I’ve spent a lot of time in the analysis of fiction – contriving a structure for it to explain fictionality as a kind of text. This towards the goal of ascribing to fiction a particular rhetorical function, or set of functions.
The intention here is to skip to the end, having come a stone’s throw away in the proper direction. To describe the rhetorical function of fictional texts as succinctly as possible, with the edifice constructed to do justice to this description lurking in the background.
Against Aristotle (A statement of purpose)
Aristotle argued (according to notes from his lectures, later collated) that there are three distinct kinds of speech or literature. The first, the Dialectic, is the language of logic, metaphysics, physics, philosophy. It is language deployed in the search for truth. Through dialectic antithesis is applied to thesis in a Socratic way, producing Synthesis: superior truth. This is the foundation of the process by which Reason is applied in comprehending the ‘verse, and expressing truths about it.
Rhetoric is the second mode of speech, subjected to analysis in the Rhetoric of Aristotle. It is ‘the counterpart of dialectic’, the art of making use of all of the available means of persuasion. So rhetoric is concerned with persuasion rather than truth, with probability rather than Absolutes. Rhetoric is the language of law and politics and forensics.
The third kind of speech, or language, is the Poetic. Because it is distinct from either the Dialectic or the Rhetoric, Poetic language is by definition divorced from both truth and persuasion.
Plato said he would ban poetry from his ideal society. Aristotle said the proper function of poetry is adornment and flattery.
Today people do recognise the political power of fiction, at least anecdotally (1984 the classic example). But Aristotle’s categories of language still stand in general in the twenty-first century, as bookshops, libraries, universities indicate.
This, then, is the bone of contention: I want to argue that fiction (not quite the same thing as poetry, granted) does have both rhetorical and philosophical functionality, and that Aristotle was wrong to relegate this mode of language to a tertiary tier (where, perhaps, it could do no harm). The polemic here, in dramatic terms, is that a simplistic approach to the problems flowing from language to perception of truth is no approach at all. The division of language into three registers or keys has constrained all the forms of language, weakening their import and utility.
A definition for fiction
Leaving, as indicated, a cumbersome model for explaining the operations of fiction to float beneath the surface, I should at the least give the defition of fiction derived from it. Fictional texts have been distinguished by three criteria from non-fiction texts.
i.) Fictional texts are those that reference other worlds (for convenience it is easiest to define ‘other’ worlds as those at which the text is not).
Non-fiction texts reference the world at which the text is. Fictional texts are those that fail to accurately represent this world: its propositions contradict what is true. Once the reader notes that the text does not reference this world, a different set of assumptions come into play about how the text should be treated in terms of truth and veracity.
ii.) Fictional texts contain ‘this-world’ propositions
Some proposition in a fictional text is ‘erroneously’ indexed to the world of the text, rather than the world of the content: as though the text were non-fiction at this world.
This means that a text overtly detailing events properly placed at some other world is not fiction. Which is to say, if a text begins every proposition by saying ‘At some possible world it may be the case that..’ it is not, strictly, a fictional text despite otherworldly reference.
There is a kind of fallacy, then, inherent in fiction, although the ‘error’ serves as a device. Otherworldly reference is always improperly indexed in at least some statements. Fictional texts omit operators in sentences. Otherwise, they are non-fiction texts about other worlds.
(ii leads to the difficult question as to why a catch-all statement cannot be used to imply the operator: ‘For all propositions that follow this one at some world it may be the case that..’. Existing statements in texts do perform this function: ‘Once upon a time..’ at the beginning of a story throws open a temporal vein of possibility across which a vast array of stories have substance.
The best answer I can give is that performing this trick, in this way, is precisely how the fallacy peculiar to fiction is implemented. In fact, it does not matter whether the general reference to another world or other worlds is included as a proposition in the text or not. This point of reference is implied (or defaulted to) when what is true in a text is found to be at odds with actuality.
It seems an important facet of fictionality (of course you could start defining it on different premises and learn that different aspects are important) is treating a sequence of propositions ambiguously. As a set of propositions on the one hand; and as a string of individual propositions on the other. The set of propositions may be identified as fiction by a proposition acting as a modal operator for the entire text, or the operator may be ‘hidden’ in terms of direct reference. Regardless, the text is evaluated by a reader or at a world, and when some proposition in the text contradicts truth at that world the evaluation of the text as a whole is adjusted.
The evaluation of the set is contingent on the evaluation of individual propositions. But the individual propositions’ truth or falsity is not dependent on the evaluation of the sequence of propositions as a whole.
iii.) Properly, fictional texts describe possible worlds
..else there is no corresponding ‘fictional world’ referenced. A text that depicts an impossible world is an impossible fiction: a kind worth distinguishing from the other.
(fictional texts referencing ‘impossible worlds’ can be seen as fragmentary fiction)
Defining Fiction (addendum – four kinds of text)
The attempt to define fiction for the purposes of this research has resulted in the further contrarian conclusion that ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ are inadequate to the task of properly distinguishing kinds of texts we might want to talk about.
The easiest way to explain this is to set out the four categories of text that could better characterise the rhetorical alternatives.
i.) Necessarily true (true at all worlds)
ii.) Actually true (someworld thisworld true)
iii.) Possibly true (someworld otherworld true)
iv.) Impossible (or fragmentary – no world true, except in pieces)
Our terms non-fiction and fiction cover all four of these categories – two apiece. We give the label ‘non-fiction’ to texts with chains of propositions that are (taken together) necessarily or actually true.
We give the name ‘fiction’ to texts with sets of propositions that are possibly true, or not possibly true. Some or all propositions are inconsistent with the actual world, so the set cannot represent this world. If a possible world is represented by the text, then it is a fictional world, and the text has a point of reference. If the text represents an impossible world, then it has no point of reference, and there is no corresponding fictional world.
I described these as four ‘rhetorical’ alternatives for kinds of text because selecting a mode or modes of truth, a kind of logic, is something that authors DO, though not necessarily consciously in these terms. A text is an argument that asserts certain kinds of truths. Choosing what approach to take, what strength of argument to put, whether to work from analogy, case study, or theory and generalisation, is a foundational part of constructing an argument. In writing, an early step in this process is deciding how far the ‘truths of the text’ should be constrained.
The most rigorous regime for truth could produce texts true at all possible worlds at once. Indexed to one world or another a sequence of propositions that only assert necessary truths will always be ‘non-fiction’. Constraints on propositions for the text are stringent to say the least: only that which exists at every world – is required in order for a world to be structurally sound – can be mentioned. Nothing can happen that might have gone another way.
This category of texts is really here for completeness, since the task of writing such a text is onerous and as far as I can see the advantage slight.
Propositions in the text constrained according to that which is true at the Actual world. This is non-fiction of the usual sort.
Possible fiction is a clumsy label for the kind of fiction that references fictional worlds. A fictional text cannot reference the world of the text: some proposition in the text must be false at the Actual World. A possible fiction references some other world – its propositions are all true at some possible world.
Of course, this is the same as saying that the propositions in a fictional text are possibly true, or that the fiction is possible. Not in the sense that the propositions might after all be true, but in the sense that they are true somewhere.
Impossible fiction, then, is the kind of fiction that fails to reference fictional worlds, or any world. If it wasn’t alread in use for something else, the term ‘utopian’ could apply to these fictions: the worlds described are ou topos – no place. One way to see these worlds, as indicated by David Lewis in the afterthoughts on his brief paper on the status on fiction, is as fragments of worlds, incomplete.