, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 373–377 | Cite as


  • Françoise Lavocat

The last two decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a growth in studies on fictionality, many of which are centered on the distinction between fact and fiction—even if the history of this issue, dating back at least to the Italian Renaissance, goes back much further.1 In the wake of Kate Hamburger’s pioneering work (1957), most of them, originating in the field of narratology, have deepened our understanding of the criteria for fictionality and factuality.2 In an intellectual context also marked by the linguistic turn and deconstruction, the debate had already developed sufficiently for Thomas Pavel in 1986 to have opposed ‘integrationists’ (who relativize the difference between fact and fiction and whom he prefers), and ‘segregationists’ (who on the contrary affirm the difference). Some years later, Ryan (2000) used the term ‘analog’ for theories of fact and fiction that consider the opposition to be ontological in nature, and ‘digital’ for those which, on the contrary, envisaged it in the form of a continuum. The development of cognitive studies applied to literature, which occurred contemporaneously with theories of fiction, has certainly enriched the debate, but has not been able to decide it, because they yield very contradictory conclusions, depending on their objectives and methods.3

Segregationist (or differentialist)? Integrationist (or monist)?4 Digital? Analog? This collection of articles does not take sides. It proposes instead to historicize the debate by shining a light on various periods when it gets reframed and transformed. In the spirit of the current time, the contributors, especially if they have adopted a postmodern or post-postmodern point of view, take very different approaches to the issue. The authors and works studied by them also have contrasting attitudes and strategies concerning hybridization, or, inversely, the separation of fictional and the factual. The historicized point of view privileged here is associated with an overarching cognitive perspective.

The contribution of Richard Walsh, placed at the head of this collection, will perform this role. Richard Walsh, who in recent years has developed a theory of fictionality based on a pragmatic perspective (2007), now proposes to define narrativity as representation and representation as a cognitive act based on repetition. From this perspective, reflexivity (a figure of repetition) is inherent to fictionality, envisaged as a special case of narrative.5

If fiction is not, in Walsh’s view, ontologically distinguished from factuality, it might be thought, following his proposition, that reflexivity implies the expression, in the works themselves, of the problematic of the relation between fact and fiction (whether it is of opposition or not). And that is what will be found in most of the literary works cited in this collection. Reflexivity presides over Luis de Zapata’s attempt, perhaps somewhat naïve, to mark the fictional passages of his history of Charles V with asterisks.6 It accompanies the irony permeating the representation of the Caucasus in Tolstoy and makes its interpretation undecidable,7 as well as the unnecessary anachronisms in nineteenth-century historical novels,8 or again the lexicographical form of many contemporary fictions.9 We propose therefore to approach the works analyzed here from the perspective of reflexivity. They are taken from a wide range of historical periods going from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, though all are not equally well represented.

In the first part, entitled “In search of a boundary frontier,” the ethical and political aspects of the distinction between fact and fiction are considered. Françoise Lavocat deals with this question by showing the efforts made by three authors, Spanish and French, from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, to distinguish at all costs the factual from the fictional, within a fiction (written by themselves or others). These endeavors, which encounter difficulties in certain cases, involve significant religious, political and conceptual concerns; they imply a transformation of the notion of truth (from allegorical truth to truth as correspondence), as well as of the conception of time and the possible.

A second part entitled “Fictions of Realism” comprises three articles analyzing the ambiguities and perspectives found in literary realism. They discuss the nineteenth-century novel in the Russian territories, Central Europe, France and England. It is doubtless a strength of this volume to have connected the question of the fact–fiction relationship to that of realism.

By means of different interpretations (whether the novel is thought to be a parody or not) of Tolstoy’s Cossacks (1863), and more broadly with regard to Russian Romantic literature on the Caucasus, Kyohei Norimatsu reads the ironically ambiguous detachment characteristic of these works as a problematization of the relation between fact and fiction. He thinks that, contrary to what a certain conception of realism stipulates, “the reality of fiction” does not reside in the mimetic exactness of representation, but rather in the affective character of the representations. Like the heroes in these novels, do not we not as readers think that certain images of reality, even if we know them to be false, are authentic because we love them? Is not that, moreover, precisely the danger of fictions? Using various Czech, Polish and Hungarian historical novels from the nineteenth century, Peter Hajdu shows how consciously anachronistic images of the past have formed national identities. These might be thought of as alternative histories in which fiction reinvents the past for ideological and political ends.

Sandor Hites’s argument parallels that of Peter Hajdu in so far as it seeks to show how fiction shapes a certain idea of reality. In this instance, it is by examining the representation of money in certain nineteenth-century novels, French and English, that Sandor Hites interrogates the ideological regime of realism itself: as illustrated by the novels of Dickens and Balzac realism imposes a vision of reality inseparable from the production and circulation of money—which is in itself a fiction.

A third and final part, entitled “Post-modernism: strategies of blurring” comprises two essays. In the lexicographic fictions studied by Monika Schmitz-Evans, the encyclopedic form, or the insertion of text resembling a dictionary entry, tends to blur the boundary between fact and fiction, or at least make their readers realize the skewed perspectives on which the construction of their knowledge of the world relies.

Jernel Habjan reflects on the difference between the novel and journalism, which comes into its own in the nineteenth century. He notes, following Benedict Anderson, that both of them, through deictics (“we”) in the novel and (“today”) in the newspaper, have served to fortify a nation with the construction of imaginary communities. What is the situation today, in a post-national environment, where the appearance of new media has profoundly transformed access to information and the cultural marketplace? With certain postmodern works by Umberto Eco and Dan Brown in mind, the author of this essay judges that the blurring of information and fiction has intensified. The articles by M. Schmitz-Evans and J. Habjan suggest us to make the following remark. As is commonly the case, it tends to be the insertion of forms traditionally reserved for reference books (dictionaries, historical or philological erudition) in a more or less ludic way that seems to upset the boundaries of fiction. It is also the proven ability of fiction to shape beliefs, and therefore act on the world, which invariably leads to perplexity.

By way of conclusion, and in a useful development, Sowon Park sketches a panorama of the issue that she roots in our current post–post-modern era, as she calls it. She stresses both our era’s hunger for the real and the dominance of storytelling, reinforced by social networks. She contests the assumption, inherited from the linguistic turn of the 1960s, then confirmed by the rise of cognitive narratology, according to which putting reality into the form of a story, inevitable as it is, is the only way of giving it meaning. In this perspective, reality would be assimilable to a fiction. S. Park shows, on the one hand, that the story is not the only way in which we can apprehend reality. On the other hand, when reality is perceived through stories, it is crucial politically to discriminate between contradictory versions, and this requires us to admit that reality exists independently of its discursive representations.

This overview makes clear the hiatus between the critical perspectives, which, from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries have often enough been employed to discriminate between fact and fiction, to define the ontological, narratological or pragmatic criteria of their distinction, the political and moral stakes of their blurring, and the works which do not cease to play with the boundary and contrive to blur it. Each era invents new modalities of hybridization of the fictional and the factual, because authors rarely surrender the chance to accumulate the cognitive benefits that both procure in terms of emotion, knowledge and belief. Because reflexivity itself is constitutive of fiction, it interrogates its own role in the construction of reality and therefore questions the very nature of reality. Only those blinded by the present, could believe that contemporary fiction is particularly special in this regard.


  1. 1.

    On this issue see Weinberg (1961).

  2. 2.

    See in particular: Cohn (1990), Genette (1991), Schaeffer (1999, 2013), Nünning (2005), Ryan (2000), Pihlainen (2002), Skalin (2005, 2008), Skalin (éd.) (2005), Lavocat (2016).

  3. 3.

    Lavocat (2014).

  4. 4.

    This vocabulary is preferable. It has fewer axiological implications than the terms ‘segregationist’ or ‘integrationist’.

  5. 5.

    This claim has been much contested.

  6. 6.

    See in this volume, F. Lavocat’s essay.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., K. Norimatsu.

  8. 8.

    Ibid., P. Hajdu.

  9. 9.

    Ibid., M. Schmitz-Emans.


  1. Cohn, D. (1990). Signposts of fictionality: A narratological perspective. Poetics Today, 11(4), 775–804.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cohn, D. (1999). Le Propre de la fiction (Transl. C. Harry-Schaeffer). Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar
  3. Genette, G. (1990). Fictional narrative, factual narrative. Poetics Today, 11(4), 755–774.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hamburger, K. (1973 [1957]). The logic of literature (Transl. M. J. Rose). (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Lavocat, F. (2014). Fact, fiction, cognition. Neohelicon, 41, 359–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Lavocat, F. (2016). Fait et Fiction. Pour une frontière. Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar
  7. Nünning, A. (1997). Crossing borders and blurring genres: Towards a typology and poetics of postmodernist historical fiction in England since the 1960s. European Journal of English Studies, 1(2), 217–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Nünning, A. (2005). How to distinguish between fictional and factual narratives: Narratological and systems theoretical suggestions. In L.-Å. Skalin (Ed.), Fact and fiction in narrative. An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 23–56). Örebro: University Library.Google Scholar
  9. Pihlainen, K. (2002). The moral of the historical story. Textual differences in fact and fiction. New Literary History, 3(1), 39–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Ryan, M.-L. (2000). Frontière de la fiction: digitale ou analogique? In R. Audet & A. Gefen (Eds.), Frontières de la fiction (pp. 17–41). Québec: Nota Bene/Bordeaux: Press Univestaire de Bordeaux.
  11. Schaeffer, J.-M. (1999). Pourquoi la fiction? Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar
  12. Schaeffer, J.-M. (2013). Fictional vs. factual narration. In P. Hühn et al. (Eds.), The living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. Accessed June 7, 2013.
  13. Skalin, L.-Å. (Ed.). (2005). Fact and fiction in narrative. An interdisciplinary approach. Örebro: University Library.Google Scholar
  14. Skalin, L.-Å. (2005). Fact and fiction in the novel: A narratological approach. In L.-Å. Skalin (Ed.), Fact and fiction in narrative. An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 57–83). Örebro: University Library.Google Scholar
  15. Skalin, L.-Å. (2008). Telling a story: Reflections on fictional and non fictional narratives. In L.-Å. Skalin (Ed.), Narrativity, fictionality, and literariness. The narrative turn and the study of literary fiction (pp. 201–260). Örebro: Örebro University.Google Scholar
  16. Walsh, R. (2007). The rhetoric of fictionality: Narrative theory and the idea of fiction. Columbus: The Ohio Sate University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Weinberg, B. (1961). A history of literary criticism in the Italian Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle, Institut Universitaire de FranceParisFrance

Personalised recommendations