The status of fiction, the set of assumptions that we take for granted about fictional writing, is a curious business when you look closely at it. It is understood that a novel tells a story exactly as though it were reporting facts, but it is not reporting facts.
Novels often are prefaced by a disclaimer these days, saying that no resemblance to real persons or events is intended. That is the equivalent of saying 'The following is not true'.
What is the alternative? What it is intended to contrast with? Factual books, of course: history, biography, textbooks, manuals, educational materials. Should they then have a preface saying 'The following is true'? Of course not; it simply goes without saying.
The mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) introduced a special symbol ⊦ into his system of symbolic logic to act as an 'assertion sign'. It was prefixed to a statement that was presented as being asserted. Some logicians found this useful in logical calculations, while others questioned its necessity. To say that 'a equals b' is no different from saying 'it is true that a equals b' or 'I assert that a equals b'; the last statements carry precisely no more weight, logically, than the first1.
In reporting facts which may be true, false, fanciful or dubious, it may even inspire more misgivings than reassurance to say, 'This really happened, honestly, cross my heart, do you think I would lie to you?' A natural response would be, 'Well I didn't, but now that you mention the possibility...'
Fiction has been written for as long as humans have been writing, it seems. The oldest known literary texts are Sumerian, from about 2600 BC, including supernatural tales such as The Legend of Etana. Here is our first problem.
It is all very well to call other cultures' myths fictional, but not one's own. Being supernatural means that they are not observed as natural facts are observed. They are either rationalisations of the mysterious, or retellings of old tales that have passed through the filter of many generations of tellers; generally, they are a mixture of both of these categories.
Supernatural tales are told as sober fact, without disclaimer. This can be seen as the equivalent of a conjuror asserting that he has nothing up his sleeve (which may well be true, but whatever he produces has been hidden somewhere).
Historically, in courts of law, witnesses and defendants were required to swear an oath before God, that is, with reference to the supernatural. This is no longer required in British law, but one is still expected to 'solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm' one's evidence. Has either method been noticeably successful in preventing contradictory evidence being given by opposing sides?
Claim to Truth
A conjuror would reduce the impact of his performance by saying 'The following is not true'. On the other hand, has he any reason to say 'The following is true'?
There is at least one instance of an illusionist making such a claim: Orson Welles in his 1973 documentary film F for Fake states, near the start, that everything he will tell you in the next hour is really true. Of course the film runs for more than an hour, so does this amount to an admission that some dubious material may be introduced before the end? Welles is patently aware that he is arousing just this suspicion, and he plays with the viewer's expectations. In fact it is a most compelling and strongly-argued investigation into the status of the fraudulent, with fierce attacks on the pretentious nonsense peddled by 'experts'. The entire film is available to view free on the internet, and cannot be too highly recommended. Indeed, it was the initial inspiration for this Entry.
It has always been clearly understood, however tacitly, that certain tales are tall to begin with, and therefore free to embroider in the telling. Certain books in the Judaeo-Christian tradition are called 'canonical': these are accepted as genuine and inspired, and go to make up the Bible. Others are called 'apocryphal' or hidden: these are excluded from the canon on the grounds of being less inspired. As one might expect, there is disagreement between sects on just which books make the cut.
A good example of a tale that is apocryphal to some but canonical to others is The Book of Tobit. Rather than enter into controversy here, it is left to the reader of this Entry to find it on the internet2, and judge whether it has possibly grown in the telling. It is a ripping story, and highly entertaining, as well as holding fascinating psychological insights. It includes a dramatic scene of casting out an evil spirit, which may be read by a modern reader as the purging of a neurosis. The modern reader is then startled to read the fate of the outcast demon: a neurosis may simply cease to operate, like a disabled program, but an evil spirit on departing apparently has to go somewhere else, in this case 'into the utmost parts of Egypt'.
Ancient Greek drama appears to have begun as the re-enactment of famous struggles. The performance presents an agon or contest, between two agonists: the protagonist is the person we are up for and the antagonist is his opponent. When the protagonist wins, we are relieved and it is a comedy; when the antagonist wins, we are horrified and it is a tragedy.
Many of the Greek dramas were historical or quasi-historical, with many crossing over into the supernatural, and including gods and goddesses among the dramatis personae. Others made no pretence at history or theology, being clearly fantastical or farcical. These would seem to provide one precedent to the novel, in making no claim to veracity.
Following the lead of apocryphal stories that were used to point up a moral, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, purporting to describe a newly-discovered island of that name in the Atlantic. The book is a blueprint for an ideal society, and was presented as such. What is interesting from our point of view here is the pains More takes to add verisimilitude to his fiction. He begins, like Orson Welles in F for Fake, by reporting real events, including a trip he had recently made, in an official capacity, to Flanders. He reproduces supposed correspondence between himself and real persons he had met: Peter Gilles, the town clerk of Antwerp, and Jerome Busleiden, an adviser to the Emperor Charles V. In this fictional correspondence he introduces the character who has told both him and Gilles of an island he visited, called Utopia, where the citizens live in peace and prosperity. The rest of the book describes the political structure that yields this desirable state.
More leaves clues for the classically educated reader in his choice of names: the sailor who tells of this wonderful land is named Raphael Hythloday, whose surname a Greek scholar would recognise as meaning 'speaker of nonsense'. Indeed the name 'Utopia' is derived from Greek, and means 'no place'. It is hard to escape the suspicion that More confessed his fiction with a wink to the learned, while hoping it might just be taken for true history by the less educated.
Medieval tall tales abounded, crystallising in long romances relating the exploits, often magical, of heroic knights-errant such as the quasi-historical Paladins of Charlemagne. In some scholars' view, the earliest modern novel was Cervantes' Don Quixote3. This begins as a direct lampoon of the chivalric tales; its eponymous hero is a man in his fifties whose brain has been addled by incessant reading of romances, and who sets out on ridiculous knight-errantry of his own.
The curious thing about Don Quixote is the way Cervantes changes his attitude as the book proceeds. Starting out as the butt of painful and humiliating slapstick reversals, Don Quixote gradually grows on his creator, who ends up clearly fond of him and his faithful servant Sancho Panza.
Readers have devoured printed fiction avidly since then, and continue to do so. In the 18th Century novels were as badly maligned for their time-wasting and brain-addling tendencies as the old romances had been by Cervantes until in the end he gave up knocking them and instead contributed his own.
The Convention of the Unreliable Narrator
Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy was an extraordinary success in the 1760s, telling a life story as autobiography, but with such egregious digressions that the supposed author's birth only comes in Volume III of the seven.
In the 19th Century novelists focussed increasingly on the spin that the narrator is perceived to have put on a story. In the course of reading Henry James's 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw for instance, the realisation dawns that the person telling the story within the story is the most — if not the only — deluded character in the drama.
The Hypermodern Novel
In the 20th Century several authors played around with the form of fiction. Two notable experiments were made by Flann O'Brien:
In At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) the reader is introduced to three levels of fictitious characters. There is the first-person narrator, a student. He is writing a novel about a novelist, Dermot Trellis, whose fictional characters meet behind his back, while Trellis sleeps, and conspire to thwart his distasteful plans for them4.
In The Third Policeman (published posthumously in 1966) a story is told in the first person by a character who, it transpires, has died unknown to himself in the early pages. His death is caused by an explosion, which he experiences as a subtle change in the atmosphere; his narrative continues unbroken, and is gradually revealed as a comic but sufficiently grisly vision of hell.
A subsidiary experiment in The Third Policeman is a set of images from the life of an inventor named De Selby, told entirely in footnotes.
On an opposite tack, certain successful novels flavour their fiction with lore that is presented as reliable. Ian Fleming's James Bond stories, for instance, give the reader insights into expensive, sophisticated lifestyles. However, some critics say that Fleming gave deliberately misleading advice, such as that a martini should be shaken, not stirred. A relatively innocent pulling of wool over eyes, akin to Alun Owen's experiment in A Hard Day's Night by which he introduced the word 'grotty', to see if it would take hold5.
Perhaps the most comprehensive lore in modern literature is the remarkably complete world invented by JRR Tolkien, which now has become a field of study as hotly researched, to all appearances, as any history6.
Sufficiently compelling to some is the ecclesiastical lore underpinning the books of Dan Brown, especially The Da Vinci Code. The tease is irresistible, as an appearance is given of seriously undermining long-held dogmas. Though the story is obviously fictional, the scholarship is presented as possibly veracious.
But is it True?
It is dramatically necessary for conjurors to project trustworthiness, but their protestations of honesty are accepted by the sophisticated as taking place within the fiction. Within fiction, any transgression of boundaries can take place: a fictional creation can rebel against his fictional creator. Even more arcanely, a character in Sophie's World can send Sophie a birthday greeting addressed to Hilde, a person unknown to her. Sophie is mystified and thinks she cannot pass it on. However, the message gets through. Hilde, we find out later, is the girl to whom the story of Sophie is being told: the first part of the book is revealed to have been a story within a story. To Sophie, Hilde is a supernatural being. Sophie is in Hilde's world, but Hilde is outside Sophie's.
But where, exactly, does fiction begin and end? This question is likely to remain intractable, not least because of the problematic nature of existence and personhood.
Ontology is the philosophical study of what exists. There can be no doubt that something exists, but there is a degree of mystery about the existential status of persons. For Idealists and Rationalists, personhood is primary — I think, therefore I am — and the existence of external things is secondary. For Materialists and Empiricists, material objects are primary and it is the existence of the perceiving subject that is shadowy. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it: 'If I wrote a book The world as I found it, I should also have therein to report on my body and say which members obey my will and which do not, etc. This then would be a method of isolating the subject or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject: that is to say, of it alone in this book mention could not be made.'
Brain research supports the suggestion, which some find chilling, that all our decisions are made before we become conscious of them; our consciousness, our continuous life-story, is a collection of rationalisations-after-the-event. Marcel Proust expressed this conclusion a hundred years ago: 'All the characters in this book, including the author and the reader, are fictional'.
If all persons are fictions, what credibility can anyone expect to command?
And yet people persist in writing things that purport to express truths. We strenuously denounce fiction in writing that affects decisions: the falsification of evidence, research data, statistics. We seek out and expose such fiction, and punish the perpetrators, as we must.
The Importance of Fiction
Fiction is clearly more than entertainment. It is a capacity hard-wired into humans. Two-year-old children need no instruction — they are innately ready to pretend, swap names, take on personas, and involve their toys in stories. The fact that we launch into fiction so early, and with such ease, hides the very strangeness of the game from us.
Besides being the control centre for all bodily functions that require co-ordination, the brain is a machine for creating possible futures. This ability is not limited to humans: all animals are able to gain advantage and avoid danger by seeing ahead. In the human, however, this capacity is enormously enhanced, reaching a point in chess games where each decision is made after considering gigantically-branching consequences. Fiction is one way of trying out 'what if' situations in the more fluid medium of human behaviour, beyond the rigidly rule-bound board.
On the other hand, much the best literary fiction is in a sense not fictional at all: very often it arises out of the deeply influential life experiences of the writer or close friends and relations, so that a Tennessee Williams for instance will write powerfully about his age's cruel treatment of homosexuality and mental instability. There is also a case to be made, that great literature arises whenever a world order has been eclipsed: so for instance the epics of Homer recall for the Iron Age the heroism of the Bronze Age. The writer is powerless to roll back the evolution of society, and indeed may not want to, but can use the weapon of fiction to preserve those values that may otherwise be lost in the change of tides.
As well as being part of our DNA, fiction gives us ways of defining ourselves. The writer Thomas Kennedy, who has written an odyssey of his own7, confesses that in reading Joyce's Ulysses as a young man, he first discovered his own mind.