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July 08, 2004


bob mcmanus

Well, I do read these. You do mention biography as a borderline case, but for instance, "In 1791, James Madison rode to Philadelphia for the Convention" is very interesting to me for how much the author leaves out. He doesn't tell me the color of the horse, tho he probably knows, nor do I usually imagine the color of the horse. I accept certain artistic decisions he makes, under a set of mutually-agreed rules or conventions. I am also not sure how much more "real" James Madison is to me than Oliver Twist, except in a social, conventional sense. Everybody else says Madison was real.

So I guess I go for (4), and role-playing, for I usually don't imagine myself as James Madison or as interacting with him. (Or George Bush, or Barry Bonds, this extends into much non-fiction, I think.)

I guess I have more trouble distinguishing than you do, based largely on material conventionally excluded in non-fiction.


Your a trooper to put up with my long stuff, Bob. Thanks. Just a quick thought: it is possible to leave a lot of stuff out of your narration of a series of events - very artfully omitting it, and arrranging what's left for the sake of turning it into a cracking good yarn - and still be telling the truth, i.e. perpetrating non-fiction. The Michael Moore 9/11 controversy may fit in here: true but crafty being the general verdict. I don't think even its unkindest critic would actually say it is a work of fiction (except as a bit of not literary meant hyperbolic abuse.)

Anyway, lots of narrative history that is a lot less controversial than Moore is like this. But there is a big difference between leaving out the color of the horse, even if you know it, for the sake of the story, and including the color of the horse, even if you don't know it, for the sake of the story. If you see what I mean. I think versions of this simple test work pretty well for separating a lot of historical fiction from narrative history and biography and so forth. There's a good quote from Patrick O'Brien but I'll just have to paraphrase: "you use all the history you've got, but you run out pretty quick." Then you make up the color of the horse.

Jeffrey Kramer

Another possible objection jumps out (to me at least) against regarding fictions as 'props in games of make-believe'. When we play games, we assume that it is in our power to shape the outcome of the game. We don't play games in which the result is determined entirely by the other player, or by somebody outside the game, but that's the case in reading fiction. (Unless we take upon ourselves the right to make believe, for example, that Madame Bovary 'really' lived happily ever after, no matter what Flaubert wrote about her.)

Ray Davis

If Walton had generalized to "play" instead of "make believe" and "art" instead of "fiction", it seems he might have avoided muddle. Most play is performative rather than strictly representative, and much of the representative isn't strictly narrative. What we recognize as fiction can be derived from (or more exactly shares some traits with) some aspects of what is more generally recognized as children's play: that seems enough to build safely on.

Running down your four features:

1. Openly intentionally (and voluntarily self-)deceptive - I'm suprised that Walton would flub this, since it supports his thesis so neatly. An agreed-upon insistence that the narrative isn't true is primary to make-believe and fiction both. Literally primary: when children first learn story-telling chops, they tend to be especially explicit about the "not really"s. If newspapers still published maudlin short stories in place of human interest, Stephen Glass wouldn't have gotten into trouble. Compare the "We were just playing" excuse used by children who have gleefully exploited more gullible peers. The deciding factor is understanding the frame of intentional self-deception.

2. Narrative - As you say.

3. Complexity - I've already referred to a couple of sources on the development of storytelling skills in an earlier post. I remember control over narrative complexity being valued in performative make-believe as in fiction, building from the basic "I shot you, you're dead" put on of cause-and-effect. The distinction seems to me just a matter of degree.

4. Props in fiction appreciation - I'm less impressed with the fit here, since that formula generalizes to so many human activities that any parallel between two particular activities isn't exactly startling. Athletic achievements become props in the appreciation of athletics; cooking achievements become props etc.; sexual achievements etc.; etc. Being humans, we act (and conceptualize our actions) in contexts that seem paradoxically dependent on the actions they support.

Ray Davis

(Sorry about the rushed job on that comment, John. Even for me, it reads rough.)

Jeffrey, insofar as we want to call fiction a game, wouldn't "suspension of disbelief" be the reader's performative role, which the reader can play well, or badly, or aggressively -- or simply refuse to assume, stopping the game dead? Flaubert seems the kind of writer who counts on a skillful adversary.


"Suspension of disbelief" works for me, and seems to fit Walton's argument as well.

We get more out of nonfiction when we're evaluating the veracity of what we're told: is it deep truth, or a skin job? how well do indivisible atoms explain the universe? how about top and bottom quarks? was that newspaper article written by a journalist, or a sock puppet? etc.

Conversely, we get much more out of fiction when we're willing to accept it at face falue. (fictional characters can be more human than human, as it were) There is plenty of pleasure for the aesthetes, and a moral or two for the moralisers, in Jim Henson's Muppets work, but it's only available to those who aren't looking too hard for the sock puppet.


It was a pleasure to read your review of Walton.

Here's a passage that made me stop and think:

"Take my two sample quarreling critics: the aesthete and the moralist. They cannot, it seems, be brought to agree about what one is supposed to do with fiction – what the stuff is for. Is it for pleasure, or for moral education? But once upon a time these two were children, down on the rug with toy soldiers and dolls and so forth. As adults, they cannot see eye to eye about War and Peace, but as children they played together happily enough."

It's a tangential point, but I wonder if it's really like that. I'm trying to picture John Gardner and John Updike as little tykes down on the rug with their toy soldiers. Somehow I can't help seeing little Gardner holding dramatic court-martials while little Updike muses about how the swordpoints catch the late afternoon sunlight...


Thanks for comments, everyone. I've tried to respond to a few of your points implicitly in my follow-up post. For example: Ray, your point about the bland and tautological character of the 'props in appreciation' formulation comes up in the form of my point about how saying works of fiction stimulate the imagination is almost as bad as saying that sleeping pills have a dormative power. Because 'imagination' has sort of acquired a stipulative connection to fiction, in the English language. If we recognize that it's fiction, we automatically say it's 'imaginative' - 'makes us imagine'. But this can't obviously be levered into a substantive explanation.

Well, maybe my point is the same as yours. I'm not sure.


Hi all,

I´m new to these boards and therefore quite ignorant with regards to the local etiquette, so forgive me if I take some wrong turns or if this topic is already closed or whatever.

I´ve got some quick questions and remarks with regards to the "Walton part I"-piece. I´m running short on time, so I´ll come back to the second piece later this week.

-although your article is certainly interesting, I was wondering how much of your view on Walton´s theory is/can be supported with the actual text. This is not criticism -I haven´t read Walton yet, unfortunately-, but simply a question. The reason I´m asking this, is that I find it hard to believe that Walton would disagree with 1 and 3. Designating a text or whatever as a prop surely presupposes some craft and intentionality on the part of the creator, does it not? Presumably, the story-bit is more problematic, but I´m not entirely sure if I agree wholeheartedly with what you do and do not call a story. A similar remark can be made with regards to the use of the word fiction -as you correctly point out, much of this debate probably revolves around definitions.

-I assume Walton chooses the make-believe-option over the dulce or utile, not so much to reconcile them, as to come to a more formal, perhaps even more fundamental, view of what it is we do with fiction. On top of that, aesthetics and ethics are -as you yourself seem to suggest- hardly exclusive options. On the contrary.

-Kendall´s definition is in itself not circular, or am I mistaken?

-I do think mental images play an important, though not entirely similar, role in both reading novels (poems are more problematic) and watching paintings and sculptures. With regards to the visual arts, we do not start to form haphazard visual images of whatever we please, of course, but I think we more or less complement the images, fill them in, as it were. A striking, though thoroughly unsophisticated example of this happened to me recently. My brother was watching some trailer of the new Shyamalan movie and was absolutely convinced it showed the claw of one of the ´monsters´ even though a frame by frame analysis quickly showed there were no actual claws to be seen. Nevertheless, I agree that most people probably do not form elaborate mental constructions on the basis of Seurat´s painting. But then again, I don´t think most people spend that much time on these issues as either Walton or we do ;-)

BTW, are you familiar with the work of Wolfgang Iser? He is a German literary theorist who has dealt with a lot of the issues you address here; fiction and the fictive, mental images, aesthetics-ethics, playing and play-acting and what it has to do with mental images et cetera. If you don´t mind the German abstractions, both The Act of Reading and The Fictive and the Imaginary provide some interesting additions to this topic.

Kind regs,
a T who is thoroughly shocked such sophisticated fora exist



"... mental images play an important, though not entirely similar, role in both reading novels (poems are more problematic) and watching paintings and sculptures...I agree that most people probably do not form elaborate mental constructions on the basis of Seurat´s painting."

I really think that the centrally relevant idea of imagination, i.e. (Walton's) with respect to visual media, isn't about calling up visualizations or imagery or whatnot that are distinct from the vehicle of representation. Rather, Grand Jatte (or whatever) induces me to imagine what it depicts in the sense that my engagement with it consists in thinking of myself as seeing what it depicts. I say, "there's a sailboat," "I see a sailboat," and so forth. It's kind of like the painting itself is included in the space of my imagining, kind of, if that makes any sense to you. I sort of think that John Holbo is kind of mixing up various things when he goes from the quote about "appreciation" to the thing about "imagining" in the scenario of Grand Jatte vs. its crude copy. But that's just my opinion.


Eh, just to try to clarify, the way Walton formulates the thing, what's going on is that the painting induces you to imagine seeing what it depicts, which is not the same thing as what you might call imagining what it depicts. This is such an odd looking formulation in terms of what we pretheoretically make of those terms, that it doesn't, I don't think, provide an easy entry into the idea. Anyway, it's what I was trying to reformulate, maybe impressionistically, by saying that the painting is in a certain sense included in the imaginative space.

ben wolfson

Specifically, we are using 'imagination' and 'make-believe' and a couple other terms differently. Walton would probably say that I appear to be perversely determined to construe these terms very narrowly, which makes his claims come out sounding like nonsense.

I had a similar problem when I read the book, especially with regard to the word "pretend" (actually now I can't remember if "pretend" occurs frequently in the book, but certainly in general). I now think I may have a better idea where he's coming from, though I still don't want to follow him, or rather, go to the same place and then emerge from it. I've recently been assigned Austin's "Pretending" and the chapter "Imagination" from Ryle's The Concept of Mind, and Ryle has a similarly metastasized view of what pretense is (giving a demonstration, for example, or pencilling in an answer in a crossword puzzle, are held to be instances of pretending).

Unfortunately I'm not quite clear at what drives Ryle to that belief, so.


Hey, thanks for the late comment added to the thread, ben. Putting the 'long' back in 'long tail' I don't really have anything constructive to add, except that I'm getting hazier about Walton by the month. I really don't get where he's coming from. Well, I said it in the post. If you care to explain what the motivation is, I'll read with interest.

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