Friday, January 23, 2009

Fictions and Reality

"Life, the aggregate of defined actions, events, or experiences, only becomes plot, story, theme, or motif once it has been refracted through the prism of the ideological environment, only once it has taken on concrete ideological flesh. Reality that is unrefracted and, as it were, raw is not able to enter into the content of literature." (Medvedev and Bakhtin [1928] 1978 qtd. Talbot 3)

"Fiction has to make sense; real life is often so perplexing as to defy explanation." (Miss Snark)

"Truth is stranger than fiction." (common phrase)

"As Luthi has pointed out, 'Fairy tales are unreal, but they are not untrue: they reflect the essential development and conditions of man's existence' (70).
But what can't be escaped can be revised." (Crusie 57)

"So what is fiction? Simply stories that do not pretend to be about real events. That's the easy answer, but of course there is more to it than that. The relation between fiction and reality is not a straight-forward one. The two have a peculiar way of getting mixed up together; distinguishing the two is not quite as easy as one might think, or hope." (Talbot 5)
Fiction, then, is selective. It can take elements of reality, but the particular elements which are chosen, and how they're placed together to form a whole, reflect choices made by the author, both consciously and subconsciously. What of reality? To a certain extent, all of us construct that too, as in the photo I've included above, of which the photographer commented that "This is a picture I took at the base of Niagara Falls, which itself is perhaps the world's most photographed subject. [...] I still use this picture to illustrate mediated reality, e.g. replacing reality with what's really there..." As individuals living our lives
When we chat to one another, we very often make stories about ourselves - about our excursions and exploits, about our thoughts and feelings. We create stories out of our memories - turning our lives into words and keeping the past alive. [...]
The news on television is full of stories. So are history books. We make narratives out of sequences of events all the time, even when involved in kinds of activity we would not associate with storytelling at all. (Talbot 3)
When we tell this kind of story about reality, we don't have as much creative freedom as an author writing fiction, but the similarities exist because this "storytelling" about reality is also "refracted through the prism of the ideological environment," and is also selective. Sometimes this selectivity is intentional, either because we deliberately want to mislead ourselves and/or others or because we think particular facts are not worth mentioning. At other times we may unintentionally forget or omit elements that seemed less important, or our narrative may take a particular shape because certain facts are not available to us. The Guardian advert, "Points of View," gives us an example of how this last possibility can affect the stories we tell about reality:

What we see in the advert is the same event, shot from various different points of view, and from each the "story" is different.1 The final shot claims to present "the whole picture" but of course it doesn't, because the advert itself is a story (created by John Webster). There is still so much left unknown and unseen.

The advert also depends for its impact on the reader's knowledge. In other words, the story is "refracted through the prism of the ideological environment" not once, but twice. When we read or listen to a "story" (whether it's intended to be read/heard as fiction, or as a narrative about reality, such as a nation's history and identity) we interpret that story in ways which reflect own experiences and beliefs. Readers too are selective. We choose which elements of the story to prioritise, we do not tend to remember every word the author wrote, and we may have differing interpretations of identical or similar narratives depending on the context in which they appear and/or what we know about the narrator. Here's a very topical example:

1 I've tried to embed the video, from YouTube, in the post but if the link breaks or if it fails to work for some other reason, you might be able to watch the advert at this website. Some stills from the advert are shown and described here.

The photo is from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Entirely off-topic, but if you're a Guardian reader, what did you think of their list of books on the theme of 'Love' in their '1000 novels everyone should read'? With the exception of Heyer, they seem to have ignored the Romance Genre completely.

  2. I would also add that the truth, reality and meaning of any given narrative is also dependant upon what has been read before and also what we expect to be reading. For example, I saw the film "Blow-Up" on AMC a few years back. A very famous film done in the 1960's about truth and perception and the limits of art and the eye. However, what's-his-name Alistair-Cooke-type-dude on AMC introduced the film as a mystery. Never having heard of this film before, I was quite disappointed by it because I kept expecting the murder to be solved and it never was. I didn't like the film as a consequence. It was only when I realized that the film was not a mystery that I began to appreciate it. A similar thing happened with my entire Slavic Literature class and Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard". None of us realized it was a comedy because none of us had bothered to read the frontispiece.

  3. Marianne, one thing that makes it a bit difficult for me to comment on the Guardian's list is that I've only read a small proportion of the books on it, so it's very possible that some of the books that are listed on the "Love" list are ones I'd consider to be romances if I'd read them.

    That said, I did spot a significant number of novels in the "love" list which are about love stories that end unhappily/tragically, so it's clear that when the people compiling the list were thinking of novels about love, they certainly didn't have a bias in favour of happy endings.

    The first thing I noticed about the "love" list was how many Austen's they'd included. She gets six slots. But Anne Brontë gets overlooked in favour of her sisters, as usual. Gaskell's North and South is listed under "State of the nation" while Fanny Burney's Evelina is under "Family and self." So much for observations about some of the classics of the genre.

    The choice of An Infamous Army as one of the two Heyer's seem somewhat odd, given that it's one of her romances which is least about love (by which I mean that a sizeable portion of the novel is devoted to military matters). I wonder if it got on the list primarily because it's the sequel to Regency Buck, which is the other Heyer listed. And I'm fairly sure the Guardian list got the name of the novel wrong: they have it down as "The" rather than "An," "Infamous Army."

    Regency Buck is one of the romances criticised in some detail by Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch but I'm not sure that it's the most popular of all Heyer's romances among the romance readers I've "met" online.

    The Far Pavilions by Mary Margaret Kaye is also a romance, as far as I can remember, but on an epic scale.

    I can understand why the single-title romances that are so well-known among online and American romance readers aren't on the list, because they probably aren't all that well-known in the UK. Many of them haven't ever been published in the UK.

    That said, there is a category romance on the list, which makes me think that someone on the panel either has a strange sense of humour or is a very devoted and long-term reader of Mills & Boon, or is a particular fan of Pamela Kent in all of her many pseudonyms, because Pamela Kent's Moon Over Africa seems to be a 1955 Mills & Boon (at least, I can't find details about who published the first edition, but subsequent editions were definitely Harlequins/Mills & Boons). According to Wikipedia she "is a British romance writer" who writes under "her married name, Ida Pollock, and under her numerous pseudonyms: Susan Barrie, Pamela Kent, Averil Ives, Anita Charles, Barbara Rowan, Jane Beaufort, Rose Burghley, Mary Whistler and Marguerite Bell."

    That doesn't explain the lack of authors of romantic fiction on the list. Many authors of romantic fiction (that wouldn't be classed as pure romance by the RWA definition) are quite well known in the UK (although I have to admit that I haven't read many of their novels, since I prefer romance). On this list they haven't got even one novel by Cecelia Ahern, Barbara Taylor-Bradford, Catherine Cookson, Jilly Cooper, Katie Fforde, Marian Keyes, Sophie Kinsella, Joanna Trollope or any other romantic novelist whose name I'd recognise. As I said, though, it's possible I've missed one, because there are plenty of books and authors on that list that I didn't know, but I did do a fairly thorough search on most of them, which is how I found out who Pamela Kent was.

    Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary sneaks in as a representative of chick lit, but in the "Comedy" list.

  4. I'd been afraid that the Daily Show might suffer a deficit of material now that He Who Must Not Be Named is out of office, but that is good stuff. Made me feel rather smacked in the face the first time I saw it; I'd been so totally enraptured with the speech the first time I saw it, and it was hard to see it in that light. But good, clever stuff. I'm going to have to make a point to catch the show more often.

  5. the truth, reality and meaning of any given narrative is also dependant upon what has been read before and also what we expect to be reading

    That's sort of a point made in the Daily Show video, though in that case related to the interpretation of political speeches rather than to literature.

    Never having heard of this film before, I was quite disappointed by it because I kept expecting the murder to be solved and it never was. I didn't like the film as a consequence. It was only when I realized that the film was not a mystery that I began to appreciate it.

    I've seen descriptions online of people who feel similarly dissatisfied/disappointed when they've read a novel which the publisher had tried to slip into "romance" but which didn't have the vital happy ending component. Because of the labelling which created the expectation, romance readers felt cheated. I think publishers who try to sneak novels into a genre where they doesn't really fit should take note of that sort of reaction.

    On a slightly different note, Jessica recently wrote something which provoked a range of reactions. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's here.

    I think it also happens with our perception/interpretation of reality. For example, if someone is in love and happy, they may form a narrative about love at first sight, or soul mates, and how they met the wonderful person they love. If the couple split up, they have to re-write that narrative, and so they might well have to look for things they left out of the previous narrative, but which now seem important. So the "love at first sight" might be transformed into infatuation or lust, the irritating things the former beloved did will now be mentioned in the narrative and cast as early warning signs etc.

    So yes, knowing (or anticipating) the ending/conclusion of a narrative does very much shape the way the rest of the narrative is written/told, as well as reader/listener expectations, and also what we focus on in our reading/interpretation, both of fiction and in life.

    Made me feel rather smacked in the face the first time I saw it; I'd been so totally enraptured with the speech the first time I saw it, and it was hard to see it in that light.

    I was surprised by it too, Angel, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. When I first started reading/listening to speeches by American politicians, I was really quite shocked by how often they invoked God and a sense of national pride and mission. I just don't think UK politicians would say that kind of thing nowadays, and certainly not in the way that US politicians seem to do routinely. Anyway, now that I've got over that shock, I kind of tune out when US politicians use that sort of language and only listen for the bits related to policy, so I was concentrating on what Obama had to say about foreign policy, and I was reading between the lines on that and ignoring the rhetoric which, as Jon Stewart made clear, was often the same as Bush's.

  6. Laura, I haven't read a lot of the 'Love' books either: I think I've read more of the recommended books in nearly any of the other categories. (Though not Family & Self: I've read ridiculously few of those.)

    But I did think they'd ignored genre Romance completely, which just seemed incorrect - how can a list be definitive if it leaves out complete genres? So I'm glad there's a M&B on it, though I've got to confess I've never heard of Pamela Kent under any of those aliases.

    And interesting that you mention Cookson: I hadn't thought of her, because I've never read her, but you're probably right that she should be on the list.

    I like An Infamous Army, but I'd have put it under War rather than Love. And I wouldn't have called Regency Buck one of Heyer's best, though it's not one of her duds either. I'd agree with the Fielding classification though - I think she is a comic writer rather than a romance author.

  7. They included all six Austen novels? As much as I'd be inclined to agree that Austen is generally perfect for the "love" category, there are a few things wrong with having all of them-- first, they are all similar enough that repeating them is almost redundant, and second, they're as much social commentaries as romances. It doesn't seem quite fair to leave them in a "love" category when they do much more, especially in terms of historical fiction, even. Plus, if they do it with Austen, what are the chances they do the same thing with other authors/novels?