FIVE The Nature of Fiction
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Five T H E NAT U R E OF F ICT ION While a work is in progress, the dialogue is double: there is the dialogue between that text and all other previously written texts (books are made only from other books and around other books), and there is the dialogue between the author and his model reader. Umberto Eco, postscript to the name of the rose T5170.indb 88 T5170.indb 88 12/10/09 9:19:37 AM 12/10/09 9:19:37 AM The Reflexive Intentions of a Writer Writing a novel is a cosmological matter, like the story told by Genesis (we all have to choose our role models, as Woody Allen puts it). Umberto Eco, postscript to the name of the rose Fictionality resides neither in the text nor in the text’s relational properties, be they referential or functional. Instead, the nature of fiction is determined by the reflexive intentions of a writer during the work’s creation. In the lexicon of speech-act theory, fictionality is a matter of performance. Style, diction, genre, rhetorical tropes, the degree of veracity (mimesis) are all sources of evidence about the fact of the matter. But the fact of the matter lies in the illocutionary force of the work in question. Indeed, different approaches to the nature of fiction can be contrasted in terms of speech-act terminology. Textualists, who take the inherent linguistic features of a discourse to be determinant of its fictionality, focus on locution. Functionalists, who relate fictionality to the reception of a discourse, focus on perlocution. Both stand apart from the illocutionary approach, the essence of which is epigramatized by Sandy Petrey in Speech Acts and Literary Theory: “Like saying and doing, writing performs” (1990, 56). It must be quickly pointed out that the earlier speech-act analyses of the nature of fiction have not been particularly successful. Among those one must count the efforts of the founder of speech-act theory himself. Insofar as Austin was an ordinary language philosopher, he did T5170.indb 89 T5170.indb 89 12/10/09 9:19:37 AM 12/10/09 9:19:37 AM 90 Literature, Analytically Speaking not regard fiction making as an “ordinary,” that is, a natural way to use language. As such, he did not regard fiction making as a speech act, no matter how ubiquitous, transcultural, and natural—in the sense of being evolutionarily adaptive—it has been throughout the ages. Austin’s suspicion of the manner in which language behaves when put to making fiction influenced other philosophers. Notable among them was John Searle, who also attempted to theorize make-believe by setting it apart from the things we normally do with words. Furthermore, in How to Do Things with Words Austin inclined to assign speech-act values to individual propositions in a play or a story rather than to see fiction making as a distinct speech act in its own right. In his opinion: A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. . . . Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use. (1962, 22) Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Keneally, and myriad other fiction writers might have something to say about not using language parasitically. Worse, Austin’s embargo runs counter to his own theory. Insofar as a felicitous speech act is enabled by social conventions , it is hard to see how such a universal and transcultural convention as fiction making is not a speech act but an act of linguistic parasitism. Granted, readers do not react (perlocute) to fiction as they would to real-life assertions or threats. But Austin never considers an alternative, namely that a distinct speech act of “fiction making” leads readers to adopt a distinct “fiction reading” attitude.1 Yet the evidence for the latter is incontrovertible. Take any fiction— say, John Donne’s poem “Go and Catch a Falling Star.” As Petrey spells it out, the literary convention attendant on fiction making invites readers to interpret Donne’s imperative [i.e., “go catch a falling star”] rather than execute it through social processes identical in kind to those that invite an infantryman to execute a sergeant ’s imperative rather than interpret it. (1990, 52) Indeed, in the Distinction of Fiction Dorrit Cohn maps out the whole...