Media content takes many forms and is differentiated by code and convention, genre and technology. The term “content” refers to the nature of the representations that are communicated by media genres and technologies rather than the medium in which they are carried. Fictional media content is one such classificatory grouping, signaling a similarity in the nature of the content on the basis of its intended relationship to a given reality, regardless of the specific media genre or technology in which the content is conveyed. This type of media content has received varying degrees of academic attention in communication, media, and cultural disciplines.
Definitions And Forms Of “Fiction”
Etymologically, the term “fiction” derives from the Latin root fict-, which in its original usage referred to an activity rather than cultural content. However, in contemporary culture fictional media content refers to all media output that is not concerned with representing events or issues as they are lived or experienced in the real world.
Media fiction commonly refers to content with a narrative structure in contrast to the singular use of images, for example. Most commonly, this covers media content that takes the form of a story, ranging from literary novels to television drama. Some fictional content takes the form of a discrete, one-off story-narrative that can vary in length and is characterized by the introduction of a setting and collection of characters, a set of main events or developments in the plot, and a conclusion where the plot is resolved, such as in feature films, radio plays, and novels.
Alternatively, the narrative structure of fictional media can take an episodic form, where short sections of narrative are broadcast or published in succession. This would include soap operas or comics, where an indefinitely continuing narrative is constructed. Cast members may be introduced or may leave, but the core themes and settings of the program or publication remain the same. For instance, the British soap opera Coronation Street has run continuously since 1960. Other narrative forms of fictional content include the serial, where a story-narrative is divided into several episodes that build toward a conclusion in a final episode, commonly called a “series.” The more popular series may introduce subsequent series using the same characters or themes. Televisual forms of these narratives are particularly lucrative as they can be released in DVD/VHS format.
Fictional media content involves many cultures of production, ranging from the relatively solitary to the collective. However, most fictional media production begins with a written narrative. In the production of fictional literature, this is the main stage of production and it is followed by an editorial process. The writing of fictional literature is traditionally conducted by a solitary writer; however, it is becoming increasingly common for popular fiction novelists to co-author work, for instance the popular fiction writer Clive Cussler has co-authored several novels with his son. Popular fiction of this kind has received popular and academic criticism for its tendency toward formulaic plots, encouraged by the commercial pressures of the publishing industry.
The production of fictional feature films and television fiction frequently involves the production of a written narrative. This takes the form of a script or screenplay and, like fictional literature, this can be produced by a single writer, or as part of a writing team. In fictional content for the broadcast media, this is the first stage of the production process. It is followed by the practical planning of the production process, including costing and location planning. Choices at this stage play a crucial role in determining key features of the finished fictional content. The creative construction of the fictional content is then further developed in the processes of production by various members of production teams including actors, producers, and directors. Similarly to fictional literature, this is then followed by an editing process.
Fictional content is determined in relation to its conventional conceptual opposite: factual content. Whereas factual content claims to naturalistically represent real-world events, as for instance in current affairs programming, representations involved in fictional content refer to invented happenings despite bearing the recognizable conventions of narrative meaning. This means that although fiction may have a recognizable referent, such as a person or event, that referent may never have existed in lived experience. For instance, although the British soap opera Coronation Street features a recognizable community in spatial and communicative terms, it has not existed, nor will it ever exist, outside of the televisual text. Fictional media content is also contrasted with factual content on the basis of its narrative structure, where fictional features such as plots, characters, and scenes are set against nonfiction mass media content that features a nonnarrative structure, such as the current affairs program, the news, or documentary.
The Legacy Of Literary Criticism
The distinction between factual and fictional media content has had considerable implications for the ways in which fictional content has been studied. The critical repertoire for assessing fictional content is largely derived from literary criticism. As well as providing evaluative terminology, such as labeling discrete representational content as “texts,” literary criticism has shaped the critical attention paid to fictional media in important ways. It has institutionalized the separation of factual and fictional content and as a result fictional media content has since been evaluated in these dichotomous terms. The development of this division in the evaluation of written or dramatic content has been maintained and applied to new forms of media content as they have developed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Particularly in early media studies, this critical legacy is easily visible. Fictional media content has often been evaluated on the basis of form and internal structure in relation to other fictional forms. Their subversive and political potential was, in the early period of media criticism, largely overlooked given their perceived disconnection from the reality of public and social life. In contrast, nonfiction representations have been considered in their relation to lived reality and their representational attributes have only more recently become subject to investigation.
Although having a long history in literary criticism, this separation was shared by media studies as it emerged in the early twentieth century out of the social commentary and philosophy of the Chicago School. The focus on the mass media’s role in political communication and participatory democracy resulted in the critical elision of fictional media content in early media studies in favor of a focus on the news and current affairs media. Fictional media content, like written fiction, was considered a superficial counterpart to the serious business of civic participation. The examination of media content was adjudicated through the criteria of realist aesthetics, espousing either recognizable political credentials or aspiring to an ideal of objectivity. Fictional media content, certainly in its most popular forms, could make precious few claims to these rationalist benchmarks of cultural value and so received limited critical attention until well into the twentieth century.
The second bequest of literary criticism is the distinction between popular and literary fiction. This involves superimposing a hierarchical framework onto literary texts, creating a canon worthy of critical attention with the others cast aside as mass entertainment. F. R. Leavis in the 1920s and 1930s is one such literary scholar who has propagated this distinction. A cultural pessimist, he decried popular genres with mass appeal, such as romance fiction, as evidence of a crisis in literary standards, in contrast claiming the qualitative value of particular “classic” forms. Ward (1989) tracks the associated pessimism regarding mass mediated culture emanating in large part from the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt School positioned mass entertainment, which was largely fiction, as antithetical to political engagement. So, where literary criticism allowed for a canon of elite texts based on formal textual attributes, the Frankfurt School evaluated media texts on a similar conservative textual basis, casting the vast majority of fictional media as de-humanizing and appealing to the lowest common denominator.
In elite, conservative circles, attention to fictional media content was framed largely as fiction’s potential to incite criminal or antisocial behavior in the working classes. Springhall (1998) discusses this form of critique in relation to anxiety over crime and gangster movies of the 1930s and their potential effect on the young. Popular concerns over the effects of fictional media content continue to be prevalent and are largely premised on the assumption that fictional media can elicit a direct response from their audience. For example, there have been moral panics over so-called “video nasties” and violent behavior in children, fuelled by a few high-profile criminal cases such as the murder of James Bulger in 1993. In Marxist circles, critique was framed rather differently, centering on potential inaction rather than unregulated behavior as popular entertainment was perceived as threatening the possibility of radical thought and public engagement.
In contemporary consideration of fictional media content, the evaluative dimension of textual analysis applied to fictional texts has largely been abandoned, at least in academic circles, as a result of several related shifts. Feminist media theory, particularly in film studies, has been one of the central intellectual movements away from hierarchical frameworks of cultural value applied to fictional media content. It has attacked the lack of attention paid to fictional content and exposed the gendered nature of the omission. The division of fiction and nonfiction media content has not only been premised on the putative cultural value of fact and fiction, but on the gendered affiliations of those two forms. Masculine genres coalesce around nonfictional forms, particularly in terms of television and literary media, while fictional content, particularly soap opera and romance fiction, has been considered to be feminine in its modes of appeal. This gendered division has meant that feminist critique has loomed large in the intellectual consideration of fictional media content. Bearing many of the technical hallmarks of literary criticism, such as a focus on the text as a carrier of meaning, feminist media criticism has seriously considered previously ignored forms of popular entertainment as worthy of critical attention, evaluating fictional works not in hierarchical terms relating to their mass appeal but on the basis of their relative textual attributes and psychological or other benefits to the (female) consumer.
Some of the early work in this domain focused critically on the gendered nature of fictional media content, for example considering how stereotypes are drawn on and reified in the texts, comparing gendered reality with gendered representations. Much of the work on gendered stereotypes considered television soap opera and Latin American telenovelas as well as prime-time content. For example, Jenrette et al. (1999) give a comprehensive account of the stereotypes of Hispanic women deployed in daytime soap operas and measure them against their own account of Hispanic women. In the field of film studies, the gendered nature of fictional content was also receiving burgeoning attention. Mulvey (1975) has been central to this movement, repositioning the female critic in relation to the masculinized text. Here, fictional content is considered a dimension of political interaction rather than disconnected from everyday politics. The content of media fiction is seen as connected to everyday reality, bringing fiction and nonfictional realities into view of one another. Film theory has also provided a plethora of alternative frameworks for analyzing fictional media content including “auteur” theory, genre analysis, and narratology. These approaches share a resounding emphasis on the meaning of the fictional text in itself.
Cultural Studies Approaches
Cultural studies approaches to media content form a second strand of the critical assessment of fictional texts, involving a shift away from the meaning-inherent-in-text mode of analysis. This shift is not completely distinct from feminist media research, as many theorists belong to both intellectual fields. From the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies emerged a new approach to media texts that emphasized a new relationship between the audience and the media text. This became known as the active audience approach. Hall et al.’s (1980) encoding/decoding model suggested that meaning does not inhere in the fictional text but is a result of a negotiation between the audience and the text. This theoretical development was a watershed in the consideration of fictional content. Rather than being considered as a reflection of a given reality, fictional texts were involved in its constitution. Fictional content in this sense is allocated an equally important role in the construction of lived reality as nonfiction, therefore legitimating fictional content as worthy of critical attention. Dethroning the formal properties of the text and contextualizing fictional content in everyday life has resituated fiction within lived experience.
This has positioned cultural studies as central in redressing the critical imbalance between fiction and nonfiction media content. Feminist theorists have been keen to exploit the new seriousness with which “female” genres are being considered. Hobson (1982) has considered the practical and imaginative pleasures of the soap opera Crossroads and Hermes (1998, 166) has suggested that consuming popular fiction can have as much potential in the articulation of cultural citizenship as traditional, masculinized forms of communication. This engagement with fictional content has not revolved solely around the everyday politics of gender. The politics of class and ethnicity alongside gender and their intersections have also been key features of the cultural turn toward fictional content. Fictional forms are seen as resources for the construction of plural identities and also as providing literal and imaginative space for their articulation. The polysemic nature of fictional content makes it suitable for appropriation as resources for resistance and the subversion of dominant ideologies. In this theoretical perspective fictional media content is afforded the same active potential for constructing progressive meaning as nonfictional forms.
Boundaries Between Fictional And Nonfictional Media Content
Alongside the rebalancing of fiction in its relationship with factual content, there has been a parallel challenge to the very nature and premise of this distinction. This involves retracing the boundaries between genres of media content, specifically documentary form and drama. In early work of this nature, features of fictional content such as narrative structure were considered to be migrating across formal boundaries, resulting in hybrid genres such as dramadoc and docudrama. The boom in “reality television” alongside historical content heavily reliant on dramatic techniques of reconstruction has intensified this debate, stimulating consideration of the implications of increasingly blurred boundaries between fictional and factual media genres. This has historically been met with pejorative accusations of falsehood and fakery in academic and popular forums (Petley 1996). Fictional imperatives of entertainment were perceived as compromising the validity of factual genres. However, this view is being revised, taking into account the constructed nature of both factual and fictional representational forms and problematizing outright rejections of cross-fertilization between factual and fictional genres. Winston, for example, suggests that previous accusations have failed to appreciate the “symbiotic connection between documentary and ‘reconstruction’” (2000, 106).
Postmodern critics have taken this blurring of boundaries a stage further to suggest that any differentiation between factual and fictional content has been removed altogether and that a disconnection of representations from their referent, factual or fictional, has rendered any evaluation on the basis of a connection to reality impossible. In this sense the organizing principle of mediated content is pastiche, and simulacra replace authentic signs, making coherent narratives or claims to lived experience redundant. Accounts of past lived realities cannot be separated from fictions, rendering accounts of the past subject to endless play and limitless revision. In postmodern media studies, the integrity of the criteria of fictional and nonfictional content has been compromised. While postmodernist critique is useful in undermining the rigid adherence to the critical dichotomy of fact and fiction, clearly it does matter for many people whether we have accurate, credible reporting of wars or financial fraud, or whether the Holocaust is represented as myth by anti-Semitic revisionists.
A less radical response to the blurring of factual and fictional content has been to separate the notion of “truth” from fiction and nonfiction. The common-sense assumption that factual content can make claims to truth where fictional content cannot is reevaluated, particularly in respect of historical accounts. Rather than tying the notion of truth to life as it was lived, truth is about making a contextual meaning of the past that has efficacy and resonance in the present. Stella Bruzzi (2000) argues that in documentary there are two kinds of truth: the factual images that we see and the meaning that can be generated from them. The reality depicted in a documentary remains a representation and is more than a collection of facts; claims are made to broader truths beyond the boundaries of the literal textual content. In this sense, fictional content can also make truth claims. John Steinbeck’s portrayal of the American dust bowl of the 1930s in the novel Grapes of wrath is perhaps one of the most moving and “truthful” evocations of the historical moment of the Depression. It makes sense of a period that speaks beyond those fictional experiences to a broader sense of truth. In contemporary filmic forms debates move away from the “facticity” of dramatized history to the nature of the truths that emerge. Spielberg’s historical drama Schindler’s List and Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah have been subject to these debates over claims to truth.
The relationship between fictional and nonfictional media content is becoming increasingly complex, but the intensifying intellectual debates surrounding it are generating ever more nuanced and sensitive accounts of media content and the politics of its classification and evaluation. This increased critical attention in terms of both importance and definition of fictional media content has re-charted traditional attributions of value in media studies and forced the categorization of media forms to be substantially revised.
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