- Ten Theses about Fictionality
President Barack Obama, at the end of his speech at the April 28, 2013, correspondents’ dinner, praised the journalists who had covered the recent terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon for their exemplary work, emphasizing the importance of thorough, deep-digging journalism that “painstakingly puts the pieces together” and “verifies facts” (“Watch: President Obama” 19:36–19:52).
Just a few minutes earlier, however, Obama had jokingly treated several issues in a way that played fast and loose with verified facts. Among other jests, he announced [End Page 61] that there would be a new movie by Steven Spielberg called Obama. This movie, modeled on Spielberg’s highly praised Lincoln, would again feature Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of the title character; the president showed the correspondents a video including a purported interview with the actor and excerpts from the alleged movie. “Day-Lewis” talks about how hard it was to learn the president’s accent and how impossible it seems to him to have to wear Obama’s ears every day. Not only is Spielberg making no such movie but the figure Obama refers to as “Daniel Day-Lewis” is Obama himself (“Watch: President Obama” 15:35–18:00).
Obama’s performance in this single speech suggests that for him there is no contradiction between valuing verified facts and the playful assertion of manifest falsehoods. There is no contradiction because Obama and his audience share an understanding of the distinction between fictionality and nonfictionality, or what we’ll call fictive and nonfictive discourse. More generally, Obama’s performance depends on the ease with which he and his audience can move between the two kinds of discourse, and this ease in turn depends on their extensive experience with fictive discourse outside the boundaries of generic fictions such as the short story, the novel, and the fiction film. In this essay, we aim to reconsider the nature and scope of fictionality as part of a call to re-orient the study of fiction and its functions in culture.
Fictionality in the form of the intentional use of invented stories and scenarios (not just spoofs like Obama’s, but also what-if projections, if-only regrets, thought experiments, and hypotheses of all kinds) is ubiquitous in our culture. Fictionality is employed in politics, business, medicine, sports, and throughout the disciplines of the academy; indeed, it is difficult to think of a cultural sphere from which fictive discourse is absent—unless, as in airport security areas, it is explicitly banned (and the need to ban it is itself a sign of its ubiquity). Fictionality is, among other things, a vehicle for negotiating values, weighing options, and informing beliefs and opinions. Yet, apart from the work by literary critics on generic fiction, fictionality is almost completely unstudied and often unacknowledged. Even the widely-heralded “narrative turn” toward the importance of storytelling in different disciplines has not led to a focus on the pervasiveness and significance of fictionality.1
In order to initiate such an inquiry, our first move is to distinguish between, on the one hand, fiction as a set of conventional genres (novel, short story, graphic novel, fiction film, television serial fiction, and so on) and, on the other hand, fictionality as a quality or fictive discourse as a mode. In this way fictionality/fictive discourse is formally closer to irony/ironic discourse than to an individual genre such as comedy or tragedy, though of course its effects are different. Where a genre designation provides a global framework for understanding a text as a whole, irony may either be global or local. It may provide a framework for thinking about a text such as “A Modest Proposal,” but it may also appear intermittently within a text governed by a different generic framework, as with Shakespeare’s use of the Fool in King Lear. Thinking of fictionality as similarly flexible opens our eyes not only to its widespread presence outside of generic fictions but also to its multiple functions.
Our second move is related to this point about multiple functions. We emphasize that the use of fictionality...