The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Efraín Kristal

In English, fiction is a term commonly used to refer to, and even to define, the novel as a literary genre (see DEFINITIONS). In its colloquial sense the word fiction suggests a contrivance, a belief, or a statement that is false but that is held to be true; a fiction in this sense can be a lie, a deception, or a willful distortion. The supposition that all fictions are lies is predicated on the unfortunate projection of the colloquial meaning of the word onto the practice of storytelling. Fictions can be jokes, thought experiments, grammatical exercises, and the like. Fictions, therefore, are not necessarily literary, and there are many works of literature that make no claims to fictionality, especially in essayistic and lyrical modes. A narrative fiction is a story with imaginary characters and events, and sometimes with imaginary places and objects as well. Not every element in a work of narrative fiction is invented or imagined, but the possibility to tell a story that can draw loosely on facts and freely on the imagination to invent or to embellish, as a perspicacious character in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) observes, allows “the pen to run without obstacles offering a good mind the opportunity to display itself” (chap. 47).

Fictions are often inspired by personal experiences or concerns, historical or current events, moral dilemmas, philosophical ideas, or by other works of fiction. For a literary work to be fictional, it is not necessary to determine which of its elements are fabrications, and which are not. It is enough for the reader to expect that the characters, places, objects, and events may be imaginary rather than real. Fiction affords writers and readers the possibility of distancing themselves from the real, and this allows for difficult or controversial topics to be addressed with some emotional or political cover, although writers are susceptible to condemnation or abuse when their imaginings are found to be offensive, as with Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988). Their freedom to operate outside the constraints of reality can be dramatically curtailed, as when Herman Göring (1893—1946) pressed Hans Fallada to turn the initial draft of a novel set in the Weimar Republic into a work that would salute the rise of the Nazi party.

Fictions can be didactic or serve the aims of propaganda, but they can also be a vehicle of protest, dissent, or oblique criticism that might not be tolerated in some social or political quarters if it were expressed without subterfuges. Fictions can serve as cautionary tales, or as escape valves for some aggressive impulses, as Sigmund Freud and Georges Bataille have intimated, but they can also be taken as incitements to action or to transgression. Fictions can express moral perplexities and ambiguities, and they can sometimes address social taboos that cannot be openly discussed in the public sphere. They can also express a sense of moral, political, or religious certainty. Fictions allow writers and readers to examine norms and to consider possibilities, to explore alternative realities, to escape into worlds of fantasy, to learn about social or cultural milieus, or to ponder the negative or positive consequences of hypothetical actions, events in nature, and technological developments. They allow writers and readers to consider what if, what might have been, and what could be in the destinies of individuals or peoples. Some theorists of fiction ground their views in the notion of make-believe (Kendall Walton and Gregory Currie), others emphasize non-referential narratives (Dorrit Cohn), the creation of possible worlds (Thomas Pavel and Lubomír Doležel), the suspension of disbelief (Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugum Olsen), or the nature of pretense (John Searle and Gérard Genette). There are important insights to be gained from each of these positions, which have resulted from a considerable amount of careful reflection, even if, as David Davies and others have underscored, the recent scholarship on fiction abounds with unresolved polemics and many gray areas.

There is no consensus among theorists of fiction regarding answers to fundamental questions such as the kind of emotional response a reader has when considering the fate of a fictional character, or the manner and extent to which readers supplement the information they gather from their reading in order to engage with a fiction. At the same time there are some fascinating convergences among theorists who approach fiction from perspectives that are diametrically opposed. For example, Lubomír Doležel has argued vehemently against mimetic theories of fiction because, for him, fictions generate alternative realities as opposed to imitating reality. Jean-Marie Schaeffer, on the other hand, argues that mimesis is at the heart of fiction, because fiction produces simulacra of reality that allow us to come to terms with it in a process that involves both an imitation and a transformation of what is being imitated. Notwithstanding their theoretical differences, Doležel and Schaeffer converge in their assessment of fiction's cognitive dimension. Doležel argues that “in constructing fictional worlds, the poetic imagination works with ’material’ drawn from actuality; in the opposite direction, fictional constructs deeply influence our imagining and understanding of reality” (Doležel, x). And Schaeffer argues that fiction has cognitive dimensions with anthropological underpinnings linked to the pleasure humans derive from both play and storytelling (see ANTHROPOLOGY). In both cases fiction is a move away from reality that allows for a return to reality with value added.

Fiction is also a central concept in legal and in searching philosophical discussions that may have little or no bearing on the novel, although there have been attempts by some philosophers to extend their technical observations about nonexistent entities—in discussions about the relation between words and objects—into the literary realm. At times these considerations are well off the mark, because ontological and metaphysical claims about nonexistent entities are marginal to storytelling, a practice that engages the imagination without the constraint of describing anything as it really is. The extent to which an utterance has extension, reference, truth-value, or can be confirmed by other means is central to many philosophical discussions about “fictional entities” in a restricted technical sense, but the outcome of these discussions does not affect the fictional status of a literary work, which is predicated on the suspension of disbelief, on make-believe, or on a willingness to entertain possibilities and impossibilities.

Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugon Olsen have made the illuminating observation that how things are in fiction depends on the utterances of a storyteller or a narrator, but that utterances per se do not determine how things are in the world. For Lamarque and Olsen, therefore, the dependence of fictional modes of presentation on utterances is a criterion that demarcates the fictional from the nonfictional. For Davies a nonfictional narrative attempts to be faithful to a series of events as they actually transpired, but we read narrative fiction with the assumption that the narrative was not governed by that constraint but by the purpose of storytelling. For Kendall Walton the distinction involves the work's function as a prop in games of make-believe: “Any work with the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe, however minor or peripheral or instrumental this function might be, qualifies as ’fiction’; only what lacks this function entirely will be called non-fiction” (72). Walton's contributions have been widely held as groundbreaking, in as much as he has encouraged a shift from concerns regarding what a fiction might or might not refer to, to concerns about the activity one is engaged in when one engages with a fiction. For Walton, however, any narrative can be read as a fiction, and his critics have pointed out, as Davies has noted, that Walton does not offer a persuasive criterion to distinguish between “a narrative which is fictional and a narrative which a community of readers treats as or believes to be fictional” (2007, 36; original emphasis). This criticism would not apply to the insights of Currie, another major scholar who has explored the significance of make-believe for fiction. Currie focuses on the creator of a work of fiction and on the efforts required to make an audience pretend or to enter into make-believe, whereas Walton is interested in works of fiction as props in the process whereby readers can engage in practices of make-believe. For Currie fiction is a communicative act with a certain kind of intention: “the intention that the audience shall make believe the content of the story that is told” (1990, 24). For Walton the intention of the writer makes no difference in make-believe. Currie focuses on the creative process and Walton focuses on the experience of the practitioner in the game of make-believe. For Currie fiction depends on the intentions of its maker whereas for Walton it depends on an experience supported by a prop such as a narrative.

On Fiction and the Nonfictional

One of the main prerogatives of fiction is to pretend that its inventions are true to life, and writers of fiction can also draw on the rhetoric or on the objects of any discipline. In The Republic Plato (ca. 470—399 BCE) famously objected to the ease with which poets can write about matters beyond their competence, and his admonition has weighed heavily on many writers and theorists, but the poet does not need to have competence in any domain to make imaginative claims about its desirability or to challenge its purposes. Self-reflexive works of fiction can also call attention to their fictional status (see METAFICTION). The conceit of Joseph Conrad's narrator in Under Western Eyes (1911), that because he lacks imagination his narrative will be as objective as one can possibly expect, is as possible in a work of fiction as the conceit in Mario Vargas Llosa's Historia de Mayta (1984, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), in which the narrator warns his audience that everything he writes ought to be taken with a grain of salt because his investigations about true events were supplemented by the distortions of his imagination.

Fictions can strive for coherence, but they can also embrace indeterminacy, paradox, contradiction, and impossibility, including the conceit that a human being can enter into a fictional realm, as in a narrative by Julio Cortázar in which the reader of a criminal novel can become the victim of the crime of the novel he is reading. Fictions can borrow from the conventions of any nonfictional genre; they can rely on the subtlest of interpretative ambiguities within the narrative, as in the later novels of Henry James. Fictions inspired by Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges can be designed to resist interpretation by means of false starts, ellipses, impossibilities, and logical contradictions. Narrative fiction makes it possible to entertain possible experiences, and possible worlds, as Pavel and Doležel have argued with elegance and deep knowledge of literary works, nuancing the views of philosophers, such as David Lewis and Alexis Meinong, who have worked on the complexities of possible world semantics.

Fiction is a central concept to any comprehensive theory of the novel, even though it is possible to argue that, for some exceptional cases, at least in theory, a novel does not necessarily have to be fictional, as Truman Capote claimed was the case for In Cold Blood (1965). As a novelist Capote purports to have been as faithful to the events of a murder as the New York Times article that brought the case to his attention or as the subsequent information he gathered about the events from his research (see JOURNALISM). Capote's self-conscious experiment is an invitation to consider that most novels draw on a considerable number of elements that are nonfictional, like the late nineteenth-century London of Sherlock Holmes (an example, which has become commonplace in discussions about the combination of real and invented elements in a fictional work). There are also sections of novels, as in the case of José María Arguedas's Los ríos pro-fundos (1958, Deep Rivers), in which nonfictional materials, such as published anthropological papers, can find themselves integrated seamlessly into the fiber of a narrative. Some would contend that even if a writer were successful in creating a novel based on nonfictional sources, the distortions of fiction would necessarily set in, not only because any narrative, in principle, can be read as a fiction, but also because the difference between fiction and nonfiction can be blurred in both fictional and nonfictional works. The views of Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, Barbara Cassin, and some influential postmodernist theorists go in this direction, which also resonates with the views of some prominent novelists. In his essays Javier Marías has argued that it is difficult to uncouple fiction from narrative because storytelling of any kind can be fraught with either deliberate or unintentional distortion. Marías's novel Negra espalda del tiempo (1998, Dark Back of Time) opens with a bolder statement to that effect: “Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can't reproduce events and shouldn't attempt to” (trans. Esther Allen, 7). In Marías's novel the claim is pregnant with the kind of ambiguity and irony that has informed the self-reflexive novel from Cervantes to David Foster Wallace.

Don Quixote (1605, 1610) is the most famous work of fiction about the perils that may arise when a reader reads a fictional work as if it were a work of nonfiction. It is arguably also the richest meditation on fiction in the Early Modern period. At the beginning of the novel Don Quixote takes novels of chivalry to be historical documents; but as the novel unfolds, the don corrects his initial assumptions with a clever interpretation of Aristotle, according to which events in a literary work can present idealized versions of historical characters. Toward the end of pt. 2, Don Quixote begins to equivocate: “Could they be lies and at the same time bear such appearance of truth?” (chap. 50). As his vision becomes more nuanced, Don Quixote recognizes the ornamental conceits of fiction and even its elements of make-believe, yet he insists that “nothing, in fact, more truly portrays us as we are and as we would be” (pt. 2, chap. 12), a view that has been echoed by many practitioners of the novel until our day. Don Quixote's views are continually mocked in the novel by characters, most notably religious men, who deride narrative fiction in harsh assessments: “they are all fictions, invented by the idle brains who composed them, as you said now, to pass the time as your reapers do in reading them” (chap. 32). Echoing Plato's admonitions against the desirability of poets in his Republic, some characters in the novel make the reluctant concession that fiction can enchant and give pleasure, but at too high a cost: “they give me a certain pleasure as long as I do not begin to reflect that they are all lies and foolishness” (chap. 49). The best argument brought to bear in favor of literature by Don Quixote's critics is the idea that, in some cases, the lies of fiction can convey a hidden truth: “even though that is a poetic fiction, it contains a hidden moral you should observe and follow” (chap. 32).

Fiction as Pretense or Asa Social Contract

In a less reluctant key, the moralistic views of Don Quixote's critics in Cervantes's novel echo the contemporary view of Nelson Goodman, for whom a fiction can be a literal falsehood with a metaphorical truth. Another influential view along these lines is John Searle's contention that fiction can convey important messages, even though it is based on pretense. In a seminal article Searle argues that fiction involves pretending to assert or pretending to perform certain kinds of speech acts). If illocutionary acts, such as asserting, promising, and commanding, are speech acts that involve commitments and obligations, fiction is engaged in a performance, as if the illocutionary acts were actually being performed. For Genette, Searle is fundamentally right, but his theory needs to be supplemented by a positive view that would justify the pretense, above and beyond the transmission of a message, which could have been easily conveyed by nonfictional means. Genette argues that the pretense Searle brings to bear at the level of the pragmatics of language is, in a work of fiction, an invitation by an author for an imaginative cooperation with the reader that involves the suspension of disbelief and make-believe. For Genette the pretense of fiction suggests a non-serious effect in real contexts, but it generates other kinds of effects in the context of the work of literature. For Schaeffer, Genette has captured the essence of fiction, which amounts to the passage from a real context to a fictional context.

Searle's article is a touchstone for recent discussions in French literary theory about fiction, but it has been vigorously rejected by the most important theorists of fiction as make-believe, for whom “the notion of fiction is not parasitic on that of ’serious’ discourse,” because fiction ought to be understood as that which supports and underwrites games of make-believe (Walton, 85). For Walton, fiction is a pragmatic rather than a semantic phenomenon, and he makes the incisive point that fiction is not a linguistic phenomenon (see LINGUISTICS). He makes several persuasive arguments in favor of this point of view: (1) the same sequence of words can constitute a biography, a historical work, or a novel; and (2) fictions are not fundamentally linguistic because they can also occur in nonlinguistic media, such as the visual arts. In Truth, Fiction and Literature, Lamarque and Olsen make the even stronger claim that fiction is a social rather than a linguistic phenomenon, even if the medium of a fiction can certainly be linguistic. Fiction, for Lamarque and Olsen, is not a relation between words and objects (it is not a semantic relationship) but a relation between human beings who willingly engage in a practice that involves make-believe and suspension of disbelief. According to Lamarque and Olsen, “the fictive dimension of stories (or narratives) is explicable only in terms of a rule-governed practice, central to which are a certain mode of utterance (fictive utterance) and a certain complex of attitudes (the fictive stance)” (32). Fictive utterances are possible by the existence of a social practice, which involves making up stories, telling stories, repeating stories, and talking about stories. Fiction depends on cooperation, on mutually recognized conventions, on collaboration involving established practices and rules. In a fictive utterance the audience makes believe what it is being told; there is mutual knowledge that this is going on; and a disengagement from drawing inferences from what you are being told to what the writer or narrator actually believes, which is what Lamarque and Olsen mean by the “fictive stance.”

Fiction is a social contract of sorts: “The central focus is not on the structural or semantic properties of sentences, but on the conditions under which they are uttered, the attitudes they invoke, and the role that they play in social interactions” (Lamarque and Olsen, 32). Davies has summarized their insight: “there must be publicly recognized conventions that allow for the suspension of certain standard commitments involved in assertion, so that an author can invoke these conventions, and an audience, recognizing this, can respond appropriately by making believe, rather than believing, the narrated propositions (2005, 349). When the conventions are not accepted or understood, the work of fiction is taken as fact, as is the case for Don Quixote at the beginning of the novel, when he takes novels of chivalry to be historically accurate, or in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes (1721, Persian Letters), where a character takes a play to be a real event because he does not know the conventions of theater. Lamarque and Olsen's view of fiction as a social contract that presupposes the awareness of both the author and the audience of the work is borne out by the sense of outrage or of deep disappointment that some readers feel when a work of fiction is presented to them as if it were nonfictional, or the unease generated by works of nonfiction which appear to have fictional embellishments.

Fiction and the Emotions

Lamarque and Olsen make a helpful distinction when pointing out that, from an internal point of view one speaks of characters as human beings, but from an external point of view one speaks of characters in terms of the rhetorical means that allows for their depiction. Their useful perspective is analogous to Richard Wollheim's view that for any artistic practice it is worth considering both the medium of the work of art (which would be analogous to the external perspective) and its artistic qualities or effects (which would be analogous to the internal perspective) and to realize that the ability to represent characters or to express emotions in literature is contingent on the ability to master a medium. Fictional characters in a novel are not human beings, but the notion that a character in a work of fiction does not have any relevant connections to human beings because literary characters are made of words conflates the internal and the external perspective: fictional characters are made up of words in a novel because words are the medium of narrative fiction, but this does not mean that those words cannot be used to describe characters with human qualities worth considering, even if those characters are inventions.

One of the central questions that has concerned theorists of fiction is why readers of novels experience emotions regarding characters who they know are not human beings of flesh and blood (see CHARACTER). There is a rich bibliography (see Lamarque, 2009) of scholars who have pointed out a series of fascinating paradoxes associated with the following three propositions: (3) readers can experience emotions toward fictional characters; (4) a necessary condition for experiencing emotions is the belief in the existence of the objects of the emotions; (5) readers know that fictional characters do not exist. Accepting the three propositions can lead to any number of quandaries or to the equivocal intimations that our affective responses to a work of fiction are not real, or that we are actually experiencing make-believe emotions when we think we are responding emotionally to a work of fiction. The “fiction paradoxes” might be to the emotions what Zeno's paradoxes are to movement, if one takes into consideration that one's affective world (including one's feelings of empathy, pity, or contempt for others) does not turn off when one considers possibilities and hypothetical eventualities. There is certainly a difference between the emotions one might feel when one has failed or succeeded in a task and the emotions one might feel when one is pondering the possibility that one might fail or succeed in a task. It is possible to have feelings about fictional characters in the same way one can have feelings about eventualities and hypothetical situations one might envisage for oneself or for others.

The philosopher Jacques Bouveresse has argued that to give up—as some literary theorists would recommend—the supposition that fictional characters are subject to moral experiences, conflicts, and dilemmas, is to renounce what is most significant in the experience of narrative fiction. Fiction allows us to consider situations that do not depend on the fact that they have taken place, which is why Martha Nussbaum argues that our experience and our moral imagination would be poorer if they depended solely on our reality. For Iris Murdoch it is instructive to examine the language that the practitioners of any discipline use to criticize their objects. The shortcomings of a work of fiction can be formal, but the most impassioned criticism of a novel tends to involve the sense that it does not ring true or the sense that its imaginative world is not persuasive. Works of narrative fiction are dismissed for being “sentimental,” “trivial,” “pretentious,” “inauthentic,” or “superficial,” among other qualifiers of this kind by readers who know they are dealing with invented characters and situations; and readers are more tolerant of (or indifferent to) the formal shortcomings of a novel when they feel that it has expanded their horizons. What reader of Marcel Proust's À la Recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, In Remembrance of Things Past) would consider it a fatal error that the celebrated autobiographical narrator suddenly shifts to the third person to narrate the life of Swann, which precedes his own birth? What Proust can teach us about the human experience of someone unable to understand certain aspects of his own life without the intervention of involuntary memory is, for most readers of Proust, so significant that his formal inconsistencies (not intended as literary devices) are inconsequential in comparison.

In his brilliant analysis of the connection between fiction and the emotions, Schaeffer accepts the first and the third proposition of the premises that lead to the “fiction paradox,” but rejects the second, if the second assumes that we can only feel true empathy for people of flesh and blood. Schaeffer argues that the passage from a real context into a fictional context permits the reorganization of affect. In the fictional realm it is possible to explore and experience emotions with a distance that allows for a reorientation of the reader's emotional world. In the fictional realm it is also possible to explore what we think and what we know about the world at a remove that may relieve us from the pressures and risks of our actual engagements with others and with other contingencies in our lives: “fiction offers us the possibility to continue to enrich, remodel, readapt the cognitive and affective base thanks to which we have access to a personal identity and to our being in the world.” Fiction, for Schaeffer, is not a diversion from the real world. It is “a place where our relationship to the world can be renegotiated, repaired, readapted and re-equilibrated in our minds” (327).

SEE ALSO: Censorship, Historical Novel, Life Writing, Philosophical Novel, Realism, Science Fiction, Time.


1. Bouveresse, J. (2008), Connaissance de l'écrivain.

2. Cohn, D. (1999), Distinction of Fiction.

3. Currie, G. (1990), Nature of Fiction.

4. Currie, G. (2008), “The Concept of Fiction,” in Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Literature, ed. D. Davies and C. Matheson.

5. Davies, D. (2005), “Fiction,” in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 2nd ed., ed. B. Gaut and D.M. Lopes.

6. Davies, D. (2007), Aesthetics and Literature.

7. Doležel, L. (1998), Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds.

8. Genette, G. (1993), Fiction and Diction.

9. Lamarque, P. (2009), Philosophy of Literature.

10. Lamarque, P. and S.H. Olsen (1994), Truth, Fiction and Literature.

11. Nussbaum, M. (1990), Love's Knowledge.

12. Pavell, T. (1986), Fictional Worlds.

13. Schaeffer, J.-M. (1999), Pourquoi la Fiction?

14. Searle, J. (1975), “ The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse,” New Literary History 6: 319—32.

15. Walton, K. (1990), Mimesis as Make-Believe.