Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Lies: Why Ask ‘What Was Fiction?’

by Julie Orlemanski


6 May 2019

Image:  The Naples Bible moralisée. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 9561, f. 54v. Angevin Naples, 14th century. https://archivesetmanuscrits.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cc130241Above: Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. Below: allegorical interpretations in images and in writing.


When scholars try to answer the question ‘What is fiction?’ they usually approach it in one of two ways. Many philosophers, narratologists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and literary theorists tend to regard the capacity to fictionalize as almost co-extensive with the human. These ‘universalists’ of fiction share with Aristotle a sense that cognition and culture are characterized by the propensity for ‘mimesis as make-believe’, as philosopher Kendall Walton terms it. Accordingly, scholars in this camp usually set about trying to give a general or universal account of what fiction is. On the other side of fiction studies are the historians of literature and of mentalités (collective beliefs and mental habits) who have taken up the topic of fictionality. These scholars treat fiction as something that arises or is invented at a particular moment in history. The most influential of such accounts centre on the genre of the novel, although there are also ‘births’ of fiction pinned to Greek theatre or to medieval romance. This group of scholars might be called the ‘modernists’ of fiction because they seek to identify factors that make fiction possible only from a certain historical moment onward, even if they disagree about what that moment is. 

My own recent scholarship proceeds from the conviction that the universalists are right — but also wrong. The practice of saying what is acknowledged to be untrue, of using words playfully, or speculatively, to testify to scenarios understood to be imaginary, and the habit of openly pretending: these can be found across human culture. But the bare fact of that common faculty does not, on its own, tell us very much. Indeed, modernists of fiction might object that such a minimalist account of fiction, shared by everyone, is trivial, or that efforts to theorize fiction so broadly ignore the constitutive role of social context. Fiction, according to this point of view, is properly regarded as an institution, a genre, or a particular referential practice that comes into existence at a specific juncture. My current research follows, then, from the sense that ‘modernists’ get something right too. Fiction does vary across milieus, and its demarcation often entails metaphysical, epistemological, and institutional considerations that differ from place to place and epoch to epoch. My work, presented at the IAS in 2018, argues for what is ultimately a comparative study of fiction. Comparison borrows its breadth from the conviction that a given phenomenon (in this case, fiction) is shared, but it maintains its pluralism on account of the consequential differences in how the phenomenon is realized. Setting the universalist and modernist approaches to fiction into dialectical relation points toward a comparative framework for the study of fiction.

The claims I have articulated in the paragraphs above are theoretical and methodological in nature; however, they do not yet tell us anything empirical about how fiction works, what it is, or what it has been. Rather, they constitute an initial step, prior to such specifying inquiries. They seek to establish the framework wherein more concrete results would assume their meaning. For instance, if fictionality changes dramatically with the rise of the novel, that would point not to the emergence of fiction as such but to a distinctive realization of it. But what is at stake in this difference in framing? Why bother with such an intervention in how ‘fiction’ means?

Looking carefully at the historiography of fiction reveals its entanglement with the grand récit (grand narrative) known as the secularization thesis. This is the much criticized but still ubiquitous historical plot that arcs from a past society of sacral ‘enchantment’ to the rationality of a disenchanted modernity. Although this historical narrative is associated with the sociologist Max Weber, versions of it stretch much, much further back. Moreover, there is a long tradition in the west of both distinguishing and deriving fictionality from categories of faulty primitive belief. As early as the pre-Socratics, poetic narratives of the gods were the occasion for splitting audiences between the credulous and the sophisticated. In the Middle Ages, the classical gods became one of the signatures of poetic fiction, and pagan authors were understood to narrate with an authority ironized and qualified by Christian revelation. From early in the Reformation, Protestants yoked Roman Catholicism to medieval romance, collapsing religious dispensation and literary genre alike into the category of credulity. To exercise the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s resonant phrase, one must have some quantity of disbelief and skepticism to proceed from, dispositions not thought to be in ready supply in the medieval period, the so-called ‘Age of Faith’. Indeed, Coleridge’s discussions of fictionality in the Biographia Literaria set up a series of oppositions between religious faith and ‘poetic faith’. A similar network of assumptions is still active in the concepts of fiction available in literary studies today, given hyperbolic expression in James Wood’s invocation of ‘the true secularism of fiction — why, despite its being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity’. In such a heroic, ‘modernist’ account, fiction is cast as the opposite and opponent of archaic religious convictions.

My own interest in reframing conversations about fictionality is informed by an interdisciplinary field of scholarship known as post-secular critique, which over the past two decades has reflected critically on Weber’s secularization thesis as well as on the ideas and practices that constitute secularism today. Post-secular critique and its attendant scholarship aim to disaggregate the interlocking binaries that structure secularist ideology, binaries like enchantment and disenchantment, belief and knowledge, compulsion and freedom, immediacy and mediation, folklore and literature, fantasy and fiction. Post-secular critique insists that one term in this series does not imply the following-on of the others apparently parallel to it — and exposes the consequences of assuming that it does. My interest in a critical and comparative reframing of fiction follows from the fact that the numerous ‘births’ of fiction out of myth-minded and naïve pasts fit all too well the truisms of secularism, truisms that have of course been crucial to the exercise of empire, racialization, and colonial extraction. So, if it is true (as I think it is) that the practice and meaning of fiction-making vary across periods, cultures, and pragmatic contexts, post-secular critique suggests the necessity of a comparative framework. Such a framework has the potential to disrupt those accounts of fictionality that render it coterminous with the dawning of a true rationality and would make it possible instead to track what differs and what recurs across the breadth of human fictionalizing.

These remarks, then, bring a scholar to the threshold of a messier task, that of investigating and interpreting the plural realizations of fiction. As a medievalist specializing in late-medieval western Christendom, I anticipate tracking the repertoire of conventions that writers and readers in the Middle Ages recognized to suspend referential truth-claims, or to institute speculative or playful modalities of language-use. My work will join others’ on such topics as the pagan gods, courtly romance, medieval fables, parables, legal fictions, allegory, parody, drama, and imagination. Together such accounts yield a notion of what fiction was in the Middle Ages, a notion that should take its place within a comparative framework of fiction studies. Such a framework does not enable us to define fiction once and for all, nor does it distinguish the true manifestation of fiction from its more primitive alternatives — but it does allow us to understand the concept and history of fiction in new, less self-certain ways.

Julie Orlemanski presented her ideas in a seminar titled IAS Lies: Medieval Fiction and Its Contraries. Find more information here.

Julie Orlemanski is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. She teaches and writes about texts from the late Middle Ages and theoretical and methodological questions in present-day literary studies. Her first monograph, Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causation in the Literature of Late Medieval England will appear in April 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania Press; she is now at work on Things without Faces: Prosopopoeia in Medieval Writing.

cc by nd