Fiction and the Real

“… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us…” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We take a moment’s hiatus from our long discussion of poetry to talk about Reality. The purpose for this discussion is mostly clarity; but clarity in this sense is not so much trying to expand our knowledge of something but to show its limitations more clearly. The subject of this essay is realism and what will enable our digression is the set of genres known as ‘fiction’.

The term realistic can refer to at least two different concepts that are related. The first is the concept of things being most like what actually happened, such as a realistic re-enactment of a battle. The second, and seemingly identical idea, is the concept of things being most like what would have happened given a set of circumstances. The relationship between the two concepts is clear, pertaining to a conceptual real, but only one actually pertains to facts. From this second concept we have the literary genre called ‘Realistic Fiction’ – which I think we will find is actually a misnomer, or at the very least conceals an important qualifier.

Fiction is in a particularly odd position in regards to reality. In the original sense, fiction cannot be realistic because it cannot pertain to facts; it being a fiction is it being made up, for if it were not made up it would be ‘nonfiction’. This distinction does not clarify, however; fictions employ various factual elements, and some nonfiction employs fictional elements (sometimes called ‘dramatizations’). We must say, to be as clear as possible, that something is a fiction to the degree that it is made up, and a fact to the degree that it is not. Some forms of fiction push this boundary by, for instance, taking historical personages or events and fictionalizing them; but we sense that if the overall work is a contrivance it is still fiction.