What Does Fiction Tell Us About The Real World?



A consideration of language, narrative and fiction

Absolutely nothing. Fiction can only tell us about fiction. But that can offer us rewards too, in addition to the entertainment and pleasure value of reading a novel.


No fictional character ever existed in real life. Not even in Historical Fiction which takes real people from history for their characters. The Historical Fiction novel creates a version of the real person to suit its narrative needs, (besides which history provides a patchy, interpreted record of its former world, while also struggling over the perennial issue of whether great individuals (kings, dictators, conquerors and Prime Ministers) make history, or whether its the actions of the the mass of population. Even memoir, which purports to be a true record, is fictive, in that any human life while unfurling chronologically, is not experienced as such and the narrative of that life imposes retrospective order and pattern on a life that is likely to have been lived oblivious of them. The subjects of memoirs, only head towards a destiny, an outcome elicited by the end of the book, through the narrative’s arrangement, no less than with fictional characters.


So we follow a novel’s characters through their lives and events (or versions of events) which never actually happened. To what advantage? Well in our so-called ‘real world’, fictions abound. Firstly you have phenomena such as the spin of politicians, the dark arts of advertisers, the myths and fables of religious preachers, which an appreciation of fiction might possibly provide some ability to detect and parse. But deeper than that, you have the notion of ‘hyper-reality’ which affects us all. Our very own memories, experiences, elements of our own identities and how we see ourselves, may have originated externally rather than from within, though we have absorbed them and unwittingly ascribed them to all our own mental work and personal experience. If you hear a point of view of an argument that speaks to you, you may well remember it and roll it out in future discussions without attributing it to the original citer, not out of wilful plagiarism, but more likely because that argument has settled down so comfortably in your psyche, you come to believe you thought of it yourself, or at least that it is very much seared into your marrow. If someone tells you an anecdote and you trip it out in future company, are you careful to frame it as a story told to you by someone else? Even if you are, how do you know it really happened to them exactly as they told it, or even that they too haven’t borrowed it from the person who first told them? None of this really matters in terms of consequence, but it reveals the mechanisms by which we acquire and retain information. On one level that anecdote becomes part of my experience because it resonated enough for me to remember it, on another level it was never part of my experience because I never lived its story. Just as with fiction and its imaginary characters. So fiction could help us unravel the more direct experiences for ourselves, from those imported ones. This could be particularly acute for things we absorb more passively than a friend telling us a story, but from films, or reading a news story, or the dread advertising and politics implanting ideas we later imagine we originated. Think about how we may acquire our identity for example, when we explore commonalties with others in our ‘tribe’. Some of those perceived shared values will undoubtedly originate from inside you, but when the historical and political dimensions are added, such as how your group is excluded or oppressed, or viewed in a certain light by other tribes, have you come up with all those connections yourself, or have they been supplied by the commonality that unites you all together? The historical and analytical context is held by the collective and passed on to you so that it informs you who you are and where you derive from. Then you plot your own experiences against its matrix. 


Since narrative provides pattern and order on the events it portrays, this can mirror the same techniques we use to make sense of our actual world. Human nature craves pattern and order in order to render a familiar and negotiable landscape in which we move through. Imagine the menacing chaos if the everyday was not repeated and cohesive, our flight or fight reflex would be constantly triggered every minute, with every step we took. It would be exhausting. Our evolution has raised us from the minute to minute awareness of threat, experienced by all animals except possibly those at the top of the food chain. But in order for it to have done this, we have constructed hugely elaborate fictions to regulate our environment, to make it predictable and readily readable. Our perception system is not the one way directional of what the eye sees, the brain interprets. Rather it is largely the other way around, the brain has preset templates of what the eye should be seeing, so that the eye is really only scanning for variation from that normative vision. Pattern and familiarity are thus fundamental to our perceptive functions. And this is fine, but there also exists both the opportunity to look beneath the pattern and arrangement of both our actual environment and also to somehow elucidate its reciprocal relationship with those templates in our brains. To probe the fictional elements inbuilt into the structure of our ‘reality’. Fiction can echo the analytical wavelengths to reach some of these realisations, for narrative is predicated on order and pattern. It can show up the processes by which we manage to obfuscate our own fictional creations which we have managed to install as set in stone as reality over and above ourselves. Challenging that self-reinforcing feedback loop. That way lies madness? Bring it on I say, who knows what illuminations it may yield us. 


The other thing fiction can explore is a language. For words are all a novelist has, their only tool. Yet language itself is a pretty blunt tool, especially when it comes to its primary function, that of communication. JK Rowling, Jonathan Franzen and Martin Amis all speak the same language, yet produce wildly divergent types of books from each other (taking Rowling’s adult novels, not her writing for children). Readers speak the same language as the writers whose work they’re reading, unless reading in translation, but the range of possible response is myriad; if the writers can’t agree on a single method of communication in the novel, what chance the poor readers? We all speak the same language, but how we interpret it is almost infinite. In ordinary conversation, speakers need the cues of facial expression, gesture and inflection to interpret each other’s words. For example if someone says “that man looks nice” while pulling a face, the listener realises that the speaker means the man doesn’t look nice at all. You don’t have this much in novels. Then you need context as well. If a speaker says ‘he did this, then he did that’, is she speaking about her father, her boyfriend, a mugger or her pet dog? You need something establishing who the subject was, or failing that, a reference to digging up a bone might place it as the dog, unless she happened to be speaking about a scene of crime technician or an archeologist. Well you do at least always get context in a novel. When someone says they are hungry and need to get some food, they are communicating a pretty literal state of affairs as they are experiencing it. They may additionally employ a metaphor for emphasis,such as saying they’re so hungry they could eat a horse. So everyday speech can be either literal or metaphorical, whereas writing in a novel is always metaphorical, because the people & the situations are imaginary. And here we face the problem of language in the novel. Even though a novel can provoke an emotional response in the reader, (tears, laughter, irritation, rage etc), authors cannot write actual emotions. They can only set down words that approach emotions, that represent emotions, not the actual emotions themselves. 


The artist René Magritte produced a painting called “The Treachery Of Images”, consisting of a pipe and the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). His point was you couldn’t smoke his pipe, since it was an image of a pipe not a real object. Additionally it wasn’t just an image of a pipe, it was a painting of the image of a pipe, so the object if anything is a painting, not a pipe. But consider this, without his helpful caption smeared on the canvas, would the layers of meaning and reflection upon images and objects still exist for the viewer, or is it really only cued up by the linguistic element of the painting? In which case the material object is as much a piece of literature (commentary/question/philosophical axiom), that is a text, as it is a painting? Yet the text is only commenting on the image/symbol of a pipe. The metaphorical nature of the painting rather relies on the caption and the title existing in words. You can’t paint or write pipes, only their symbol, their referents. Now consider this for something that doesn’t even have a material existence such as emotions. The writer’s palette of vocabulary smears for emotions is pretty barren, since emotions don’t successfully translate one to one to words very easily. Look at a thesaurus and compare the number of words for ‘drunk’ or ‘chastise’, compared with the synonyms for the emotion ‘sad’ for example. 


Literary Modernism recognised these problems with language, of its relativity between speakers and of its existence as a system of signs and symbols rather than the things they actually are supposed to name, especially when set down on paper where they inevitably have to lurch into metaphor. Joyce and Beckett, two titans of Literary Modernism, took opposite approaches to this problem of language. Beckett went down the route of precision and economy of words, painting his canvases of negation of the human body through the word streams of alternating despair with soaring lyricism, so that in the end, for all the precision, you really only have a kind of music, the sound of the almost unanchored words. Joyce went the other direction and threw words and vocabulary at the problem to try and convey meaning, but in “Finnegan’s Wake” he largely succeeded only in obfuscating it. With these two poles, it’s hard to find new ways into tackling the subject. These great masters destroyed narrative language even as they established its apotheosis. (Probably also accounts for the disappearance of Literary Modernism itself). Contemporary US author Ben Marcus has made inroads, concentrating more on the function of language by putting it in aberrant and strange situations in his novels. For my own part, returning to the notion of language as symbol, given that all words are spelled out from our 26 letter alphabet, so that none (apart from onomatopoeic words) bear any relationship between the sound of those words and their meaning, leaves room for examination of this tension between sound and meaning. One can drill down to a layer beneath words, that of their DNA of the letters that constitute them; words that mutate into other closely spelled/sounded words; words that contain contrary meanings within them (‘fast’, ‘cleave’ etc); and words that have deviated far from their etymological root with usage. Here lies a rich seam for approaching language in fiction. All we authors have at our disposal are words. So why not acquaint ourselves with their function?



       René Magritte's "The Treachery Of The Image"

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