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Alan Collett LITERATURE, CRITICISM, AND FACTUAL REPORTING Novels frequently deal with real events. How is it that some theorists have been able to argue that, regarded as literature, such novels are always fictional? The answer is that it is usually possible to show that a work which we are prepared to call "literary" creates an imaginary world possessing its own properties. Itcan then be maintained that this imaginary world constitutes the aesthetic object of the work and that only those properties internal to it are relevant to aesthetic judgment. It then follows that the meaning ofthe literary work is this imaginary world and that criticism is properly concerned with its elucidation. Or, to say the same thing in a different idiom: we should distinguish in the things said by critics between those sorts of remarks which help to establish a text's meaning solely by reference to internal features of the text and those sorts of remarks which, if they are aimed at establishing meaning, do so by reference to external evidence. In the case of novels dealing with real events, those sentences which describe particular events, situations, characters, and places (reports)1 play a role in the creation of the imaginary world of the work. The real events described will, of course, often be known to the reader, and indeed the effectiveness of a work may depend to a large extent upon the fact that it deals with known historical events. But in order to avoid treating such texts as factual works rather than as works of literature we should, the theory goes, stress plausibility and coherence above truth to the world. Aristode's rule that "a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility" sums up the way in which critical assessment can guard against confusing literary 282 Alan Collett283 works with informative works. Literary criticism concerns itselfwith the plausibility and coherence of accounts of real events at the expense of their truth. A literary artist will, therefore, be judged to be better the more his descriptions seem true in contrast with the historian whose descriptions must actually be true. The literary artist, on this traditional view, endows the events he describes with meaning. When those events are real events their meaning will be intelligible to the extent to which they reflect a convincingly possible reality. The accurate reporting of real events is perfecdy permissible always provided the events chosen make an artistic point by functioning in the narrative in a way which is probable or convincing. Accuracy, as such, is never a criterion of literary worth. The fictionality of literary works dealing with real events, then, is connected with the skill the author exhibits in usingthe events he chooses to describe in such a way that a meaningful imaginary world is created. This fictional world will mirror the real world via its internal coherence which excludes the contingendy true in order to make a plausible artistic whole, and one function of literary criticism proper is the fixing of the correct interpretation of the meaning of this fictional world. A recent reformulation ofthis traditional view, offered by S. H. Olsen in TLĀ· Structure ofLiterary Understanding? contains some suggestions as to how it is possible to interpret literary practice so that report sentences can be understood to function other than as the bearers of truth. On this view, a literary work, as a peculiar kind of utterance, cannot be interpreted without reference to some context. And although a literary work may be pardy distinguished by its textual or structural features, the mere possession of such features is not in itself sufficient to make a text a literary work. Textual or structural features, Olsen argues, will serve an aesthetic function only when the decision is already taken that the text to which they belong is a literary work. Since the function of sentences cannot be determined simply on the basis of their linguistic features, they will need to be interpreted in order to be correctly understood. Interpretation will involve making assumptions about the purpose of the utterances in question and the assumed purpose will then determine how their linguistic and structural features are to be understood. Thus, in one of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 282-296
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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