from cultural authorities. One need only mention Salman Rushdie in this regard. The Rushdie affair points to an aspect of the novel that may seem to us its most obvious but that has historically aroused the greatest incomprehension (and, frequently, hostility), and that is--even now, even in the West--its most difficult to define: fictionality. The novel isn't true, like history, nor is it manifestly false, like legend or fable, so what is it? As Henry Zhao notes, "it seems that the very idea of fictionality baffled Chinese thinking," and the same was true in Europe, where, as Francisco Rico writes, fictionality constituted, upon its emergence, "a category of artistic perception hitherto unknown." When that emergence occurred is a matter of some dispute; one essay here puts it in sixteenth-century Spain, another in seventeenth-century France, a third in eighteenth-century England, a fourth in nineteenth-century Scotland (a sequence, not coincidentally, that is no bad itinerary of the novel's own emergence). This uncertainty should be no cause for embarrassment, however, but is rather an indication of the enormous difficulty with which a traditional culture, for which revealed religion was the exclusive standard of truth, wrapped its mind around so alien a concept. The establishment of fictionality as an epistemological possibility midway between truth and falsehood is an enormous cultural achievement, its possession an enormous cultural resource.

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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So what exactly is fictionality? As Catherine Gallagher explains in what is in a sense the collection's central essay, the idea of fictionality arose in contradistinction not, as we might expect, to the fantastic and improbable tales of, say, medieval romance but to what today we would call romans à clef, thinly veiled satires of real people. Fiction means that which is believable without soliciting belief, that which is referential without referring to real figures and events. Fiction is, in a word, representative: Because it doesn't tell us about anyone in particular, it can tell us about everyone in general, including ourselves. Fictionality enables identification, the chief of readerly pleasures, because it frees us from moral responsibility toward those about whom we read, but it also enables self-reflection, the chief of readerly virtues. Fictionality allows us to imagine (not fantasize)--an act that is not only not anti-intellectual but is in fact supra-intellectual, for it integrates intellect with feeling. The truths that the reading of fiction brings us are not factual and specific but general and philosophical--what earlier ages called wisdom. That may be why our own age of information has less and less use for both reading and fiction. Scientism (which seems to be more the property of laymen than scientists) believes that all truth is quantifiable and attainable through scientific method. Popular culture turns increasingly to "reality" programming and the memoir. Education has become simulation: the guy at Walden Pond who pretends to be Thoreau, the high school teaching segregation by dividing its students, for a day, by eye color. Lost in these exercises is the ability to imagine--to think and feel your way into other people's experiences without pretending to be them, to hold similarity and difference simultaneously in mind. The idea of fictionality, that cultural treasure, is in the process of being dismantled.

This is ultimately why I find Moretti's campaign for "distant reading," which has been gaining a lot of traction, so disturbing. The truth is, the new method isn't really as new as it would have us believe, and I'm not talking about the timeless phenomenon of intellectual megalomania, or what Gerald Martin points at when he refers here to "literary-critical conquistadores concerned to control vast territories without ever working the land." Distant reading, or quantitative analysis, is just the latest effort to put literary study on a scientific, or pseudo-scientific, footing, and it descends from an earlier attempt, structuralism. It was Vladimir Propp's work on the morphology of the folktale that got everyone counting motifs and "functions." Only now, we have computers to do the counting for us. One essay here extols the development of a "database of novelistic topoi," an effort that's been in progress for more than twenty years and has received contributions from scores of scholars--to what ultimate end is still not clear. Evidently, quantitative analysis seeks to emulate the sciences not just intellectually but also in terms of professional structure. Moretti may not read novels anymore, but his research assistants do, a group that apparently includes the Manhattan primary school class that helped prepare one of the charts accompanying his essay here (I'm not making this up). Now we can have labs, big grants and "basic research" done in the name of unforeseeable future benefits. Moretti also likes to borrow concepts from science, notably Darwinism and chaos theory--the idea being that literary forms develop not through influence but through something like (and I use the word "like" loosely) natural selection or turbulence. This theory has the advantage of reducing writers from people with brains to the equivalent of finches or fruit flies, unconscious actors in a vastly complex system. The person with the brain becomes the critic--an updating of structuralism's Oedipal murder of the Author in favor of the Reader. Rather than listening to works of the imagination, distant reading lectures them.

What's lost in all this is what I earlier called, with a humanism some would no doubt find touchingly quaint, self-reflection. Quantitative analysis reduces wisdom to information. I'm not suggesting that studying the great mass of mediocre fiction that people read in every age possesses no value. It clearly does, as a way of deducing all kinds of social and cultural trends, and it's the kind of thing that departments of history or sociology should be interested in doing. The problem comes when it displaces other forms of study within literature departments. Scholarship inevitably gives the lead to teaching. I don't just want the students of tomorrow reading Dan Brown and John Grisham and Jackie Collins for what those authors might show them about our culture. I also want them reading Toni Morrison and Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy for what those authors will teach them about themselves, and if I had to choose one or the other, I would choose the latter every time. Critics who study mass culture forget that they're able to draw interesting socio-cultural conclusions from such material because their minds have been trained on Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce. Train a mind on nothing but Brown and Grisham and Collins, authors who present no intellectual challenge, and it will develop no powers of its own, save the power to parrot the concepts it's been handed in the classroom. And what distinguishes fiction that's worth reading closely from fiction that isn't is precisely what Gallagher might call representativeness. Literary power is the power to tell stories in a way that makes them persuasively representative, that makes you feel like the author is talking about you.

In any case, some of the first fruits of quantitative analysis are on display here, and the results are not pretty. One of the collection's two "Critical Apparatus" sections gives statistical profiles of the growth of the market for fiction in seven different countries. While some of these essays make useful points, and a couple of them interesting ones, they are distinguished, in general, by numbing banality and the use of methodologies that would make a statistician weep. (As one writer admits, "My data stop at precisely the point where one wants to know more.") Some of the charts aren't even properly proofread, though that problem is hardly unique to this section. The two volumes together contain well over a hundred typos and inconsistencies--which, given the collection's price and publisher and prestigious editorial board (which includes Fredric Jameson and Mario Vargas Llosa), is nothing short of disgraceful. Also disgraceful is the quality of the translations. Many of these essays are from Italian and other originals, and if the editors were going to bother having them translated, they might as well have taken the trouble to have them translated into English: "the Götterdammerung, which ultimately was caused by adultery and that marked the end of the Arthurian world"; or "the relationship between interlacing and the whole with the reality of the episode and the knowledge of the totality"; or "nearly any group of readers or listeners can participate thereof." And speaking of Italian, about 20 percent of the essays in the collection are by Italian scholars, and while some of their work is quite fine, that proportion might--how shall I put this?--somewhat overrepresent Italy's worldwide share of literary-critical talent. Particularly distressing, to this reader, was the fact that fully three of the seven pieces on American literature, including the major synoptic essay, were written by one hand: Alessandro Portelli. Portelli's knowledge of American culture is decent but hardly distinguished, and his work here largely recycles insights from his own monograph. He's also enamored of the hoary old European image of the American primitive, doesn't know what "woolly-haired" means and thinks Margaret Atwood is American.

Still, for all its flaws, The Novel is an impressive achievement, and precisely because Moretti was so willing to include perspectives that diverge sharply from his own. Cunningham's passionately eloquent reading of Tess ends by asserting that Hardy's novel gives us, through its "forest of textual perplexities," "the knowable essence of a woman and her story." Fisher's essay on Ulysses is informed by a profound understanding of urban history and a profound feeling for urban experience. And Brenkman's smashing of the facile "first modernism, then postmodernism" model of twentieth-century literary history reminds us that grand critical narratives rarely survive contact with the immense complexity of human culture, and that the novel is a beast that no theoretical net--and no essay collection, no matter how big--will ever hold.

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