- Fact into Fiction: Documentary Realism in the Contemporary Novel
"There is no fiction or nonfiction," E. L. Doctorow has declared, "There is only narrative." This statement is the background against which Lars Ole Sauerberg defines his project. If everything is narrative, then what do we say of, for example, Sigmund Freud when he appears as a character in E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, or the Holocaust when it appears in William Styron's Sophie's Choice? How can we talk about novels like D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel (which includes both the Holocaust and Freud) without conceding that some things are less narrative or more factual than others?
Sauerberg's rapid survey of what he calls "documentary realism," exemplified in texts ranging from middlebrow biography and historical fiction (Irving Stone and James Michener) to postmodern meta-fiction (Robert Coover and Julian Barnes), usefully aims at reopening this question. In borrowing directly from non-literary "reality," documentary realism calls attention, he argues, to the difference between the fictional and the factual. What Sauerberg thinks it accomplishes in so doing is less evident. Nor is it evident that much is accomplished by translating the "reality" question into the framework of "reader response," which is the book's main theoretical contribution. Sauerberg's position bears some distant, unexpressed affiliation to Brecht's, which defines realism in terms of its defamiliarizing effects; Sauerberg writes, for example, that the goal of Holocaust literature is "to shock and to prompt indignation". But such a perspective ought to be more interested in the particular historical beliefs or conventions that any given realism tries to overturn, the social construction of that "normal" knowledge that even supposedly self-sustaining narratives must assume their readers to possess. What knowledge of the British Empire can be taken for granted in a Norwegian reader of Orwell's Burmese Days? How does it matter? Unfortunately, Sauerberg posits a universalizing "general reader" whose "we" and "our" immediately rule out further attention to such questions. "Certain kinds of texts are felt to be essentially literary," he says. Felt by whom?
Sauerberg describes reality as "the structureless world of fact." He does not seem to have considered the possibility that this vision of primal chaos is itself a fiction that had to be invented—an existential fiction one can trace through figures like Wallace Stevens and Frank Kermode. Taking it for granted, he offers no further interrogation (à la Lukacs, say) of what fact or reality might be. And this impoverished idea of reality produces an equally impoverished idea of the literary. Seen through the reader, the literary becomes leisure as opposed to work: recreational rather than informational reading. To refer to a topos of the objectivity debate that Sauerberg himself invokes, how does this help us with the revisionist claim that the Holocaust never happened?
One would have appreciated some concern, within the framework of reader response, with realism as an issue for the testimonio genre, and more generally for the act of witnessing that has been so important to groups claiming new rights of speech. Sauerberg mentions libel cases, which encourage inquiry into realism as a legal category. The subject is far from exhausted. [End Page 536]
In the interest of accuracy, but also of aesthetic pleasure, note an inspired misprint: a reference to the historian Frank LaCapra.