Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 96-112
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A Theory of Fiction
A. P. Martinich
What is the chief linguistic difference between fiction and nonfiction? My answer, in brief, is that in fiction the Supermaxim of Quality, "Do not participate in a speech act unless you can satisfy all the conditions for its nondefective performance," is suspended. My thesis depends on a modified version of H. P. Grice's theory of conversation. In saying that the Supermaxim of Quality is suspended in fiction, I do not mean that no speech acts are performed. On the contrary, many are; some of them are the same as those that would be performed in a nonfictional context. Sometimes ordinary statements and requests are made, and questions are asked in fiction, as we shall see in section II. However, many of the speech acts performed in fiction are made possible by the fact that the Supermaxim is suspended, and thus the normal consequences of performing and evaluating the speech acts are not in force. This will also be explained in section II.
On the one hand, since my theory depends on a more general theory of language, those who accept the general theory will have further evidence of its power, while some of those who do not accept it may be more inclined to if they see that it smoothly accounts for fiction. On the other hand, those who do not accept the more general theory may be reluctant to see any merit in my theory. In addition, because of the almost universal acceptance among Anglo-American philosophers of the Axiom of Existence, which holds that everything referred to must exist, my rejection of that axiom may disincline some philosophers to accept the present theory of fiction. I discuss the axiom in section III. [End Page 96]
Before presenting my theory, there are two preliminary matters to discuss. The first involves the distinction between talk-in-fiction, talk-about-fiction, and talk-about-reality.
Talk-in-fiction is the talk or writing that constitutes fictional works, e.g., the sentences in Ordinary People. But the preceding sentence is an example of talk about fiction: I said something about the fictional work Ordinary People. Whenever a philosopher discusses fiction, he uses talk about fiction to explain talk in fiction. Some philosophers give the impression that the terms talk-in-fiction and talk-about-fiction are mutually exclusive. But they are not. When one novel talks about another, talk-in-fiction is also talk-about-fiction. In Judith Guest's Ordinary People, the narrator says, "He had thought about being a Soldier of Fortune, after reading The Three Musketeers."
The terms talk-in-fiction and talk-about-reality are also not mutually exclusive and hence do not form a proper distinction. Many novels, including historical ones, talk about reality. The first sentence of Gore Vidal's Burr is "Shortly before midnight, July 1, 1833, Colonel Aaron Burr, aged seventy-seven, married Eliza Jumel, born Bowen . . . ." What Vidal has written is true and intended to be true about the real world. In the "Afterword," he talks about his "meticulous" research and notes that he "tried to keep to the known facts." Thus, if he were wrong about Burr's late marriage or about many other things, he would be liable to criticism, even though he is not required to make every statement in the novel historically accurate.
Historical novels are not the only ones that talk about reality. The first sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all happy in the same way, unhappy families unhappy in their separate, different ways," is a real statement made in fiction about real families as much as fictional ones. 1 Tolstoy is not pretending to make the statement he would be making if he were writing an essay or sociological treatise. He is simply making a statement about happy and unhappy families. We learn or, at least, are induced to think about a feature of the real world.
Talk-in-fiction is sometimes referred to as "fictional talk," as if it...