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Paul Dawson

Ten Theses against Fictionality

It is well known that classical narratology derived its categories from narratives of
prose fiction. And it is largely accepted that to fully address the phenomenon of narrative, narratology needs also to account not only for narrative fiction across media,
but for non-fictional narratives, from conversational storytelling to political rhetoric. A consequence of this transmedial, interdisciplinary expansion of the field is the
realization that narratologists have tended to take fiction itself for granted and thus
need to engage with the concept of fictionality as much as the concept of narrativity. On the one hand, we have calls for a fiction-specific approach to narrative, which
Dorrit Cohn once suggested could be called fictionology (Signposts 110).1 On the
other hand, we have calls for a general approach to fictionality across all narratives,
fictional and non-fictional. At stake here is the broader question of the theoretical
relation between fictionality and narrativity in the wake of the narrative turn across
the humanities and social sciences.
Fictionality as a nominal field of study emerged in the 1970s and 1980s within philosophy of language and logic rather than literary theory, and was explicitly

Paul Dawson is the author of two monographs, The Return of the Omniscient Narrator: Authorship and
Authority in Twenty-First Century Fiction (2013) and Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2005), as
well as a collection of poems, Imagining Winter (2006). He is currently Senior Lecturer in the School of the
Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales. He can be reached at paul.dawson@unsw.edu.au.
NARRATIVE, Vol 23, No. 1 (January 2015)
Copyright 2015 by The Ohio State University

Ten Theses against Fictionality


framed as a debate between semantics and pragmatics.2 The former often drew on
modal logic to discuss the propositional value of fictional statements; and the latter
was inspired by speech act theory to discuss how fiction works as a form of communication which does not rely on literal truth statements. These debates were particularly concerned with the referentiality of proper names and focused on the study of
individual sentences rather than the genre of fiction.
Dorrit Cohns well known 1990 article, Signposts of Fictionality: A Narratological Perspective, was an attempt to correct the overwhelming pragmatic bias of
these early debates. However, Cohns main concern was to counteract the postmodern conflation of narrative and fiction, which she defined as nonreferential narrative. Her method, which connects her work to earlier linguistic approaches to literature offered by Kte Hamburger and Ann Banfield, was to distinguish fiction from
nonfiction by identifying textual elements that signal its status as fiction (including
the presentation of characters thought and the duplicate vocal origin of author/narrator), and, in doing so, caution against the straightforward application of narratological categories to a discipline such as historiography.
The question of signposts and the broader philosophical question of fictionality
gained momentum in the ensuing decades and continue to be debated, but the latest incarnation has been given impetus by the challenge to narratology proposed by
the inimitable Richard Walsh, who asserts, in The Rhetoric of Fictionality (2007), that
his book is symptomatic of a growing sense of paradigm shift (3) enabling him to
re-examine fundamental questions in narrative theory through the prism of a new
conception of the rhetorical nature of fictionality (7).3
Walsh argues from a pragmatic perspective that there are no necessary or sufficient textual indicators that determine the generic status of fiction, and that we recognize fiction only by its context, that is, by the fact that a work is presented and
received as fiction. His point is that fictionality is not a quality of the genre of fiction, but a feature of communicative rhetoric which can be found across a range of
discourses from history to biography. These claims have been made before. For instance, in 1980, Siegfried Schmidt wrote, Fictionality is not a quality of TEXTE but
a quality attributed to KOMMUNIKATE (Fictionality 539). And in the same year,
Wildekamp, Van Montfoort, and Van Ruiswijk argue that fictional utterances occur
not only in literary texts but constitute a general social phenomenon in all sorts of
communication situations (565). Walshs specific aim, however, is to redirect narratology away from ontological questions when addressing narrative fiction.
Walsh dispenses quickly with existing philosophical theories of fictionality by arguing that they can be collectively understood as gestures of disavowal (14) because
they frame fictionality as a problem of truth yet seek to resolve it by detaching the
fictive act from the domain of truth, that is, language (15). In particular he argues
against the pretense model of speech act theorythat fiction is the product of authors
pretending to perform illocutionary acts (first applied to literary theory by Mary Louise Pratt)and against possible worlds theory, which claims that literary works refer
to an independent fictional world. According to Walsh, these theories disarm the
rhetorical force of fiction as serious discourse with a distinct cultural force. Instead he
proposes to address fictionality as the use of language in a communicative framework


Paul Dawson

and approach it as a question of relevance rather than a problem of truth: that is, the
cognitive benefit that readers derive from the assumption of fictionality does not rely
on determining the truth status of a statement, but on what significance the work has
for them.4
Walsh explicitly links narratology to this problem of fictionality by arguing that
to posit a narrator (rather than the author) as the source of a fictional narrative participates in the same gesture of disavowal offered by speech act theory, possible worlds
theory, and Kendall Waltons theory of fiction as a prop in a game of make-believe.
While the distinction between an author and narrator has long been posited as a defining feature of fiction, Walsh rejects the narrator on the grounds that it actually cancels out the fictionality of a work because it invites us to read the narrative as something reported, rather than something invented. Of course Walsh would admit that
a character can narrate a story, but he argues that characters cannot be assigned the
status of a narrator because they do not exist outside the frame of representation. And
he differentiates himself from proponents of the no-narrator thesis (the empty deictic
center) by arguing simply that third-person narratives are narrated by the author.5
While Walsh points to the implication of fictionality in broader questions of
communication, cognition, and the faculty of the imagination, his book is largely
concerned with elaborating a pragmatic approach to narrative fiction, as the subtitle
Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction attests. However, The Rhetoric of Fictionality
has served as the point of departure for a more ambitious project by the indefatigable
Henrik Skov Nielsen. The seeds of this project can be found in his 2010 essay, Natural Authors, Unnatural Narration, where Skov Nielsen argues that distinguishing
between fiction and fictionality, and dispensing with the idea of a reporting narrator,
will help us understand how authors employ techniques of fictionalization (276)
across the fiction/nonfiction divide without resorting to the naturalizing tendencies
of the narrative communication model. While this work stems from Skov Nielsens
involvement in the movement of unnatural narratology, his subsequent research emphasizes that if fictionality, as the product of a basic human ability to imagine, is not
restricted to the defining constitutive feature of the genre of fiction, it can be investigated as a kind of floating signifier of invention in all forms of communication from
advertising to political campaigns.6
Walsh and Skov Nielsen have since joined with the indispensable James Phelan
to produce the manifesto published in this issue of Narrative entitled Ten Theses
about Fictionality. This collaboration brings together Walshs radical pragmatic approach to the idea of fiction, Skov Nielsens attempt to expand the purview of the field
by investigating fictionality in nonfictional discourse, and Phelans abiding interest
in the rhetoric and ethics of narration, largely in narrative fiction, but also, more
recently, in narrative nonfiction. The influence of Phelans well-known rhetorical approach to narrative as somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for
some purpose(s) that something happened can be found in this articles description
of its guiding questions as: When, where, why, and how does someone use fictionality in order to achieve what purpose(s) in relation to what audience(s)? (63).
The joint authors of Ten Theses about Fictionality prosecute a case for a comprehensive approach to fictionality informed by three moves designed to reconcep-

Ten Theses against Fictionality


tualize the object of study and reorient the field: distinguishing between the genre of
fiction and the quality of fictionality; emphasizing the use of fictionality as a communicative strategy in the context of the actual world rather than a turning away
from the world; and asserting the pervasiveness of fictionality deriving from a fundamental cognitive skill that informs human interaction. These three moves lay the
foundation for what the authors propose is their ultimate goal, which is to develop
a unified theory of fictionality that will offer a viable account of its manifestations
across diverse genres and discourses (from literary fictions to political campaigns,
from legal arguments to philosophers thought experiments) without erasing the differences among them7 (71n1).
In what follows I will situate this work in relation to existing debates about fictionality, with a focus on how these debates have informed contemporary narrative
theory. In particular, I will address the rhetorical approach in relation to: 1) its claims
to break decisively from previous scholarship on fictionality; 2) the ramifications for
the study of narrative fiction; and 3) its relationship to postmodernism and the narrative turn. While my essay takes the form of a polemic, my aim is not to dismiss the
value or significance of fictionality as a field of study, but to locate its development
in a disciplinary context and clarify the contributions it stands to make to narrative
theory. So, in the spirit of collegiality, here are ten theses against fictionality.

1) Semantics versus pragmatics is borrowed and boring.

Skov Nielsen et al. adopt a pragmatic approach to fictionality, particularly in their
assertion that [a] rhetorical conception of fictionality makes it a cultural variable
rather than a logical or ontological absolute; fictionality is therefore relative to communicative contexts rather than intrinsic to the discourse itself (66). This builds
on Walshs claim, in The Rhetoric of Fictionality, that [w]e need to think in terms of
the pragmatics rather than the semantics of fictionality (32), offering his relevancebased approach in opposition to fictional worlds theory.
Walsh here is referring to a tradition in the field of narratology of borrowing the
distinction between semantics and pragmatics from linguistics and semiotics when
characterizing debates about the study of narrative fiction. For instance, in a 2014 article on the fictionality debate, Toon Staes sets up an opposition between narrative
semantics, which holds that text-immanent features enable a work to be identified
as fiction, and narrative pragmatics, which argues that fictionality depends on authorial intention or the rhetorical strategies that an author employs. What we have
here, I think, is a debate between formalist and contextualist approaches to narrative
fiction that cant adequately be described as an opposition between semantics and
For a start, it miscontrues and delimits the field by conflating the textual study
of signposts with possible worlds theory under the banner of semantics. Yet the two
are methodologically distinct. As Ruth Ronen noted in Possible Worlds in Literary
Theory (1994), Fictionality as understood by literary theorists is a property of texts


Paul Dawson

and not of propositions (85; emphasis original). Ronen herself sought to address
this by adapting semantics to literary theory in her study of fictional worlds, and in
the process argues that [d]efining fictionality as immanently textual is methodologically cumbersome and conceptually unsatisfactory (79), opposing this textual-taxonomic model to logico-semantic and non-taxonomic ones. Her claim is that the
search for textual signs of fictionality suffers from a conflation of fictionality with literariness as part of a desire by literary theorists to demonstrate how literary language
works differently from other uses of language.
It is likely that the classification of textual signposts under the category of semantics is a reaction to Searles endlessly quoted assertion that [t]here is no textual
property, syntactical or semantic, that will identify a text as a work of fiction (325).
However, Gregory Currie, in The Nature of Fiction (1990), argues, If fictionality does
not reside in the text itself, it must be a relational property: something possessed in
virtue of the texts relations to other things. Among a texts relational properties will
be its semantic properties, such as reference and truth (4). Continuing the metaphorical transfer from linguistics and semiotics to narratology would thus involve
making a distinction between pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics, first elaborated
by Charles Morris. Jean-Marie Schaeffer is the only narratological scholar I am aware
of who deploys this terminology, listing the work of Hamburger and Banfield under
the category of syntactics in his entry on Fictional vs. Factual Narration in The Living Handbook of Narratology. Others have made similar distinctions. For instance,
in his 2005 account of theories of fiction for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative
Theory, David Gorman is careful to distinguish between approaches through pragmatics, approaches through semantics, and signposts of fictionality.
Secondly, within linguistics, semantics and pragmatics are different branches of
study, but they are not mutually exclusive. Debates tend to be concerned with the
extent to which pragmatics can complement the semantic analysis of individual sentences. When the distinction is transferred to the study of fiction, however, it seems
to be characterized as an either-or debate about the very essence of fiction and we
are left either to take a side or compete for the best synthesis of approaches. For
instance, in a 2011 article on Nabokov and the nature of fictionality, Brian Richardson addresses the way Nabokovs work problematizes the separation of author and
narrator, and in doing so seeks to prove the validity of one of the current theories
of fictionality and the limitations of its main rival (76). The first, he claims, is the
pragmatic approach derived from Searle in which a work presents itself as fiction by
performing a speech act. On the other hand, Richardson claims, approaches based
on semantics affirm instead that there are distinctive aspects of language and content
that demarcate a works fictional status, such as the presence of free indirect speech or
an omniscient narrator (76).
As I have pointed out, many approaches based on semantics do not make this
claim. And as far as I can tell, only the work of Ann Banfield represents a wholly textual (that is, grammatical) approach. Even Hamburger founds her approach on a theory of fiction as an as structure (as opposed to the typical as-if ), and commences
her study of grammatical features by pointing out that these features are recognized

Ten Theses against Fictionality


when readers know they are reading a novel. So the distinction strikes me as a false
debate which sets up semantics as a straw-man target, when really the distinction is
a question of methodological emphasis rather than competing theories. I would not
necessarily include the authors of Ten Theses about Fictionality as participants in
this false debate, although the argument against fictionality as an ontological absolute
which they offer in thesis six is actually an argument against exclusive textual properties, and their claim that fictionality is a quality characterized by its reference to nonactual affairs does offer an ontological basis for their pragmatic approach.

2) How many degrees of fictionality does it take to change a genre?

The first theoretical move, and key intervention, that Skov Nielsen et al. make is
to argue that existing theories have been constrained by the assumption that fictionality is a quality of fiction alone, and that apart from the work by literary critics on generic fiction, fictionality is almost completely unstudied and often unacknowledged (62). If this is true, one can hardly blame literary critics for equating
fictionality with fiction. But it is not true because fictionality has been an object of
much study outside the field of literary criticism. And while it is true that fiction has
generally been the testing ground for the study of fictionality, philosophical inquiry
has seldom been interested in fiction itself. In The Philosophy of Literature (2009),
Peter Lamarque points out that [p]hilosophers have an interest in fictionality that
extends beyond any interest they have in literature. . . . Logical inquiry is indifferent to literary value, and the simple examples used by logiciansPickwick, Sherlock
Holmes, Pegasusare seldom related back to their originating texts (175). In one
sense, then, the call for a study of local features of fictionality across generic divides is
in fact a call to return to earlier approaches concerned with statements or individual
sentences. The difference is that rather than the logic of propositions the emphasis
is on the rhetorical use of fictionality. The aim of Ten Theses about Fictionality is
thus to demonstrate the value of applying the term fictionality to rhetorical devices
in natural language that are not strictly concerned with the transmission of information, including tropes and figures of speech such as irony, metaphor, and hyperbole,
as well as other fictions including hypotheses, counterfactuals, and speculation.
One of the key claims of the pragmatic position adopted by Skov Nielsen et al. is
that the presence of fictionality in a work of nonfiction, from a technique of fiction
such as the narration of characters thoughts, to the reference failure of an invented
fact, does not alter the global generic status of that work. Not only does this prove that
there are no signposts of fictionality exclusive to fiction, it enables them to show how
fictive discourse operates across both fiction and nonfiction. As part of this move,
it is also important to show that fictive discourse has no necessary connection with
fiction. In their introductory analysis of President Obamas speech at the 2013 correspondents dinner, Skov Nielsen et al. write, More generally, Obamas 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


Paul Dawson

discourse outside the boundaries of generic fictions such as the short story, the novel,
and the fiction film (62).
It should be pointed out that the impact of Obamas speech depends upon the
audiences experience with the generic fiction film when he refers to a new movie
by Spielberg called Obama. This does not invalidate their claim, of course, because
they are referring to the rhetorical performance of Obamas jest rather than its subject matter, but it does draw attention to two things: how far can we stretch the term
fictionality to satisfactorily accommodate such a range of discourses; and how do we
address the ongoing cultural association of fictionality with the genre of fiction? The
answer to the first is a question of degrees:
This point also means that, from our perspective, it is wiser to talk about
degrees of fictionality rather than the distinction of fiction. While fictionality resides in context rather than text, some flights of fancy have higher and
longer orbits than others. Obamas riff on Spielbergs new movie has a greater
degree of fictionality than his charge that his rival in 2012 suffers from Romnesia. (67)
Presumably the quality of fictionality does not admit of degree, so Obamas riff
cannot itself possess degrees of fictionality, but must rather represent a degree of fictionality within the global nonfictional frame of a campaign speech. Obamas joke
that Mitt Romney must be suffering from Romnesia would therefore represent an
even lesser degree of fictionality within the frame of a presidential debate. We might
then ask: What degree of fictionality does a work of fiction possess? And depending
on the answer, would that be enough to distinguish fiction by degree, if not kind? The
amount of theoretical work required to include Obamas joke as an example of fictionality alongside fiction suggests to me one may as well coin a different term. In other
words, extricating fictionality from fiction requires a scale of degrees of fictionality
with generic fiction at one end and a single joke in a presidential debate at the other,
but unless the two can inform each other, the theoretical problem of degrees of fictionality becomes replicated at the disciplinary level in any attempt to forge a unified
theory of fictionality (71n1).
Regarding the question of genre, Skov Nielsen et al. argue that genre is a convention that provides a global framework for a works reception. It seems important,
though, to also address how local features of fictionality carry generic assumptions
with them. In many cases features of fictionality can be identified in the genre of nonfiction precisely because they invoke the genre of fiction, and typically because they
have been borrowed from fiction, such as dialogue and representation of thought.
This could invite us to consider more closely how fictionality relates to genre not as
a textual phenomenon but as a mode of cultural capital. As Patrick ONeill points
out, in Fictions of Discourse (1994), narratives, whether received as fictional or nonfictional, may also be received as literary or non-literary (15). When techniques of
fiction are deployed rhetorically within nonfictional discourse, this may prove that
these techniques are not exclusive to fiction, but it does not erase their generic asso-

Ten Theses against Fictionality


ciation. In fact their presence will typically influence the reception of the global genre
as a cultural category.
So, for instance, Thomas Keneally prefaces Schindlers Ark with the claim that
he has employed the textures and devices of a novel to tell a true story (9) but attempted to avoid all fiction . . . since fiction would debase the record (10). Of course,
Schindlers Ark won the Booker Prize for fiction, and indeed creative nonfiction is
now taught in American writing programs as the fourth genre of creative writing,
alongside fiction, poetry, and drama. (The banner for the journal Creative Nonfiction
is True stories, well told.) The point I am making here is that if the presence of fictive
discourse in nonfiction can alter the cultural reception of the global generic frame,
the study of fictionality could profit from a pragmatic approach to genre as a type of
literary value as well as a designation of fictional or nonfictional status.

3) Fictionality is a signifier without a referent.

In their 1949 book, Theory of Literature, Ren Wellek and Austin Warren use the
term fictionality synonymously with invention and imagination to point out that
it has typically been seen as a distinguishing trait of literature, while arguing this is
not in itself a sufficient definition of literature (16). At one point we may have had
some rough consensus that fictionality is a quality that fiction possessesor that it is
most visible in and productively analyzed in fictionalthough without any consensus on how it should be defined. Here are two definitions from separate disciplinary
I propose the following explication of fictionality: a person S1 holds an assertion or description to be fictional if his WMo does not contain an extralinguistic referent for it, but S1 is nevertheless capable to imagine such a referent or to assign a coherent intensional interpretation to Z using contents
and mechanisms of WMo. (535)
Siegfried Schmidt (1980)
By fiction I mean something better though more awkwardly captured by the
substantive fictionality, which is to say the peculiar yet for us intuitive way
that novels refer to the world: via invented characters and plots, they purport
to tell us how people and institutions and abstractions like money or power
work. (ix)
Nicholas Paige (2011)
As the above indicates, while some definitions are concerned with fictional statements and others with the genre of fiction, and while some emphasize intentionality and some focus on individual reception or social context, fictionality is typically
construed as a question of referentiality: how to understand a statement or discursive
artefact that makes no truth claims while still not being a lie.


Paul Dawson

In The Rhetoric of Fictionality, Walsh seeks to bypass the logical questions of

reference and the philosophical issue of truth by focusing on the use of fictionality, but in doing so does not proffer a clear sense of what it actually is. According to
Walsh, fictionality ought to be seen as both a rhetorical resource and a contextual
assumption rather than an ontological category (36). But he also argues that it is
the quality of fictionality rather than the genre of fiction that provides for the theoretical integrity of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. So fictionality is a
resource, an assumption, and a quality. And if it is a rhetorical quality as well as a
feature of communication, then it seems that fictionality is being defined as a quality of fictionality.
The problem here stems from asking the word fictionality to perform too many
different functions. A related terminological issue arises with the use of the word fictionalization. Typically, to fictionalize, as the transitive verb of fictional, has been
used to mean converted into fiction, in Ruth Ronens words (76).8 However, this
becomes difficult to reconcile with the extrication of fictionality from fiction. For
instance, in Natural Authors, Unnatural Narration, Skov Nielsen discusses how
tell-tale signposts of fictionality can be understood as techniques of fictionalization that can also be used in nonfictional texts (281; emphasis original). But he cant
mean that these techniques turn the text into fiction, since he is arguing the opposite.
Here it seems that a signpost of fictionality does not necessarily signal fiction, but
produces fictionality via the act of fictionalization.9 By comparison, to narrativize, in
Hayden Whites terms, means to impose sense on experience, and, in Monika Fluderniks terms, to read something as narrative. Of course, both these scholars make
little distinction between narrativity and fictionality, so we are left to wonder about
the relationship between the quality of fictionality, the act of fictionalization, and the
status of signposts of fictionality.10
The terminological haziness of these earlier works is something Ten Theses
about Fictionality seeks to rectify by recuperating the importance of (non)referentiality (the nonactual) and adapting Phelans rhetorical approach to narrative to argue
that fictive discourse neither refers to actual states of affairs nor tries to deceive its
audience about such states. Instead it overtly invents or imagines states of affairs in
order to accomplish some purpose(s) within its particular context (62).
Skov Nielsen et al. open by arguing that Obama and his audience at the correspondents dinner share an understanding of the distinction between fictionality and
nonfictionality, or what well call fictive and nonfictive discourse (62). So when they
establish that their first move is to distinguish between fiction as a set of conventional genres (62) and fictionality as a quality or fictive discourse as a mode (62),
we are clearly to take fictionality and fictive discourse as synonymous, and hence
to consider fictionality as both a quality and a mode. Hence the word fictionality is
supplemented by introducing the phrase fictive discourse, but this phrase is then
collapsed back into fictionality. The authors elaborate that fictionality/fictive discourse, like irony, can be either global or local. This seems to suggest that a text can
be globally fictive, but considering they also argue that genre designation provides
a global framework for understanding a text as a whole (62), this would then make
the global quality of fictionality potentially consonant with the global framework of

Ten Theses against Fictionality


the conventional genre of fiction. Consider this: We can analyze the interplay of fiction and nonfiction in such cases by distinguishing between global and local fictionality. Global fictions can contain passages of nonfictionality, and global nonfictions
can contain passages of fictionality. Thus, nonfictionality can be subordinate to fictive
purposes, and fictionality can be subordinate to nonfictive purposes (67).
It seems here that fictionality can be a local passage of fictive discourse, a global
quality, and a global genre framework. The crucial point, the authors argue, is that
fictionality attaches to the communicative act, not the object of representation (65)
and this act involves the intent to speak fictively or nonfictively, which is more significant than any a priori divide between fiction and nonfiction based solely on textual features (64) (the straw-man target rears its head here). So while there can be no
distinction of fiction on textual or ontological grounds, there is a distinction between
fictionality and nonfictionality based on the intent to speak fictively. A clearer distinction between generic framework, quality, and mode would help. I suggest that the
genres of fiction or nonfiction can employ the modes of fictive or nonfictive discourse
which refer respectively to the quality of fictionality or nonfictionality, and that the
relation of these modes to various techniques and their relation to genre stand to be

4) The new approach to fictionality is an old approach to fiction.

The theoretical separation of fictionality and fiction may help us understand nonfictional narratives, and fictionality as a general feature of communication, but the
question remains whether it sheds new light on the genre of fiction itself. In this
essay, Skov Nielsen et al. write, 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
(62). Their argument that fictive discourse is not ultimately a means of constructing
scenarios that are cut off from the actual world but rather a means for negotiating an
engagement with that world (63) leads to the assertion that this offers a fresh perspective on the cultural function of fiction. Such an observation would certainly not
be unfamiliar to literary critics, especially to those who practice political criticism,
from feminism to postcolonialism. To prove their point the authors provide a brief
account of The Hunger Games trilogy before concluding that it is a contemporary
version of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, only here fiction does not primarily address racial inequality, but more broadly a fight against inequality and oppression
and for justice and equality (71). It seems relevant here to quote Eric Heynes review
of Barbara Foleys account of fictionality in her book Telling the Truth: these broad
claims mostly add up to a common-sense assertion that authors of fiction do make
claims about the world (as crusty traditional thematists have always told us) (114;
emphasis original). Given the unremarkable nature of the claim that fiction engages
with the actual world, we are left to consider two tenets of the new fictionality studies: degrees of fictionality rather than the distinction of fiction; and fictionality as a
double exposure of the imagined and real.


Paul Dawson

As I have pointed out, arguing that fictionality is not an exclusive property of fiction leaves us with a scalar logic of more or less fictionality in any given work. This
really doesnt help us understand fiction unless we want to start identifying signposts
of factuality. As Gregory Currie writes:
Is a work fictional if even one of its statements is fictional in this sense? Must
the greater proportion of the whole be fiction? These are bad questions. One
might as well ask how many grains of sand make a heap. If we wanted to, we
could define a numerical degree of fictionality, but it would be artificial and
unilluminating. What is illuminating is a precise account of the fictionality
of statements. For in some perhaps irremediably vague way, the fictionality of works is going to depend upon the fictionality of the statements they
contain. (49)
Furthermore, the paradoxical quality of fictionality which Skov Nielsen et al.
draw attention tothe doubled nature of a discourse that flags its own invention
even as it seeks to alter opinion in the actual worldis the standard paradox of fictional truth. For instance, Michael Riffaterre opens Fictional Truth (1990) with this
statement: All literary genres are artifacts, but none more blatantly so than fiction.
Its very name declares its artificiality, and yet it must somehow be true to hold the
interest of its readers, to tell them about experiences at once imaginary and relevant
to their own lives. This paradox of truth in fiction is the problem for which I seek to
propose a solution (xii).
The characterization of fictionality as a double exposure of the imagined and
real is also similar to Didier Costes argument in Narrative as Communication (1989):
Fictionality is the result of fictional reference (one of its possible results). . . . The
signified is referred not to a single object but to at least two different objects belonging to worlds ruled by different laws of truth, value, and relevance (108). Coste goes
on to claim that [i]n our contemporary Western cultures, one of the basic worlds
of reference is posited as IMAGINARY and another as REAL (108). There are also
many similarities with Wolfgang Isers approach to fictionality from the perspective
of literary anthropology. Although Iser is concerned with literary fiction, he nonetheless argues that fictionality is a basic human activity founded in creativity; that it
is not only restricted to fiction, although it is a basic constituent of it; that it can only
be understood in terms of its functions; and that it involves a doubling of meaning.
In Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (1989), Iser argues
that [t]he doubling effect as the hallmark of literary fictionality comes about because the mutually exclusive realms that are bracketed together nevertheless retain
their difference. If they did not, that which appears as doubled would instead merge
into one (241).
In other words, while Skov Nielsen et al. seek to separate the quality of fictionality from the genre of fiction in order to demonstrate how pervasive it is, they are
not supplementing this with a new theory of fictionality so much as applying literary
theories outside the sphere of literature. This means that when the theory is turned
back to fiction, it has nothing new to offer.

Ten Theses against Fictionality


5) Signposts are signposts.

Narratology is founded on a formalist study of the conventions of fiction. Some of
these conventions have been identified as signposts of fictionality, and the starting
point for this scholarship is whether any of them can be considered necessary or sufficient textual indicators of the generic status of fiction. The most popular contenders
are the non-identity of author and narrator (although it should be pointed out that
this can only be indicated by the paratextual frame) and internal focalization (under
which narratorial omniscience, free indirect discourse, and the epic preterite would
be included). However, if we generally agree that none is actually exclusive to fiction,
what is the point of studying them as signposts? We end up privileging some conventions at the expense of others. As I have suggested, the main benefit is in fact studying
how these signposts operate in nonfiction.
On the other hand, a pragmatic approach which claims in principle that there
are no exclusive signposts of fictionality finds itself perpetuating by its opposition
the separation of a text from its frame. A pragmatic approach would recognize that
a signpost is a signpost if it is taken by readers as a signpost, regardless of whether it
is necessary or sufficient and whether it is in the text or not. Here Genette provides
a useful taxonomy, in Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative (1993), that includes
paratextual indices, plus three textual indices, which he breaks down into the narratological (order, pace, frequency, mode, voice), thematic, and stylistic:
The indexes of fiction are not all narratological in nature, first because they
are not all textual in nature. Most often, and perhaps more and more often,
a fictional text declares itself to be such by paratextual marks that protect
the reader from any misunderstanding; the generic indication a novel on
a title page or cover is one example among others. Then, because certain of
fictions textual indexes are, for example, thematic in nature (an implausible
utterance such as one day the oak tree said to the reed . . . can only be fictional), or stylistic: free indirect discourse, which I am counting as a narrative feature, is often considered to be an effect of style. (79)
Alexander Bareis, in The Role of Fictionality in Narrative Theory (2008), also
seeks to resolve the impasse by distinguishing between signs and markers of fictionality: To the first type belongs obvious fictitiousness, such as talking animals or a
setting in a distant future to name but a few of all potential candidates, while definite
markers are such notions that are both necessary and sufficient according to a theory
of fiction (157). He concludes by arguing that metafiction is the only entirely fictionality-specific modus of novel (66; emphasis original).
For Skov Nielsen et al., No technique is found in all fiction and/or only in fiction, even though within certain cultural and historical contexts certain textual features can become strong conventional indices of a fictive communicative intent (e.g.,
zero focalization in the era of the realist novel) (emphasis original). This observation
suggests that recognizing the difference between the quality of fictionality and the


Paul Dawson

genre of fiction could provide a useful way to reconsider the history of the genre. For
if signposts are contingent and historically variable, as the authors suggest, we could
most profit from asking what concept of fiction they are actually signalling. Here
Klaus Hempfer provides a useful distinction between signals and characteristics, the
latter being the historically specific understanding of fiction which certain formal
elements point towards. Hempfers article Some Problems Concerning a Theory of
Fiction(ality) (2004) provides the methodological spur for Simona Zetterberg Gjerlevsen, who seeks to move beyond purely theoretical debates in order to conduct an
historical investigation of when and how accepted features of the novel, such as selfreflexive authorial intrusions and free indirect discourse, came to be understood as
signposts of fictionality (Fictionality and the Novel).
Skov Nielsen et al. also argue that their approach to fictionality leads to the understanding that the rich cultural history of such forms as the novel and the fiction
film was made possible by a formal demarcation and elaboration of the rhetorical resources of a fictionality already pervasive within primarily nonfictive discourse (63).
I take this to mean either that scholarly histories of the novel have been made possible
by a deliberate demarcation of novelistic fictionality from other modes, or that the
history of the novel itself is a history of writers adapting existing nonfictive discourses
to their own generic ends. Either way, it points to the claim that novel studies could
profit from recognizing that fictionality is not exclusive to the genre.
Such an enterprise has already been undertaken, beginning with Lennard Daviss Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (1983), which argues that the
distinction we now make between fact and fiction was not the same distinction made
before the eighteenth century because genres were not defined by their allegiance
to truth-telling or invention (67), and Barbara Foleys Telling the Truth: The Theory
and Practice of Documentary Fiction (1986). In this book, Foley argues, Any given
element in a narrative . . . must be scanned and interpreted as either factual or fictive
in order to be read and understood. There is no specifically linguistic essence of fictionality that is immediately perceptible in the particulars of a text (40).
Most of this scholarship on fictionality is concerned with the development of
the novel in the eighteenth century, centring on a distinction between pseudofactual
works, such as Robinson Crusoe, which modeled themselves on nonfictional narratives, and realist novels that made no pretense of their fictional status. In The Rise
of Fictionality (2006), Catherine Gallagher proposes to address novelistic history
in terms of its fictionality rather than its realism, claiming that fictionality as a specific feature of the genre certainly needs recovery from narratologists, philosophers,
and postmodernists (336). Gallaghers argument is that when the novel emerged as a
genre in the eighteenth century, it sought to distinguish itself from both the incredibility of the romance and the referentiality of factual discourse. Hence the rise of the
novel must be seen less as the addition of realism to existing modes of fiction, than
as the construction of a whole new discourse of fictionality because the impossible
events associated with the romance were no longer a sufficient operator of fictionality.
The paradoxical result, she claims, is that the eighteenth-century novel both liberated
itself from the pseudofactual by openly proclaiming its fictional status and tried to
hide its fictionality behind verisimilitude or realism (337).11 When it comes to offer-

Ten Theses against Fictionality


ing a new perspective on the study of fiction, the test of the rhetorical approach to
fictionality could lie in its capacity to contribute to this scholarship on the emergence
of the novel out of a conflation of factual and fictive discourse.

6) Fictionality both inherits and undermines the unnatural.

In their seventh thesis about fictionality, the authors point to the importance of reading with the assumption that a story is fictive rather than nonfictive. As Henrik has
argued elsewhere, they state, this difference allows for un-naturalizing reading strategies when reading certain fictive narratives because readers do not need to limit the
narrative possibilities to what is credible in stories about non-invented, actual states
of affairs (67). We can see in this passage the legacy of Skov Nielsens earlier work
on unnatural narratology, and it is worth discussing here the relationship between
the rhetorical approach to fictionality and unnatural narratology, itself founded on a
theory of fictionality.
In a footnote to a 2011 article, Fictional Voices? Strange Voices? Unnatural Voices?, Skov Nielsen writes,
After the ISSN Conference on Narrative in Washington in 2007, a small
group incidentally gathered in the lobby. The group included Brian Richardson, Jan Alber, Maria Mkel, and me. We realized that the conference in
Washington seemed to have yielded a rather strong resistance to otherwise
predominant naturalizing paradigms. Consequently, we invited everyone
interested to join a group on what we tentatively called unnatural narratology. (55)
And so a movement was born, although I would have been more impressed if
the small group had gathered in the bar.12 The unnaturalists resist the claim that narrative fiction can always be naturalized according to the cognitive parameters of conversational storytelling and instead focus on what they consider to be specific to fiction, such as impossible events, time schemes, and narrating voices. These unnatural
features of fiction can thus be seen as signposts of fictionality. In What is Unnatural
Narrative Theory? (2011), Brian Richardson argues that unnatural narratives are
works that flaunt their own fictionality (36).
According to Richardson, one reason for the ostensible neglect of unnatural narratives in narratology is a desire for narratologists to have a single, all-embracing
theory that seamlessly covers all narratives (29). He argues that such an approach
in principle cannot begin to do justice to the distinctive qualities of fiction, whose
defining feature is its difference from the actual world (29). So here we can see that
the argument for unnatural narratology is also an argument for fictionology and a
response to the narrative turn. But rather than developing a general theory of fiction,
unnatural narratology is concerned with particular types of antimimetic and experimental work that exemplify fiction.


Paul Dawson

Richardson is clear in defining unnatural narratives in opposition to fictional

modes like realism that model themselves on nonfictional narratives (34). He also
distinguishes unnatural texts from fairy tales by arguing that the anti-mimetic points
out its own constructedness, the artificiality of many of its techniques, and its inherent fictionality (31). So here we have the equation of unnatural, antimimetic, and
overt fictionality. By contrast, realism becomes somehow positioned as a replication
of the real. And yet one of the key conventions of realism is omniscient narration,
long considered a signpost of fictionality. Omniscience may be unnatural but it is
certainly not anti-mimetic, for a convincing rendition of a characters interior is crucial for psychological realism. This is what Dorrit Cohn, in Transparent Minds, calls
the paradox of narrative realism.
At the same time, there has been a pragmatic approach to fictionality within unnatural narratology. In his 2011 essay on Nabokov, Richardson argues both for such
an approach and for the importance of the fiction/nonfiction distinction, although
we have to wait until the last line of his essay before this is linked to the unnatural:
Together, these phenomena indicate the rare and unusual ways in which the author
of a book can unnaturally merge with the narrator of a work of fiction (89). Describing this merger as unnatural seems to expand its scope beyond his own definition of antimimetic. I have already pointed out that in Natural Authors, Unnatural Narration Skov Nielsen argues that real authors transcend the communication
model when they employ techniques of fictionalization that cannot be understood
as emanating from a narrator. These techniques are to be considered unnatural regardless of whether they appear in fiction or nonfiction: I will call that part of narration that is not communication unnatural narration because it deviates from the
paradigm of natural, i.e., oral narratives (279).
Building on their claim for the importance of recognizing the difference between
reading a story as fictive or nonfictive, the authors of Ten Theses about Fictionality
More specifically, some fictive narratives may have temporalities, storyworlds, mind representations, or acts of narration that audiences would construe as physically, logically, mnemonically, or psychologically impossible or
implausible in real-world storytelling situations. Yet in line with thesis six
even such implausibilities or impossibilities can be used as parts of a globally
nonfictive discourse. (67)
Here the language of the unnatural has been absorbed into the broader study
of fictionality. However, to talk of un-naturalizing reading strategies seems only to
inherit the problems. For instance, the introduction to Strange Voices, a collection of
work by Nordic scholars co-edited by Skov Nielsen, points out that the contributors
share a marked skepticism towards the idea of using natural narratives as some kind
of genetic model for understanding and interpreting all kinds of narratives, and for all
of them the distinction of fiction is important (12). Unnatural narratology began
as a local skirmish with movements within narrative theory, and its approach was to
draw attention to the non-naturalizable features that distinguish literary fiction from

Ten Theses against Fictionality


natural language, hence to study these unnatural features in natural language works
against its very premise. And to carry the unnatural into a study of fictive discourse
founded on a challenge to the distinction of fiction seems to be more trouble than it
is worth.

7) Narrativity is always already fictionality, except when its not.

Once narratology decides that its proper object of study is narrative across both fiction and nonfiction, the methodological question becomes whether or not it ought
to distinguish between the two, but this depends on the theoretical relationship between narrativity and fictionality. If the tendency to conflate narrative with fiction
was the result of a terminological slippage produced by the bias of literary theorists,
the conflation of narrativity and fictionality is symptomatic of a broad postmodern
challenge to knowledge both within narratology and in the broader narrative turn.
So when Hayden White famously argued that historians narrativize events by emplotting history in the same way writers of fiction construct plots, his claims proved
controversial because they seem to equate narrativization with fictionalization. And
where narrative analysis has been used to mount constructivist challenges to positivist knowledge in the social sciences, conservative challenges have equated it with the
fictive. Martin Kreiswirth points out that for many in the human sciences, whatever
else it is, by its very nature story is at bottom false, fictiveliterary, imaginative, not
scientific (312).
Literary theorists, of course, have had no problem with this idea of narrative, and
in fact see it as one of the lessons we can learn from fiction. As Brian McHale comments in Postmodern Fiction (1987), The postmodernists fictionalize history, but by
doing so they imply that history itself may be a form of fiction (96). And in Fictions
of Discourse, Patrick ONeill argues that [a]ll narrative, of course, purely as narrative,
purely as a discursive system of presentation, is in principle fictional to begin with
(1415; emphasis original). Walsh offers a very similar perspective in The Rhetoric of
Fictionality, but argues that it is important to separate fictionality from its synonymity
with narrativity. He suggests that while all narrative is a form of artifice, fictional narratives nonetheless possess a cultural specificity which needs to be recognized: That
is to say, I want to grant full force to the claim that all narrative is artifice, and in that
very restricted sense fictive, but I maintain nonetheless that fictional narrative has a
coherently distinct cultural role, and that a distinct concept of fictionality is required
to account for this role (15).
What we can learn from this is that constructivist approaches to narrative in the
social sciences are at least partly influenced by the linguistic turn and sometimes directly influenced by literary theory. We can also learn that literary narratologists are
happy enough to see fictionality conflated with narrativity except when it challenges
the specificity of their own object of study.
Skov Nielsen et al. do not engage with the question of narrative in their manifesto, although they do claim that, given their emphasis on communicative intent,


Paul Dawson

it makes sense to examine narratives and other communicative acts in the pragmatic context of the intent of their producers (however inferred), including the intent to invoke a fictive rhetoric (64f). We can derive from this the reasonable assumption that fictionality can also be deployed in non-narrative modes of discourse.
We can also assume that if narrative is fictive in the limited sense that it involves
artifice, fictive discourse is fictive in the broader sense of involving invention. Furthermore, if, as Fludernik claims, the distinction between narrative and nonnarrative
must be the foundation of narratology, then the distinction between fiction(ality) and
nonfiction(ality) must be the foundation of fictionality studies. The question remains,
how does the quality of narrativity (variously characterized as sequentiality, mediacy,
experientiality, or world-making) relate to the quality of fictionality?

8) Fictionality wants to have its postmodern cake and eat it too.

Theories of fictionality gained traction in literary theory as a way to engage with the
postmodern proliferation of metafiction and hybrid genres of writing, such as the
nonfiction novel. For instance, in Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox
(1980), Linda Hutcheon draws upon philosophical theories of reference to argue
that the overt fictionality of metafiction draws attention to the nonreferential nature
of all fiction, including realism. For Marie-Laure Ryan, in Postmodernism and the
Doctrine of Panfictionality (1997), hybrid postmodern texts may problematize fictionality, but the theoretical erasure of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction
(influenced notably by Saussurean linguistics and the historiographic concept of emplotment) should not go uncontested:
If culture were made by its theorists, it would be headed toward a single huge
category that subsumes every utterance: a category variously called texts,
discourse, or representations. Since the crisis of the dichotomy is due to
the expansion of fiction at the expense of nonfiction, I will call it the doctrine of panfictionality. (165)
According to Ryan, the postmodern critique of fictionality has its greatest force
when rejecting naive concepts of representation, but this should provide an opportunity to sharpen theories of fictionality and establish the legitimacy of nonfiction in
the face of anti-realist and relativist arguments (166). Ryans solution is to replace the
notion of objective truth as correspondence with the intensional concept of claiming truth (166). She proceeds to argue for three categories on a scale of fictionality:
nonfiction, classical fiction, and postmodern metafiction.
While the doctrine of panfictionality may operate as a foil for theories of fictionality, the approach offered by Ten Theses about Fictionality in fact has much
in common with the related poststructuralist approach to literariness. If Jakobson
defined literariness as that which makes a given work a literary work, the project of
poststructuralist theory was to show that literature is not a privileged discourse sepa-

Ten Theses against Fictionality


rate from everyday language, leading paradoxically to the claim that all language is in
a sense literary. This is the logic of deconstruction in its American variety, articulated
by Paul de Mans definition of literariness, in The Resistance to Theory (1982), as
neither an aesthetic nor a mimetic quality of literature but the use of language that
foregrounds the rhetorical over the grammatical and the logical function (14), characterized by a freedom from referential restraint (10). The resistance to theory, de
Man argues, is a resistance precisely to this rhetorical or tropological dimension of
language, a dimension which is perhaps more explicitly in the foreground in literature (broadly conceived) than in other verbal manifestations orto be somewhat less
vaguewhich can be revealed in any verbal event when it is read textually (15).
The insistence by Skov Nielsen et al. on the discursive and generic mobility of
fictionality partakes in the same critique of literature as a privileged form of discourse
by addressing the rhetorical and tropological function of language in nonliterary discourse, but it resists the panfictional impulse of postmodern theory by arguing that
a work of nonfiction retains its generic status as a truth statement even when it has
local elements of fictionality. So while postmodernism presents an epistemological
challenge that collapses the distance between fiction and factual discourses, fictionality studies extracts fictionality from fiction only to shore up the generic distinction in
pragmatic terms.

9) Fictionality has become the bastard child of the narrative turn.

To reinforce their claim that fictionality has been unstudied and often unacknowledged, Skov Nielsen et al. argue, 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 (62). The narrative turn may not have
led to the widespread study of fictionality as a distinct rhetorical resource, but it did
prompt the very debate about the relationship between narrativity and fictionality
which enabled the observation about this pervasiveness to be made. Furthermore, it
has provided the model for the unified theory of fictionality proposed here.
In The Literary in Theory (2007), Jonathan Culler argues that literary modes of
reading have influenced disciplines outside literary studies:
Literature may have lost its centrality as a specific object of study, but its
modes have conquered: in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences everything is literary. Indeed, if literature is, as we used to say, that mode
of discourse which knows its own fictionality, then . . . the effect of theory
has been to inform disciplines of both the fictionality and the performative
efficacy of their constructions. (41)
Thinking along these lines, the theoretical relationship between fictionality and
narrativity ultimately might best be understood in disciplinary and rhetorical terms.
In a forthcoming article, I discuss what I call the interdisciplinary rhetoric of the nar-


Paul Dawson

rative turn. This rhetoric relies upon three mutually reinforcing claims: 1) narrative is
not only a feature of literary fiction, but of all forms of discourse because stories are
everywhere; 2) narrative is a fundamental cognitive faculty for meaning-making and
essential to our sense of self, so its study is of vital importance; 3) because so many
different disciplines are studying narrative, it is only by collaborating and sharing
knowledge that we will come to fully understand the phenomenon of narrative.
Occurrences of this rhetoric abound in books and articles across the disciplines
as a way to justify the importance of narrative analysis and inform the rationale of
research centers on narrative that have emerged in the new millennium. While I dont
have space to elaborate here, my claim is that the interdisciplinary rhetoric of the narrative turn is a product not only of an impulse in narrative studies, but of the demands
of the modern corporate university and its competitive drive for research excellence.
As an example, here is a blurb from the website for the Centre for Interdisciplinary
Research on Narrative at St. Thomas University:
Human beings have been storytelling creatures since the very beginning,
and the narrative impulse permeates countless facets of our world. Narrative
is pivotal not just to literature, in other words, but to cognition and emotion,
memory and community, politics and religion, culture and identity, counselling and learning. In the same way that any story deals with a number of
subjects at once, so the study of story is the province of no one field. As a
result, research on the storied complexity of human life draws from, and has
an impact on, a wide range of disciplinesfrom psychology to sociology,
history to healthcare, and ethics to education.
One of the results of the expansion of the term fictionality is that the transmedial,
interdisciplinary rhetoric of the narrative turn has now been adopted by fictionality
studies. This is how the rhetoric of the fictionality turn goes: 1) fictionality is not a
quality of the genre of fiction, but a general communicative resource; 2) fictionality is a basic human ability and ubiquitous in our society and thus vitally important
to understand; 3) because fictionality is everywhere, we need an interdisciplinary
The best way to foster interdisciplinarity, of course, is to set up a research center.
This has happened at the University of York, with the Fictionality network within the
Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies, and at Aarhus University, where the
Centre for Fictionality Studies has been established alongside the Narrative Research
Lab. Perhaps Project Fictionality will follow at The Ohio State University. Here are a
few passages from the webpage for the Centre for Fictionality Studies exhibiting this
Fictionality is a term typically associated with novels, short stories and
movies. With very few exceptions, research on fictionality has examined it
in these generic terms. In the centre of Fictionality Studies we investigate
fictionality as a basic human ability and as a rhetorical and communicative

Ten Theses against Fictionality


strategy in various media and discursive contexts in a way that extricates it

from fiction in the generic sense.
Examining why and how persons and media use fictionality as a means to
achieve specific ends is crucial to understand our contemporary, mediatized
society. Since fictionality is a communicational strategy that crosses traditional genres, media and research areas, an interdisciplinary approach to fictionality as quality is more useful than uni-disciplinary approaches to fiction
as generic category.
And here is the claim for ubiquity, and hence the justification for a unified theory,
in Ten Theses about Fictionality:
Fictionality in the form of the intentional use of invented stories and scenarios (not just spoofs like Obamas, 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. . . . (62)
So while the concept of fictionality once promised to rescue fiction from the narrative turn by showing what was unique to fictional narrativesor, in Dorrit Cohns
words, a qualified fictional narratology might help to counteract the current tendency to identify all narrative as fiction (Signposts 110; emphasis original)it has
since turned into another version of the narrative turn by seeking to identify fictionality in all narratives, and beyond.13

10) Who cares why we read fiction(ality)?

I have pointed out that the search for textual signposts of fictionality in narrative fiction, and the characterization of these signposts as unnatural, are both disciplinebound reactions against the transdisciplinary appeals of the narrative turn. There is
a separate offshoot of literary studies, however, that seeks to distinguish fiction by
drawing upon the expansionary rhetoric of the narrative turn, and it does so by asking why we read fiction. I refer here to that loose collocation of Literary Darwinism
and cognitive narratology which David Herman classifies, in Storytelling and the Sciences of the Mind (2013), under the category of: Recruiting from the sciences of mind
to study narrative viewed as a resource for sense making (4).
One of the scholars Herman mentions is Brian Boyd, who argues for a biocultural approach to literature in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, Fiction
(2009), asserting that [f]iction aids our rapid understanding of real-life social situations, activating and maintaining this capacity at high intensity and low cost (193).
The utilitarian language of science, however, soon shifts into the more recognizable


Paul Dawson

language of the traditional humanities when he claims, Another feature of fiction

but not of factalso encourages the development of a moral sense (197). This feature
is the shifting of perspectives between characters, and by emphasizing the fact that
fiction lets us hear characters speech and even access their thoughts as we cannot
do in life (197), Boyd promotes this key signpost of fictionality as the source of the
prime moral value of fiction: its capacity to develop the sympathetic imagination.14
Another scholar Herman mentions is Lisa Zunshine, author of Why We Read
Fiction (2006). Zunshine offers an even more baldly practical reason for the value of
fiction in a 2013 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Why Fiction Does It
Better. Here she points to research that proves children with rich vocabularies perform better in school and then draws upon cognitive science to argue that fiction
affords the best means of achieving these results: If you want nonstop high-level
sociocognitive complexity, simultaneous with nonstop active reorganization of perceptions and inferences, only fiction delivers (B5). Zunshine explicitly states that the
metacognitive complexity of fiction operates at a higher level than nonfiction, and it
is clear from her definition of fiction as prose fiction, drama and narrative poetry
that she is talking about narrative fiction. These attempts to explain why we read fiction use narrative research to perpetuate a long-standing evangelical fervor about the
social importance of fiction which seems rooted in the perennial anxiety over the role
of literary studies in the academy.
In a 2012 article entitled Why Fiction is Good for You, Jonathan Gottschall
claims that the central question is: Why are humans storytelling animals at all? Why
are weas a speciesso hopelessly addicted to narratives about the fake struggles of
pretend people? He goes on to assert that [f]iction is often treated like a mere frill
in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests
that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social
friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together
around common values. While Literary Darwinism frames the question of fiction
in evolutionary terms, the new fictionality studies proceeds from a similar question
(what is the purpose of our basic human ability to invent or imagine?) and reaches
largely similar conclusions, although avoiding the language of morality in favor of a
more sober assessment of ethos. The difference is that it argues for the value of fiction
from the outside in. The conclusion of Gottschall, based on psychological research on
empathy and responses to a questionnaire about nineteenth-century British novels:
But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the
better, not for the worse. The conclusion of Skov Nielsen et al., based on a methodological decision to approach fictionality as a rhetorical strategy of communication:
For better and for worse, fictionality changes the world and the ways we perceive it
I have pointed out that the theoretical separation of fictionality from fiction designed to enable the study of fictionality across media and nonfictional discourse is
supplemented by a claim that this will also provide a fresh perspective on the genre
of narrative fiction. This perspective is the familiar claim that fiction is neither escapist nor a nonreferential discourse ontologically quarantined from the actual world,
but serious discourse that has the capacity to change received opinion in the world.

Ten Theses against Fictionality


Rather than offering a new philosophical perspective on fiction, or a new mode of

textual analysis, the rhetoric of the fictionality turn offers a way to understand the
use-value of fiction. Like the narrative turn, it simultaneously seeks to expand the
significance of fiction while undermining its specificity.

Thanks to Henrik Skov Nielsen for his intellectual generosity and good humor. I would also like to
thank Simona Zetterberg Gjerlevsen for her contribution to this essay. Her comments on draft versions,
and our ongoing debates about the problem of fictionality, have proved vital in helping me formulate
and clarify my ideas.
1. Alexander Bareis frames the debate in this way: [I]f there are any fictionality-specific narratological categories, then there is reason to discuss whether we need a special kind of narratology, a
fictionology (154). He points out that Lars-ke Skalin uses the term in Fact and Fiction in the
Novel: A Narratological Approach.
2. Especially in the pages of Poetics. See Gale; Schmidt; Gabriel; Fricke; Swiggart; Wildekamp, Van
Montfoort, and Van Ruiswijk. The antecedents for this field of study lie in Freges On Sense and
Reference (1892) and Vaihingers The Philosophy of As if (1911), which he applies to all forms of
knowledge, from science to religion. Strawsons On Referring (1950) and David Lewiss Truth
in Fiction (1978) are also often cited as important works.
3. For a discussion of signposts see Genette, Fictional Narrative; Riffaterre; Gorman; and Bareis.
Some important philosophical works include Currie; Walton, Mimesis; and Lamarque. For possible worlds approaches see Pavel; Doleel; Ronen; and Ryan, Possible Worlds. There is also much
important untranslated work in the German tradition such as that by Weinrich and by Zipfel
4. Simona Zetterberg Gjerlevsen (The Relevance of Truth) argues that Walshs appeal to the relevance theory of Sperber and Wilson as the basis for a pragmatic theory of fiction does not ultimately escape the question of truth in referential or communicative terms, and demonstrates how
Grices maxims of quality and relation are both necessary for an adequate definition of fictionality
as a suspension of truth.
5. Including the concept of a narrator alongside these approaches to fictionality strikes me as a
category error because the narratological distinction between inventing author and reporting
narrator is not predicated upon the problem of truth. Walshs rejection of the narrator rests in
particular on a compelling critique of voice in Genettes Narrative Discourse. However, in his
preface to the French translation of Hamburgers The Logic of Literature, Genette points out that
the assumption of a narrator is a methodological decision designed to take seriously the rhetorical
feint of narrative fictionthat a story is being toldand analyze its narrative strategies. This does
not disavow the fictionality of a narrative, for it requires an awareness of it in order to be operative.
Walsh claims that rejecting the narrator allows a conception of the experience of fictionfor
all readers, however sophisticated or nave, provided that they are not simply credulousin
which there is no conflict between engaging with authorial fictive discourse and engaging with
the story (70). Yet this is precisely the experience that rhetorical narratology seeks to explain
by investigating how readers can simultaneously enter both the narrative audience (in which
they are addressed by a narrator) and the authorial audience (in which they are addressed by the
author). If it is true that narrative fiction employs fictionality as a rhetorical resource, there should
be no problem with positing a narrator as one of those resources. In other words, rather than


Paul Dawson
quarantining the question of truth or reference, the concept of a narrator arises from a contextual
assumption that allows us to read fiction as a mode of authorial discourse distinct from other
public authorial statements.

6. These ideas are advanced in two recent conference papers: Ten Theses about Fictionality (European Narratology Network, Cit internationale universitaire de Paris, 2013) and Fictionality
as Double Exposure of Imagined and Real (International Society for the Study of Narrative, MIT
7. In his preface to the revised version of Scholes and Kelloggs The Nature of Narrative, Phelan
describes the difficulties present in surveying the diverse field of narrative theory, suggesting the
need to be wary of presenting a Grand Unified Field Theory of Narrative (GUFTON). Similarly, I
will avoid presenting a GUFTOF while addressing the authors desire for an eventual UTOF.
8. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term fictionize (to turn into fiction) to 1831, and the
term fictionalize (the transitive verb of fictional) to 1925. It currently has no entry for fictionality.
9. An unacknowledged antecedent here is Wolfgang Iser, who, in Prospecting, writes, Fictionality is
not to be identified with the literary text, although it is a basic constituent of it. For this reason I
refrain from using the word fiction whenever I can and speak instead of fictionalizing acts. These
do not refer to an ontologically given, but to an operation, and therefore cannot be identical to
what they produce (23637).
10. In Towards a Natural Narratology, Fludernik argues that the fundamental dichotomy for narratologists ought to be that between narrative and nonnarrative and thus seeks to diminish the
significance of questions of fictionality and the attendant confusion of the fictional, the hypothetical, and the fictive: Fictionality and narrativity largely overlap, but only if the fictional is not
completely reduced to the traditional sense of the non-historical and a-referential (42).
11. In Before Fiction Nicholas Paige builds on Gallaghers work by proposing three distinct historical
regimes of the novel, which he dubs the Aristotlean, the Pseudofactual, and the Fictional, arguing
that the latter regime only comes into being with the realist novel. For a comprehensive critique
of the conflation of fictionality, fiction, and the novel in both Gallagher and Paige, see Zetterberg
Gjerlevsen, Fictionality and the Novel.
12. The passage is repeated, but this time promoted from a footnote to a paragraph in the main text
of an essay called Unnatural Narratology, Impersonal Voices in another 2011 anthology, Unnatural NarrativesUnnatural Narratology, so it was obviously a very important gathering.
13. At the same time, recent collections on narrative have included at least one contribution which
applies the same focus to the concept of fictionality. For instance, Storyworlds Across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology (2014) includes an article by Frank Zipfel entitled Fiction
Across Media: Toward a Transmedial Concept of Fictionality. And the recent special issue of
Narrative devoted to narrative in poetic form leads with an essay by Peter Hhn entitled The
Problem of Fictionality and Factuality in Lyric Poetry.
14. Cohn writes that the minds of imaginary figures can be known in ways that those of real persons
cannot (Signposts 118), and that this is the distinctive modal feature of fictional discourse
(119; emphasis original).

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