In How Fiction Works1 James Wood quotes Roland Barthes: ‘The function of narrative is not to “represent”, it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order… “What takes place” in narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing: “what happens” is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.’ From here Wood proceeds: ‘Now to charge fiction with conventionality is one thing; to move from this charge to the very sceptical conclusion that fictive convention can therefore never convey anything real, that narrative represents “literally nothing”, is incoherent.’
Now I could proceed like this: Barthes is already in the cloudland having fun trying to chase the clouds away —the ones about narrative being mimetic. (I could call these Aristotles’ clouds, after all he’s the one who called fiction mimetic in the first place.) Barthes does this by generating more of his own clouds: the line about what takes place in narrative being ‘literally nothing’; and the line about ‘“what happens” is language alone’. Along comes Wood and seeing how cloudy things seem to be getting begins trying to sort things out a bit by deciding that the cloud Barthes means by ‘narrative’ is ‘fiction’ (It probably is; people are always using the words ‘narrative’ and ‘literature’ in rather cloudy ways to mean fiction). Since Wood is responding here to the critique of the conventions of realism, he launches his own cloud and glides along on it to chase another cloud which looks like one of Barthes but is actually only a cloudy reflection of one of Barthes — the one about fictive convention never conveying anything real. All this is in the last section of Wood’s long, easy essay, where, eventually growing weary of chasing clouds, Wood has had enough: ‘So let’s ‘replace the always problematic word “realism” with the much more problematic word truth’. An awful lot of people writing about fiction have ended up doing this. The ‘still very enigmatic spectacle’ of fiction notwithstanding, the problems of what realism is notwithstanding, fiction is in one way or another, true. It’s just true.
Enough. Let’s just ask some obvious questions. Is fiction mimetic? What does a fiction refer to? Can we say a fictional narrative is true? What is fiction? Is fiction mimetic? Yes, it represents whatever it is about by the use of likenesses of what it is about. Fiction is a likeness of narrative; literary fiction is a likeness of what people say or write. Let’s be quite clear about this. The whole of a novel is a likeness of a story about all the characters in the novel, or perhaps many stories, for a novel is made of likenesses of many stories, and these likenesses includes lots of other likenesses, likeness of how the characters speak or write, likenesses of how people in that society speak, likenesses of other stories or bits of stories. Fiction is a mimesis of life, primarily in the sense that it is mimesis of linguistic and narrative life. What does a fiction refer to? Linguistic and narrative life.2 Why is this so hard to grasp? Why do we ignore it and peck at the reflection in the window? Why do we chase clouds around? Wood quotes George Eliot: ‘Art is the nearest thing to life’. And then adds, ‘The great Victorian realist is being precise here: art is not life itself’. He is very wrong. Art is part of life itself. How strange that so many people, especially those who know art is an important part of their lives, can think art is not part of their lives. Art is life at its liveliest, life at its most eloquently social. Wood quotes Eliot saying almost just this: ‘It is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowman beyond the bounds of our personal lot’. We are living when we do art. Narratives, fiction or non-fiction, are part of life too. All our speech and writing, all our stories are part of life. So when I say fiction is a mimesis of life, if you are used to thinking that narrative or perhaps rather narrative art, is not part of life but somehow something other than life, then you will have trouble getting the simple idea that fiction is the mimesis of life, of linguistic and narrative life. And you will have trouble understanding that narrative life, and indeed the whole of our linguistic life, which is just about the most important thing we live, because as hyper linguistic social animals we live nearly all our lives in, by and through language and narrative, is a pretty significant part of life as we know it.
This answers another question that people might have: Isn’t it trivial to explain something as profound as fiction this way?3 What we say and tell is one of the most important parts of our life. We either do things with words or we talk about them. Wallace Stevens said ‘life consists of propositions about life’. Wood says that ‘round’ characters are impossible in fiction, ‘because fictional characters, while very much alive, are not the same as real people’. I would say that fictional characters are only alive in a metaphorical sense — that is if the narrative artist can render them well. And I would add that a lot of real people, living or dead, are only known to us through written characterisation. Abraham Lincoln, apart from a few photos, is no less literary than Leopold Bloom. What Barthes called ‘language alone’ is anything but ‘literally nothing’. Our great actions are mostly linguistic, social actions, and when they aren’t, we can’t help talking about them.
We seem habituated to separating art from life, the way we separate language from reality, culture from nature, reason from passion, all when art is life at its liveliest, language is reality at its most astonishing, reflecting itself, culture is nature at its most exquisite, reason is passion at its most profound and urgent. Many would find this ridiculous, but that is partly because we are so inured to separating these things, and we are so ready to load one or another of these pairs with the judgement that it is somehow more authentic than the other because it came first or is more down to earth. It is precisely because art is an outstanding state of life (just as language is of reality, or culture of nature, or reason of passion) that we felt the need in the first place to say that art is of a different kind from life (or language is from reality, culture from nature, reason from passion).
Can we say fiction is true (and I mean true in a strict logical sense and not the metaphorical or vague sense that we sometimes use in statements like ‘moral truth’)? Yes, but to explain why, we need to consider how mimetic narrative can be true, bearing in mind that we use the word true (or false) of things like assertions, claims, statements, and beliefs.4
So how does mimetic narrative, which is about people that don’t exist and events that never happened, make a truth claim? It does not make a truth claim about the events in the world of the fiction. It does not claim things like that there was a man named Leopold Bloom who was married to Molly who wandered around Dublin on 16 June 1904 eventually to meet up with someone named Stephen at a brothel and a bus shelter before going home where Molly was dreaming away in bed. So far as this sort of truth is concerned, fiction is only true by being frankly false. As mimetic, fiction shows what it tells and what is true are the claims made, often only by implication, of this act of claiming by showing. Fiction makes truth claims about the language and narratives it shows: ‘Here is a story about a man in Dublin’, ‘Here is what someone or many people might have said about such and such’.
Joyce’s story The Dead begins ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’. We read a truth claim about the character Lily’s state as she is busy assisting the arrival of the guests at ‘the Misses Morkan’s annual dance’, where, just before Christmas, the two elderly sisters entertain their musical friends and relatives. The author shows us a narrative which itself shows in the verb phrase of its first sentence — ‘literally run off her feet’ —Lily describing herself. This is Lily’s use of a cliché used by the common speech of the time, and the author uses it to show us Lily’s use of it, even though Lily is not speaking it at all, and maybe hasn’t even got time to think it either. This is so called free indirect style, the stylistic engine of the prose of fiction, especially modern fiction. I suspect, in one way or another, it is the stylistic engine of all prose, even the plainest speaking, the most sincere and clear self-expression cannot avoid using the words of others. That is what a language is: a common heritage. Free indirect style (terrible term) is sketched by Wood so nicely at the start of his essay, celebrated by Barthes so mischievously and (as it turned out) misleadingly in “The Death of the Author” and examined by Bakhtin so adventure in his writing on the novel, and by Pasolini quite rightly as the stylistic norm also of cinematic narrative too. Free indirect style exploits the recursive logic of fiction by extending it into every level of construction of fiction’s narrative. So who makes the truth claim in The Dead? The author of the narrative. And going up one more level of recursion, which is to say one more level of objectification, it is the author James Joyce showing us this ‘author’ making this truth claim. Or going down one level of recursion this author shows us Lily or her culture using that cliché. You might dismiss this as some kind of ironic postmodern nesting of stories within stories, truth claims within truth claims. Certainly irony, parody are familiar drivers of free indirect style. They are everyday forms of objectification, and supposed postmodern sensitivities about objectivity notwithstanding I would call what you might want to dismiss objectivity. Fiction is a tornado of objectivity, and in free indirect style we witness the tornado deliberately rearranging the levels of objectification deep down into the individual sentences.
In general ‘It is said …’, once the opening gambit not only myth, or ‘it has been written’, the usually unspoken opening gambit of historical writing, could well be the unspoken assumption of fiction as well. Fiction lets us scrutinise an object, a narrative consisting of many truth claims and other linguistic acts. Just as the primary object of historical inquiry is not the events a document reports but the document itself as an object surviving from the past, the primary object of a reader’s scrutiny is the narrative as an object, not the acts and events the narrative describes, but the act of making a claim about them that is true or false. So different from one another, myth, history and fiction, at least share this: they aspire to truth in this sense.
But perhaps this is not really truth; we seem to have become divorced from what in the first place and after all really interests us in fiction. Literary fiction is about linguistic communication and narrative, but that does not mean it is about linguistic communication that is about nothing or about narrative that is about nothing. Such things would just be abstractions. What happens in fiction is not ‘language alone’ because for language properly to be language it has to be about something, and for narrative to be narrative it has to be about events. A fiction is about a narrative or several narratives, which are about events. We should recognise here the operation of recursion, of embedding one thing within another: fiction shows linguistic acts or narrative acts which are in turn about the world of the novel, that is, a fiction is about something that is about something. Fiction is true at the first level of embedding, at the level where it shows us linguistic and narrative acts. But even so the levels of embedding do not neutralise or quarantine us from the events that occur within the second or deeper embedding, the events in the world of the novel; if the fiction is showing language and narrative it has to show language and narrative doing what language and narrative does; that is, doing what is affecting, otherwise it is only narrative in abstract and the level at which fiction is true could not be true in any other than a trivial sense.
1. Now a lot of people, e.g. Walter Kirn in the New York Times, D J Taylor in The Independent, seemed to take some satisfaction in giving a bit of stick to the author of this bright, genial essay for variously being genial, polite and a bit old fashioned, knowing what he likes, writing what is essentially a literary primer, and not really liking David Foster Wallace, none of which seems to be out of place. It is a good literary primer; and I would recommend it along with David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, and if you a really serious about knowing how fiction works you should definitely not ignore the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin. I would also say that it is an essay so it takes the digressive, personal liberties essays are good for. Lastly I would say that Wood is not so hard on David Foster Wallace; and I would never forgive him if he were.
2. This also includes other kinds of fiction too, such is cinematic fiction; cinematic fiction is the mimesis of cinematic, narrative and linguistic life.
3. We are quite contradictory about explanations. On the one hand we like to expect that the answer a question about something that we think of as profound, like art, will be as profound and as moving as art itself. But there is no reason to expect explanations of poetry can or should be poetic. On the other hand we expect that an explanation will somehow be simpler than what we are explaining and not just complicate the issue. Samuel Johnson defined ‘network’ as ‘any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections’ just to make the point that sometimes we can’t define something in simpler terms. Woods ‘much more problematic word truth’ is a plain and familiar concept that can only be defined by more complex terms. However the purpose of an explanation, as opposed to a definition, is to explain something in terms of something else, so that instead of having two things to explain, we only have one. An explanation is essentially reductive: it reduces the amount of information.
4. If fiction can be true it can also be false. Truth claims are what we use to tell lies. However, even though glib theorists of fiction say things like fiction is a kind of lie, fiction is not a lie; a fiction is a truth claim. If a fiction is a lie it damages its aesthetic value by damaging its truth value. A fiction that lies turns from ethical to tendentious, erotic to pornographic, sincere to pretentious, or some like failure.