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The Distinction of Fiction (review)

Craig S. Cravens
Comparative Literature Studies, Volume 37, Number 1, 2000, pp. 78-80
Published by Penn State University Press
DOI: 10.1353/cls.2000.0001
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The Distinction of Fiction. By Dorrit Cohn. Baltimore and London: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. ix + 197 pp. $42.00 hardcover.
The relationship between fiction and nonfiction has always been a prob-
lematic one, and since Aristotle, there has been no dearth of apologists
for the serious nature of imaginary works of literature. In the eighteenth
century, it was common practice to preface novels with evidence of their
authenticity. The convention of the manuscript found in a desk drawer
or the discovered diary were attempts not so much to persuade readers of
a works authenticity, but to urge readers to approach them with the same
seriousness as a nonfictional piece of writing. For although not true in
the historical sense, fiction has always laid claim to its own kind of idio-
syncratic truth. In the late twentieth century, the situation seems to
have been reversed (at least among literary critics)historical writing
has been charged to defend itself against accusations of fabulation. Most
such claims are strained at best. Since both historical and fictional writ-
ing enchain causally connected events in a temporal sequence, goes the
argument, and since causal relations between events cannot be proven
logically but only inferred from experience (as Hume demonstrated long
ago), the connection between events, or narrative, is essentially nothing
more than a human projection with no claims to authenticity; it cannot
describe the way things really are out there, whatever that means.
In her latest work, the doyenne of American narratology Dorrit Cohn
cites such deconstructivist critiques to launch her own discussion of the
ontological status of fiction, the Distinction, as her title reads, of Fiction.
What is fiction, and how does it relate to other forms of writing? Is it
possible to determine its necessary and sufficient properties? Recently,
such questions have been treated mostly by philosophers of language,
especially speech-act theorists, and, as Dorrit Cohn points out in her
preface, it is odd that such a textually based methodology as narratology
has not investigated these issues earlier. Cohn is not the first narratologist
to take on questions of fictional ontology (see for example Grard
Genettes Fiction et diction, 1991 and Thomas Pavels Fictional Worlds,
1986), but what Cohn brings to the debate is what lies at the heart of her
classic study of narrative form Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for
Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (1978), that is, a focus on voice or
person. By concentrating on the psychic or vocal origin of texts that seem
to straddle the fictional/nonfictional dividesuch as biography, autobi-
ography, and historical fictionshe distills three formal criteria that may
Copyright 2000 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
be used to mark out the boundaries of fiction. These are her Signposts of
Fictionality (the title of chapter 7).
Cohns first formal indicator is cognitive privilege (traditionally re-
ferred to as omniscience): in the realm of fiction alone is an author con-
ventionally entitled to portray the private subjective experiences of
another human being. Biographers may speculate on their subjects pri-
vate thoughts, but any psychic insights are usually qualified with some-
thing along the lines of, He or she must have been thinking . . . Indeed,
argues Cohn, the most imaginative biographer would be hard put to jus-
tify the type of omniscience Tolstoy uses in The Death of Ivan Ilych, where
the author presents us with the direct psychological experience of a man
passing from the living to the dead.
There is more to this first signpost than mere mind-reading, how-
ever. Not only are we privy to a characters mental life in certain types of
fiction, but we often experience time and space from a characters per-
spective as well. Hence, only in fiction do we come across such gram-
matically odd constructions as, His plane left tomorrow, where the past
tense refers not to the past in relation to the speaker (the narrator), but
rather to the present of a fictional character looking forward to the fol-
lowing day (2425).
This criterion holds, of course, only for works narrated in the third-
person. First-person speakers obviously have direct access to their own
thoughts in both the past and present. Here Cohn suggests a second dis-
tinguishing featurea dual vocal origin. In short: if the author is differ-
ent from the narrator, we have a work of fiction; if not, non-fiction. This
distinction is clearest in autobiographical works. We know The Confes-
sions of Felix Krull are fictional because they were written by Thomas
Mann, not Felix Krull. By using the identity of the speaking subject as
the discriminating feature for first-person works, Cohn obviates prob-
lems of referentiality. Rousseau may have in fact fantasized parts or all of
his own Confessions, but we still read his work as genuine autobiography
due to the nominal identity of author and narrator. Proust, however, be-
comes problematic, but this is part of Cohns point: some works will al-
ways resist generic categorization. And the best parts of Cohns book are
those that examine closely such formally ambiguous works.
Wolfgang Hildesheimers fictional biography Marbot is another ge-
nerically equivocal composition which Cohn investigates in chapter 5.
Since Andrew Marbot is not a documented person, the work obviously
belongs to world of fiction. Cohn examines this pseudo-biography in de-
tail, however, for other tell-tale signs of fictionality. She concludes that
although Hildesheimer was quite thorough in removing signals of
fictionality, his own voice ultimately betrays him: the author has created
a narrative persona bearing his own name but with whom he is not iden-
tical, since the narrator believes in the genuine existence of a man named
Marbot, and Hildesheimer does not. On second thought, however, this
criterion is problematic. The only way to discern the difference between
narrator and implied author is by knowing that Marbot never existed in
the first place.
Here we come to Cohns third criterion of fictionality and back to
the beginning of the book, that is, the non-referentiality of the fictional
text. Historical writing refers to real events; fiction does not. This refer-
ential constraint is obvious to the most inexperienced reader, but Cohns
implied audience is the professional reader who has been trained to see
all narrative in terms of the binary opposition fabula and siuzhet. Out-
side the realm of fiction, Cohn writes, the synchronous interplay of
story and discourse is undergirdedno matter how shakilyby the logi-
cal and chronological priority of documented or observed events (115).
This third level must be taken into any narratological discussion of what
she calls the fictionality debate. The fact that such an astute critic as
Dorrit Cohn feels compelled to expend so much critical energy on this
obvious notion is testimony to the blinkered vision to which professional
readers are prone. The radically skeptical arguments cited at the begin-
ning are red herrings and to her credit, she does not mention them after
her introduction. Cohns critical vision is as acute as it comes. Her Trans-
parent Minds will always remain a classic in the analysis of narrative; but
if we place her earlier work alongside this one, the weakness of the latter,
its reluctance to think through its assumptions, jumps into relief.
Unlike many theorists of narrative, Cohn is not prone to over-
schematization. Her close narrative and stylistic analyses always produce
complex and thoughtful descriptions of literary works without reducing
them to simplified diagrams. The chief shortcoming of The Distinction of
Fiction is precisely Cohns emphasis of the theoretical. She is too sensi-
tive of a reader to make any larger claims on the essential nature of fic-
tion, and this lends her work a theoretical thinness. On the other hand,
even those chapters lashed to her conceptual framework are loaded with
magnificent local insights to individual works. In the end, her book seems
to propose unintentionally another question debated since at least Aris-
totle: do we really need a well-developed epistemological theory of fic-
tion to pronounce on the values of literature, or to help us partake of
literary pleasures? Those are the questions raised by The Distinction of
Craig S. Cravens
The University of Texas at Austin