- A Likely Story: Probability and Play in Fiction
Robert Newsom's A Likely Story: Probability and Play in Fiction is an admirable and important study. In a relatively short work, Newsom not only provides a detailed historical account of both philosophical and literary discussions about probability, but he also presents a complex and persuasive theory about the logical relationships between the fictional and the real. More impressively, as he integrates the scholarly and theoretical threads of his argument to tell his story about the emergence of the novel, he also contributes to the ongoing project of developing a coherent theory about how people read fictions.
As a point of departure, Newsom details Aristotelian discussions of probability in order to modify for his own thesis Ian Hacking's The Emergence of Probability; in that controversial study, Hacking argues that prior to the seventeenth century the logical space occupied by the modern, mathematicized concept of probability was simply unavailable. What makes that space available, according to both Hacking and Newsom, is the "transition from the evidence of books to the evidence of things," a transition from "word" to "world" that coincides with—and has implications for our understanding of—the emergence of the novel. For as Newsom argues in later chapters, it is precisely the discovery of the evidence of things that makes possible not only the science of statistics and the correct calculation of chance but also the "concept of the 'ordinary life' and the self-conscious representation in language of the circumstances of that ordinary life." [End Page 376]
During his discussion of the logical relations between philosophical and literary probability, Newsom asks why, if probability works in the realm of unprovable arguments about matters of fact, we are able to question the probability of people and events that we know, for a fact, to be fictional. This logical oddity, which Newsom calls "the antimony of fictional probability," is what distinguishes questions about probability in literature from those in the real world. As Newsom explores this paradox—this antimony—and uses it to develop a model of reading, he contributes to the ongoing dialogue among theorists as different as Jonathan Culler, Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and Peter Rabinowitz. With these critics Newsom shares the notion that to read is to experience doubleness, both to believe and disbelieve in the fiction. Newsom, however, critiques models of reading that privilege one aspect of this doubleness over the other; he argues, for instance, that Culler's suggestion that when we read we "operate with the hypothesis of a reader" implies that "the division in reading is itself fictional or hypothetical." The model of reading proposed in A Likely Story instead emphasizes the simultaneity and equality of these opposing frames of reference, for to read is to "insist . . . on our belief in the fictional world even as we insist also on our belief in the world in which the reading or make-believe takes place." Finally, it is the modern concept of probability that allows this doubleness to exist, for according to Newsom's story, it is probability that mediates between the fictional and the real worlds, without merely eliminating distinctions between them.
Newsom is a fine storyteller indeed, and the account of the rise of the novel implicit in his argument about the significance of fictional probability is a credible and persuasive one. A Likely Story is finally just that—a likely story.