Fiction is intuitively understood and widely used, both in the public at large and among specialists of literary theory, to refer to a representation not committed to the truth. Yet, the concept is as difficult to define technically as it is easy to recognize. Unlike lies, fiction is not deceptive, and unlike honest error, it is not mistaken.
The specification of the concept of fiction involves at least three questions. First, what are its relations to narrativity, a concept with which it is easily confused, as the tendency to equate “fiction” with “narrative fiction” demonstrates? Second, how can it be described in pragmatic terms, i.e., as a use of signs? Third, is it a concept specific to language, or can it be extended to other media?
Fictionality Versus Narrativity
Fiction is commonly taken to mean “narrative fiction”. The overwhelming majority of fictions are, indeed, narratives, but not all narratives are fictional (e.g., news or biographies), and fictional texts do not always tell stories, as postmodern novels have demonstrated. The narrativity of a text or message is a semantic issue, i.e., a matter of content, and the audience can decide whether or not the text tells a story by simply decoding its meaning. Fictionality, by contrast, is a pragmatic issue, i.e., not a matter of what the text is about, but a matter of how it is used in social interaction.
Judgments about fictionality, thus, have far greater cognitive and practical consequences than judgments about narrativity. In the first case, the judgment can be right or wrong, and a wrong categorization would lead people to take the false as true, or the true as false. In the last case, we can read a story without asking ourselves, “is it or isn’t it a narrative,” and still process the text correctly.
There may be some semantic restrictions on the content of a fiction; for instance, it can be argued that a fiction must be about particulars and not general ideas, but there are no positive conditions that specify a certain type of subject matter. Even though literary critics have detected “signposts of fictionality,” or stylistic features that betray fictional status (Cohn 1999), these features are not mandatory. A given text could be read, at least in principle, either as a fiction or as a report of facts, as evidenced when Orson Welles’s 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds as a present-day invasion of the US from Mars reportedly created a public panic (Cantril et al. 1940). What tips the user to the fictionality of a text is usually a so-called paratextual device, such as the labels “novel,” “short story,” or “drama”. These labels instruct the user how to process the information of the text.
Philosophical Approaches to Fiction
In the Renaissance, Sir Philip Sidney characterized the stance of the author of fiction in these terms: “Now for the poet, he nothing affirms and therefore never lieth.” Two centuries later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge captured the phenomenon from the point of view of the audience, by describing the attitude of the reader of poetry as a “willing suspension of disbelief.” There is, however, more to a theory of fiction than the combination of a lack of truth and a non-deceptive intent. Both these features also describe figural language, such as metaphor, as well as the counterfactual statements of everyday conversation, such as “If the referee had seen that this player was offside, we would have won the game.” Moreover, if fictions are generally false, they often contain accurate statements (e.g., historical novels). They could also be true entirely by accident, as suggested by the need for disclaimers in fiction films which indicate that any resemblance to real people or events is coincidental.
Interest in the nature of fictionality was renewed in the 1970s as an outgrowth of speech act theory and other analytic philosophy. Philosophers of the analytic school were attracted to fictionality because it poses basic questions of truth and reference. Austin (1962) described fiction as an “etiolated” and “parasitic” use of language that does not entail the normal consequences of the speech acts it represents: an actor who makes a promise on stage is not held to honor it. This idea was further developed by Searle (1975) in his pathbreaking essay “The logical status of fictional discourse.” For Searle, fictionality is an operator that affects the status of assertive speech acts. In writing a novel, authors are only pretending to make assertions, or imitating the making of assertions. Though the language of fiction is often indistinguishable from the language of nonfiction, readers are protected from taking its statements to be genuine information because they recognize the author’s act of pretense.
Whereas the notion of fiction as pretense has been widely accepted, Searle’s account had difficulties handling the statements within fiction that refer to real-world entities. According to Searle, Conan Doyle pretends to make assertions when he refers to Sherlock Holmes, but he makes serious assertions when he refers to London. It is hard to reconcile this patchwork of fiction and nonfiction with the homogeneous impression that the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories makes on the reader.
Lewis (1978) offered, instead, a theory based on the idea of a plurality of worlds. He defined fiction as a story told as true about another world than the one we regard as actual by a narrator situated within this other world. A nonfictional story, by contrast, is told as true about our world by one of its members. The difference between fiction and nonfiction, then, is a matter of different reference worlds. In Lewis’s model, members of the actual world have counterparts in alternative possible worlds, so that when a novel refers to Napoleon, it does not describe the historical individual, but imports an alter ego of the emperor, possessing somewhat different properties, into its fictional world. For Lewis, the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not created by a mixture of fictional and nonfictional statements, but by a fully fictional discourse that describes a possible world linked to the actual world through many common features (or counterpart relations). This idea of counterpart relations solves the problem encountered by Searle when the text refers to actual entities. One of the most important implications of Lewis’s account of fiction is the self-denying quality that it attributes to this mode of expression: fiction is not just a product of the imagination, but an invention that passes as a report of facts. An overt prescription to the imagination (“think up a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater”) and if . . . then counterfactual statements are not fiction, because they construct a world explicitly flagged as “other.”
While Searle’s and Lewis’s accounts were designed for fictions in verbal language, Walton (1990) put the theory of fiction on a transmedial track by relying on the notion of make-believe. Drawing an analogy between a certain type of children’s game and the representational arts in general, Walton defines fiction as a “prop in a game of makebelieve” – an object that inspires imagining rather than belief. Just as children playing cops and robbers adopt imaginary personae and pretend that a certain tree is the jail, spectators of a painting of a ship pretend that they are facing a ship, and readers of literary fiction pretend that the text is the description of a world that exists independently of the text, when they know that this world is in reality the product of the author’s discourse. In all three examples, fictionality derives from a decision by the “player” to take something as something else.
Fiction in Different Forms of Media
As demonstrated in the case of language, fictionality is not a feature inherent to semiotic media, i.e., media understood as a type of signs associated with particular sense modalities. Just as verbal texts can fall on either side of the divide, the concept of fictionality is applicable to the uses of other signs, modalities, and technologies in a number of distinctive ways.
Fictionality is a relevant analytical concern for all technological and institutional media that involve a language track: film, drama, opera. It is because the actors of film and drama engage in an act of pretense that these media can be considered fictional. In drama, pretense is inevitable, but in film, it is optional, since the camera is able to record both authentic and simulated events. Film (television, video), consequently, can be either fictional or documentary. As a form of make-believe, fictionality also cuts across gestures and other embodied communication: pantomime and acted silent movies are fictional, practical action is not, and dance is fictional only when the dancer impersonates a character. In purely instrumental music, a medium which cannot articulate a specific content, the distinction becomes inapplicable, at least in a literal sense.
Photography can be considered fictional when it captures role-playing models rather than people “being themselves”. In the case of painting, the concept of fictionality is more controversial. One could regard as fictional the pictures of models who pose as historical or mythological creatures, or pictures illustrating stories (in which case their fictionality would be derived from a verbal text), and as non-fictional realistic portraits of real individuals. This categorization, however, leaves most paintings in a conceptual no-man’s land between fiction and nonfiction: the fictional status of a Picasso portrait of a specific person in Cubist style is not only undecidable, but irrelevant to the understanding of the painting.
The concept of fictionality is better applicable to the images of film and photography than to painting because they are obtained through a mechanical recording device that gives them documentary value. They become fictional when this value is playfully subverted. The necessary condition for a type of signs, with any supporting technologies, to be considered as fiction is that they can also be used to make truth claims.
- Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cantril, H., Gaudet, H., & Herzog, H. (1940). The invasion from Mars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Cohn, D. (1999). The distinction of fiction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Currie, G. (1990). The nature of fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Genette, G. (1991). Fiction et diction. Paris: Seuil.
- Lewis, D. (1978). Truth in fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15, 37– 46.
- Lewis, D. (1983). Postscript to “Truth in fiction.” In D. Lewis, Philosophical papers, vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 276 –280.
- Pavel, T. (1986). Fictional worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Ryan, M.-L. (1991). Possible worlds, artificial intelligence and narrative theory. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.
- Searle, J. (1975). The logical status of fictional discourse. New Literary History, 6, 319 –332.
- Walton, K. (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Back to Communication Theory and Philosophy.