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Reviewed by:
  • The Distinction of Fiction
  • James Phelan
Dorrit Cohn. The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. ix + 197 pp.

Dorrit Cohn’s main purpose in this engaging book is twofold: first, she disputes the belief, now widely held in the wake of poststructuralism and postmodernism, that there is no tenable distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Second, she locates that distinction in differences of narrative technique and the kinds of representation these techniques make possible. Along the way, she offers some very fine analyses of a range of narratives from Freud’s case histories to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and she offers some suggestive insights into other theoretical issues, such as unreliable heterodiegetic narration and the relation between technique and the policing function of the novel. Although Cohn’s case is somewhat limited by the form of its own presentation—the book is a collection of related essays rather than a single, sustained argument—The Distinction of Fiction is an important contribution to narrative theory and a salutary intervention in the debate about the relation between fiction and nonfiction.

The book consists of ten essays, eight of which have appeared in earlier versions in various journals and edited volumes. Chapters 1 and 2 provide the theoretical basis for Cohn’s case that fiction and nonfiction, especially history, are distinct kinds of writing. Chapters 3 through 6 [End Page 1102] examine individual narratives that either appear to challenge Cohn’s position or distinctively illuminate it: Freud’s case histories, Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Hildesheimer’s Marbot, and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Chapter 7 shifts the focus back to theory, as Cohn identifies specific “signposts of fictionality,” that is, features of fiction that cannot be found in historical narrative. Chapters 8 through 10 shift once again to text-specific arguments as Cohn makes a case for the unreliability of Mann’s heterodiegetic narrator in Death in Venice; discusses the incorporation of historical figures and objects into the fiction of War and Peace; and analyzes the problems with Foucauldian approaches to narrative technique by D. A. Miller, Mark Seltzer, and John Bender.

Defining fiction as “literary nonreferential narrative,” Cohn locates its distinctiveness in three signposts. First, fiction can be understood by reference to the relationship between two levels of analysis—most often called story and discourse—while understanding history requires understanding an additional relationship, that between story and reference to the historical record. Cohn’s argument that Freud’s case histories are nonfictional is implicitly tied to this signpost, as is her conclusion that the status of Proust’s narrative is ultimately ambiguous. Second, fiction enjoys a freedom of focalization that history does not: fiction, unlike history, can authoritatively represent the inner thoughts, feelings, and consciousness of characters without the mediating consciousness of an external narrator. Cohn puts this claim in another, especially intriguing way: all narrators of historical texts, however magisterial their command of the historical record, are homodiegetic—and thus bound by the limits on homodiegetic narrators. Her chapter on Waiting for the Barbarians, which argues for our understanding that novel’s simultaneous present-tense narration as a viable option for fictional narrative, makes a closely related point. Third, fiction, unlike referential narrative, allows for unreliable narration, that is, a disjunction between the norms of the author and those of the narrator the author creates. Cohn’s discussion of unreliability in Death in Venice is a worthwhile extension of this case.

Cohn’s argument is a welcome intervention in the debate about the relation between fiction and nonfiction because it shifts the terms of that debate. The case against the distinction has focused on nonfiction and has successfully cast doubt on our traditional understanding of [End Page 1103] its connection to reality and truth by pointing out nonfiction’s inevitable selectivity and its inescapable commitment to ideological beliefs. Add to these points Hayden White’s emphasis on the power of narrative form to shape the presentation of evidence and, voilà!—nonfiction seems to be fiction by another name. Cohn, however, is saying, in effect, “not so fast; if we shift our focus to fiction, we can still see that it is a...

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