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The Case of the Unreliable Author

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 10, Number 2, October 1986
pp. 145-167 | 10.1353/phl.1986.0020

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The Case of the Unreliable Author
Francis Sparshott
Victoria College, University of Toronto


1. Paul Theroux, reviewing Earthly Powers in Saturday Review, November 1980, pp. 60-61.

2. Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers (London: Hutchinson, 1966).

3. Anthony Burgess, Urgent Copy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), p. 156.

4. Leo Tolstoy, Writings on Art, ed. and trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 64, italics added.

5. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1954).

6. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 64.

7. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

8. Marlow reveals himself as limited, and confesses to limitations which are not exactly the same as the ones he reveals; but, though limited, he never says anything that makes the reader doubt the adequacy and veracity of his observations. All narrators are limited, and necessarily so: authors can only invent what they can think of, so they can invent narrators only by making them see and think less than their authors could imagine them as observing and thinking of. Frank Kermode remarks that "The trouble is not that there are unreliable narrators but that we have endorsed the fiction of the 'reliable' narrator." But that is not very helpful: authors invent narrators to perform a variety of fictional functions, some of which require greater or lesser degrees of transparency in the narration; the distinction between reliable and unreliable narrators is a factual one of fiction-writing technique, and is not to be reduced (as Kermode seems to suggest) to the accidents of readerly credulity (Frank Kermode, "Secrets and Narrative Sequence," in W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., On Narrative [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981], pp. 79-97, at 86n).

9. Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts, trans. Salvador Attanasio (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966).

10. Hugh Hood, The New Age, a series of novels amounting almost to a chronicle of Ontario highbrow society over several decades: most recently, The Scenic Art (Toronto: Stoddart, 1984).

11. Nicolas Wolterstorff, Works and Worlds of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). This freedom in positing does not preclude lying, chicanery, etc. Most of us have at some time been deceived by being told as fact, in the midst of gossip, what turns out to be a piece of "urban folklore." The convention has been abused; one was tricked; whether the trick was an offense or a good joke depends on the circumstances. A Toronto author recently made a story out of what he had been told happened to a friend of his, only to find that he had plagiarized a well-known piece of such folklore. See correspondence in Leisure Ways, February, 1985.

12. "Now, for the Poet, he nothing affirmes, and therefore never lyeth"—Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie, in James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks, eds., The Great Critics, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1951), p. 216.

13. See Wolterstorff, as cited above, for an account of what the "world" of the work contains. It contains the items and facts prescribed by the author, together with whatever is causally or logically entailed by those facts and existences according to the most relevant causal understanding. But, since statements in fiction may be mutually contradictory or have mutually inconsistent implicates, we have to divide the world up into a set of maximally coherent "strands." Things get very tricky.

14. Nicholas Meyer, The 7% Solution (New York: Dutton, 1974).

15. John Woods, The Logic of Fiction (Hawthorne, New York: Mouton, 1974).

16. Bernard Harrison, "Description and Identification," Mind 91 (1982): 321-38.

17. "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me" (Earthly Powers, p. 7). In the fifth paragraph of the book, Toomey explains how this sentence relates both to his own literary habits and to the facts it relates; but the explanation itself is deeply misleading, in terms of what the novel as a whole establishes.

18. "I contrived, you will perhaps remember, an...