Fact versus Fiction

by Daniel Hartley

Steve Mitchelmore has recently written a fairly lengthy meditation on ‘the surge of voices [esp. Geoff Dyer’s and Lee Siegel’s] condemning the worldly disappointments of contemporary fiction and instead advocating creative non-fiction’. Lara Pawson has since written a detailed and heartfelt response to Mitchelmore’s post. Each post deserves comment, and I shall try to provide that in the coming days, but what I’d like to do here is to problematise the distinctions between fact and fiction that run through their respective posts (sometimes using their own definitions, sometimes those of Dyer and Siegel).

Since I would only end up paraphrasing Eagleton on this matter anyway, I’ve decided simply to quote a few choice extracts from his recent How to Read a Poem. I hope they open up a wider discussion on the fact-fiction distinction, especially with Steve Mitchelmore, since his Josipovici-Blanchot angle may well provide interesting alternatives to Eagleton’s (Wittgensteinian) reader-oriented pragmatism.

Here are the quotations:

To ‘fictionalise’ is to detach a piece of writing from its immediate, empirical context and to put it to wider uses.

(In his Walter Benjamin; or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Eagleton points out that, in this respect, fiction is not unlike ideology.)

‘Fictional’ does not primarily mean ‘imaginary’…If [they] are not the same thing, it is partly because not all imaginary experiences are fiction (hallucinations, for example), but also because you can ‘fictionalize’ a piece of writing which was originally intended as factual. Notes to the milkman are usually terse, to the point, and written in plain, economic style; but this would not prevent a poetically inclined milkman from noting that ‘Two skimmed, two semi-skimmed and one full cream’ is an iambic pentameter. The meaning of a statement is partly determined by what sort of reception it anticipates; but this does not guarantee that it will get that sort of reception.

Fiction, then, does not mean in the first place ‘factually false’. There are lots of falsehoods which are not fictional, and, as we have seen, there are also lots of true statements in literary works. The word ‘fiction’ is a set of rules for how we are to apply certain pieces of writing – rather as the rules of chess tell us not whether the chess pieces are solid or hollow, but how we are to move them around. Fiction instructs us in what we are to do with texts, not in how true or false they are. It suggests, for example, that we should not take them primarily as factual propositions, or worry over-much about whether what factual they do contain are true or false. These claims, fiction informs us, are there mostly in the service of moral truth; they are not present for their own sake.

The fact that what is mainly at stake in literature are moral rather than empirical claims means that writers can bend the latter to fit the former. Aristotle remarks that the poet, unlike the historian, does not have to stick to the way things are. Because literary works, including historical novels, are not obliged to conform closely to the historical facts, they can reorganize those facts so as to highlight their moral significance. Narratives usually reconfigure the world to make a point about it.

Finally, he points out that these ‘moral visions’ constructed by the author are not to be taken as necessarily true; they, too, may well be false. But they are not true or false in the same sense as statements of fact are.