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Reviewed by:
  • Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction, and: The Old Fictions and the New
  • John Hollowell
Barbara Foley. Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. 273 pp. $24.95.
Richard Kostelanetz. The Old Fictions and the New. Jefferson: McFarland, 1987. 205 pp. $25.00.

Foley begins with many of the assumptions of the 1970s and 1980s about the so called "literature of fact" and "the nonfiction novel." Unlike earlier works by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh and John Hellmann, Foley's work is thoroughly historical and from a Marxist perspective. Telling the Truth is impressive both from the point of view of its treatment of the theory of documentary fiction and from that of its careful reading of individual texts.

Foley's work begins with a thorough introductory section that is a challenging reexamination of the problems of mimesis in fiction and nonfiction and the problem of the generic distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Impressively, Foley is aware of a wide variety of the strands and subgenres of current poststructuralist criticism, the lack of which has been a shortcoming of earlier commentators on the problems posed by the nonfiction novel. In her theory section, Foley begins Chapter Two, "The Mimetic Contract and the Problem of Assertion," [End Page 243] by surveying a number of current theories: she examines mentalist theory (affective and reader-response theories) and intentionalist theories (speech-act theories of literature). She focuses on the issue of the mimetic contracts established between writer and reader and the kinds of claims to truth each makes upon the reader. Foley concludes this section by arguing that current literary theory has made important advances in determining literary genres.

After having worked through several possible mimetic contracts that affect documentary fiction, Foley examines in some detail the assertive quality and implicit ideology of literature that establishes a background for her treatment of specific types of documentary fiction in Part Two of Telling the Truth.

In Part Two, Foley treats specific genres or types of documentary fiction: the Pseudofactual Novel (Chapter Five), the Historical Novel (Chapter Six), the Modernist Documentary Novel (Chapter Seven), and the Afro-American Documentary Novel (Chapter Eight). In exploring the pseudofactual novel, Foley argues that such works "invoke an intrinsically ironic, even a parodic contract. According to such a contract, the reader is asked to accept the text's characters and situations as invented, which means seeing the text not as having no referent but as referring to relations rather than to particulars allegedly existing apart from their representation in discourse." Toward the end of the chapter, Foley shows that such works reflect "the epistemology of nascent empiricism" that was beginning in the eighteenth century. "The act of perception leads to cognition, but cognition is not imposed—at least, not overdetermined—by the configuration of the text. The text's avoidance of interpretive totalization thus signals a critical relation to the apriorism of dominant aesthetic and social ideologies."

From this point, Foley moves on to a careful exploration of the historical novel of the nineteenth century, arguing that the methods and modes of presentation are deeply embedded in ideology and the development of bourgeoisie. Foley shows that the new historical novels, unlike the pseudohistorical novels of the earlier century, "incorporate the speaking 'I' into a novelistic frame that locates the character's identity in a historically specific fictional realm, rather than in a speciously authentic mode of discourse. Other modes of documentary fiction enjoy residual status in the nineteenth century, but the historical novel emerges as the paradigmatic mode of the genre."

In discussing "The Modernist Documentary Novel," Foley concludes that "the empiricist and positivist epistemologies that sustained historical and naturalistic fiction . . . enter into a state of crisis." The modernist works in this mode of fiction are divided into two subgenres, the fictional autobiography and the metahistorical novel. In the later pages of this chapter, Foley links admirably modernism and the "problem of commodities," "imperialism," and "Taylorism," showing how changes in societal structures and ideological assumptions alter the various strategies and modes of fictional representation in the documentary forms. In summarizing the forces shaping the modernist forms of documentary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 243-245
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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