- A Critical Review of Derek Matravers’s Fiction and Narrative
Derek Matravers’s latest book—Fiction and Narrative1—is a bracing review of many of the leading topics in the philosophical discussion of the intersection of—as his title indicates—fiction and narrative. A major aim of the book is to dethrone the prevailing view that the notion of the imagination plays a central role in the definition of fiction versus nonfiction. In addition, Matravers argues that the distinction we should care about in this vicinity is between representation and confrontation. Matravers takes up many other issues in this book, which is alive with argument. But these are the two matters upon which I focus in this review because they appear to be the most important.
Matravers dialectically paves the way for his own proposal regarding the representation/confrontation couplet by criticizing several prominent attempts to defend the fiction/nonfiction couplet in terms of imagination versus belief. These include the work of Kendall Walton, Gregory Currie, and, to a lesser extent, the position coauthored by Aaron Meskin and Jonathan Weinberg.
Interrogating Walton’s position is Matravers’s first order of business. As is well known, on Walton’s view, a fiction is a prop in a game of make-believe. Children play games of make-believe. For example, they might [End Page 569] play a game of pirates. In that game they have various props; straight tree branches, shorn of their leaves, play the role of swords, which the children use to duel one another. The game presupposes certain rules, such as that if you are touched with a sword/branch you are wounded. Walton proposes that we understand fiction to be the model of children’s games of make-believe.
For instance, when we read Gulliver’s Travels, we take it as a prop in our game of make-believe. Specifically: we make believe that we are reading the journal of one Lemuel Gulliver. Just as the branch is a sword in the game of pirates, so my copy is a copy of Gulliver’s journal, which I make believe conveys to me Gulliver’s assertions about his travels. Similarly, with respect to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, we make believe that we are being addressed by the Underground Man. Unlike the children’s game of make-believe, these novels have been formally authorized or prescribed by an official author: Swift on the one hand, and Dostoyevsky on the other. These novels are mandated games of make-believe, whereas we could make up our own game of make-believe were we to stipulate that every pine tree we pass is a giant ogre to be rushed past and eluded.
Walton’s most famous example of his theory is not a literary fiction but an invented film—called The Green Slime, but with no connection to the actual film of that name. Walton asks us to envision a viewer, Charles, who is using the film as a prop in his game of make-believe. When the eponymous Green Slime lurches toward the camera, Charles makes believe that it is pursuing him, just as in the children’s game of pirates, a player without a sword (without a tree branch) is likely to either flee from or surrender to another child armed to the hilt with swords/ branches. Just as the swordless child will cower before the weaponized pirate/child, so Charles cringes before the make-believe onslaught of the Green Slime. Of course, the defenseless child is not really afraid of the make-believe pirate/child; nor is Charles actually frightened by the Green Slime. His emotion, like his situation, is make-believe. It is a make-believe emotion.
Matravers points out several telling disanalogies between children’s games of make-believe and our commerce with fictions. The most important, I think, concerns the de se aspect of Walton’s account. Walton’s version of make-believe is imagining de se—imagining about oneself. That is, we play the game from the “inside”; we ourselves as ourselves engage the prop. For example, Charles makes believe that the Green Slime has his number...