views updated May 18 2018


Genocide fiction is written for a reason and with an agenda in mind. Motivations for genocide fiction include the search for meaning of an actuality that is not accessible, and the search for a personal and collective identity of first or later generation survivors as part of an effort of coming to terms with or working through the past. Genocide fiction is informed by an effort to promote remembrance, to give voice, to raise awareness, and to deepen a public's understanding of atrocities. Temporal distance from the historical events has been seen to affect the decision to undertake historical fiction rather than memoirs or autobiographical representation as a medium for communication and reflection about atrocities. Survivor authors may write memoirs and histories before turning to fiction in an effort "to establish the historicity of the subject before admitting it to the imagination" (Dekoven, 1980, p. 59) while the memory is still fresh, and decide on more creative storytelling as atrocities move further into the past. Holocaust survivors Anna Langfus, Piotr Rawicz, and Elie Wiesel opted for fiction because it facilitates detachment from suffering and allows for the creation of a new personal and collective identity. Empowered by an agenda to come to terms with the "unmasterable past," to search for meaning, and to reveal "something truthful—about the fragmented self under siege, about memory, about trauma—that may otherwise elude expression" (Horowitz, 1997, p. 24), genocide fiction bridges history, memory, and imagination.

Ida Fink, recipient of the Anne Frank Prize for Literature in 1985 and the Yad Vashem Prize in 1995, is the author of A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1987), The Journey (1992), and Traces (1997), among other works. She shows in her fictional rendering "A Spring Morning" that fiction can serve to deliver multiple perspectives: Her work renders, on the one hand, a surviving eyewitness report, and on the other, the perspective of its murdered victim. By providing the latter a voice and enabling it to echo throughout the pages of the narrative, the extensive "imaginative intercession into historical reality—the murdered man's life, fate, and feelings, the tragic indignity and the superfluous cruelty of his suffering" counteracts the victim's "radical muteness" consigned to him by his assassins (Horowitz, 1997, p. 14). Genocide fiction gives voice to mute victims; muteness also emerges as an essential behavioral element aimed at enunciating the use of silence as a method of resistance, and serves to vocalize the speechlessness with which atrocities are remembered. In the case of Philip Roth, representation of the void takes the form of ghosts who embody fantastic revivifications of genocide victims and give the writer an opportunity to return to Bruno Schulz and Anne Frank's thoughts, voice, and vision. The inability to heal the wound increases with time, and second or later generations who inherit trauma without personal memory cannot fill the void with knowledge and experience. Second generation Holocaust writers David Grossman (See Under: Love, 1986; English translation, 1989) and Spiegelman (Maus, 1986) enunciate in their writings the fragmentation of self-identity, and the acknowledgement that complete answers will be found. Holocaust author Henri Raczymow writes empty spaces into the narrative, reinforcing the idea that, although the lack of memory cannot be reconstituted, forgetting is not an option.

It lies within the power of literature to complement, enhance, and affect the memory and understanding of history. In the words of distinguished Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa, author of Conversación en La Catedral (1969), and La fiesta del Chivo (2000), among other works, "The originality of a narrative lies not in what it portrays of the real world but rather in what it reforms or adds to it. . . a reality that, without being reality, being distinct and alternative, asserts itself, in the case of successful narratives, due to its power of persuasion, as the real reality, the authentic, secret reality, reflected in literature" (Rebasa-Soraluz and Chaddick, 1997). A postgenocide generation can access history only through representation and their and others' imaginations; hence, as those generations then take on the task of further enhancing the representation, the question arises of how their representations affect a new memory and enhance or over-power the history closest to the event. As Neil R. Davison emphasizes in 1995, narrative determines history in the present as well as in the past; at the same time, narrative depends on history and literary form.

Each work adds a new perspective, and influences the concept of history as well as the outlook on the future. Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butter-flies, found motivation for writing a work of fiction about the Trujillo dictatorship through her interest in understanding the special courage that gave the persecuted the strength to stand up to the terror of the time. Alvarez opted for fictional discourse because neither fact nor legend were within her reach or sufficed to reach her goal of raising consciousness and understanding:

What you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew, nor did I have access to enough information. . . . As for the sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, they were finally also inaccessible to me. . . . To Dominicans separated by language from the world I have created, I hope this book deepens North Americans' understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered—of which this story tells only a few (1995, p. 324).

With emphasis on the implication of understanding history for the creation of a better future, Jane Yolen in Devil's Arithmetic (1988) enables her protagonist to travel back through time to gain an understanding of the experiences of Jewish enslavement and her grandfather's associated peculiar behavior. African American writer Nalo Hopkinson turns to science fiction and fantasy writing about slavery in the hope that African Americans find motivation to fight for a better world. She perceives that African Americans as still straitjacketed by the history of slavery and thus contends: "If black people can imagine our futures, imagine—among other things—cultures in which we aren't alienated; then we can begin to see our way clear to creating them" (Davison, 1995, p. 589). Some critics nevertheless caution against such a positivistic approach, although it is reflected in many writings. As Efraim Sicher states,

There is thus both awesome responsibility and ironic ambivalence in imagining the past in order to remember the future. There can indeed be no future without the past, but, when remembrance relies on imagination to give it meaning, one must be aware of the risks that are involved (2000, p. 84).

Despite the strong affirmation that genocide is indeed unrepresentable, representing the unrepresentable may be attempted through fiction. The fictional representation of genocide history, according to Sicher, enunciates the "fragmentation of the self, to the relativity of truth, to the fluidity of memory and to the impossibility of ever fully knowing. . . . Narrative recreates different identities and acts out in fantasy form repressed stories which test the freedom or dependence of the individual vis-à-vis the past" suggesting a relationship with the victim or survivor (2000, p. 81). Fictional renderings of genocide have been considered especially successful in eliciting imaginative responses from readers and in serving as a bridge between the Holocaust and the contemporary reader, affirming the event's historical import. Genocide fiction can compel reader response to pain and suffering and summon the imaginative empathy of affinity with the other. In the words of John Hersey, author of the 1950 book The Wall (1950), "Imagination would not serve; only memory could serve. To salvage anything that would be worthy of the subject, I had to invent a memory" (Hartman, 1999, p. 66). The combination of emotional and imaginative engagement of the reader coupled with factual consistency, such as that achieved in Charlotte Delbo's None of Us Will Return, Susan Schaeffer's Anya, and Livia Jackson's Elli, capture the experience of victimization through the lyrical use of prose that enhances the presentation of emotions and thereby serves to augment the reader's involvement with the novel. Fictional poetic discourse, sustained by historical facts and data, may facilitate a meaningful and imaginative personal memory that approaches genocide memory and provides the latter an opportunity to endure in spite of time and place.

Techniques in genocide fiction are multifold and often contest previous fictional conventions as these texts "make imagination serve fact rather than the reverse. . . to provide a narrative perspective and to make the facts. . . more accessible to the senses" (Heinemann, 1986, p. 118). Perhaps in direct correlation to the notion that "too much fiction can make a fool of history" (Kearney, 2002, p. 57), genocide fiction is marked by authenticating devices such as imitation of a memoir through first-person narrators, authorial voice attributes in prefaces or introductions, as well as the incorporation of documentation, reportage, and diaries, similar persons, patterns, or incidents to suggest that the information is drawn primarily from survivor and historical evidence. Nevertheless, the recurrence of statements attesting to an essential truthfulness in fiction on atrocities in history, which suggests that the achievement of historical discourse is ultimately a condition aspired to even within the context of genocide fiction, does not necessarily signify apprehension about this choice of discourse by writers of fiction.

Many works of fiction specifically identify themselves as fiction and request to be read as such, regardless of the historical accuracy of events, and circumstances, or the similarity between the experiences of the survivor author and those of the fictional protagonist. Wiesel's novel Night is by some referred to as a light fiction due to the apparent connection between Wiesel's own sufferings as a five-year-old boy in Buchenwald and his fictional account of the five-year-old protagonist's struggles in the Nazi death camp. The author negates testimonial validity of the work because, despite the influences of the personal experience on the narrative, it remains a result of his creative imagination. Fictionality provides the author with more control over the representation and message; in genocide fiction, imagination may serve fact in presenting a particular perspective of the event and incorporating testimonial conventions. To give voice to experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, Raczymow incorporates a fictional diary into his narrative that transposes autobiographical information with that of other fictional as well as historical characters, and interweaves actual and fictional events and personal experiences. However, to emphasize the fictionality of the work and to undermine the effect of authenticity rendered through the incorporation of certain devices, Raczymow disrupts the consideration of unmediated testimonial function by signaling the mimetic distance of the diary he incorporates as twice removed from anyone's actual experience (Zeitlin, 1998, p. 9). Because genocide fiction does not pretend to serve as a historical document, Alvarez confirms,

I sometimes took liberties—by changing dates, by reconstructing events, and by collapsing characters or incidents. For I wanted to immerse my readers in an epoch in the life of the Dominican Republic that I believe can only finally be understood by fiction, only finally be redeemed by the imagination. A novel is not, after all, a historical document; but a way to travel through the human heart (1995, p. 324).

In genocide fiction the protagonist's fate is handcrafted by a writer who integrates elements from history to enhance and shape the plot, yet manipulates circumstances, folds events, merges characters, and manipulates circumstances to reinforce a particular reading of the interrelationship between people, time, place, as well as fate. An author's decision on how to end a novel involves consideration of resolution and closure; generally, it also involves a question of hope. However, in most genocide fiction, hope, like the protagonist, is inexorably tied to a final demise. Echoing an absolute lack of hope, Pierre Gascar's "The Seasons of the Dead" evokes "a haze of fearfulness and disbelief," facing "death without coffins, without reasons, without rituals, without witnesses," and culminates in the realization passed on to the reader that the pain and grief will find no closure (Howe, 1988, pp. 191, 196). Nevertheless, a contrasting image is advanced in some children's and junior literature with the tendency to overwrite the impossibility of hope through an open ending, thereby inviting the thought that a particular protagonist might possibly have escaped the claws of the very event that earned it the name of genocide. Novels with open or optimistic endings have become more frequent with the increased publication of escape, rescue, and survival accounts involving children, such as Antonio Skármeta's Nothing Happened (1980), Christa Laird's But Can the Phoenix Sing? (1993); Malka Drucker and Michael Halperin's Jacob's Rescue (1993), Vivian Vande Velde's A Coming Evil (1998), and Julia Alvarez's Before We Were Free (2002).

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi confirms that

the distorted image of the human form which the artist might present as but a mirror of nature transformed can hardly be contained within the traditional perimeters of mimetic art, because, although Holocaust literature is a reflection of recent history, it cannot draw upon the timeless archetypes of human experience and human behavior which can render unlived events familiar through the medium of the imagination (1980, p. 9).

Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just echoes this notion that within the context of genocide, legend, myth, and folktale do not suffice to establish an authenticity effect. His novel depends on authenticity devices for the "cohesiveness and historiographical implications of its story-telling" until the novel's timeline approaches the Holocaust and the narrative is overtaken by, initially rather general and later specific, significant Holocaust phenomena and events (Davison, 1995, p. 294). Genocide fiction can extend beyond the traditional concept of fiction and attain the status of a cultural and social document by providing an insight into genocide horrors and dimensions by creating a literary memory "whose meaning will endure" through "a narrating consciousness who makes sense out of the confusion of history and makes the reader imagine being there" (Sicher, 2000, p. 66). In that respect genocide fiction can contribute toward a postmemory that is connected to the atrocities of the past, perhaps primarily through imagination and literary creativity rather than remembrance.

Unlike authoritarian regimes "that attempt to impose a singular 'reading' of the human condition," literature through its "multifarious coherence" is "always provisional and never final" (Tierney-Tello, 1996, p. 4); at the same time, literature also provides voice to multifaceted interpretations and agendas. Consequently, many scholars, historians, victims, witnesses of atrocities, and others, who seek to remember history as it was and to ensure that certain events will never occur again, caution against free-ranging representation of these horrors, as with each representation one may indeed move further and further away from historical fact. Genocide fiction enables people to represent the past as they visualize it or to "reinvent it as it might have been" (Kearney, 2002, p. 69), to inform others about their interpretation as well as to help others remember. However, the very fact that revisionists and fascists in many instances of genocide have sought to rewrite history in an effort to deny or downplay its significance and horrors keeps critics and readers on the lookout for distorted representation. Argumentation against employing fiction as a means of representing the Holocaust and, in extension, any genocide, includes Lanzmann's affirmation of the impossibility to communicate absolute horror. However, the unrepresentability per se of genocide is not contradicted by genocide fiction and its intent to present what was or might have been and to facilitate remembrance. Genocide fiction requires a delicate balance between "a historical fidelity to truth (respecting the distance of the past as it was in the past) and an aesthetic fidelity to imaginative vivacity and credibility (presenting the past as if it were the present)" in order to serve genocide by "an aesthetic" that matches historical triumph in terms of intensity and impact and that may even require exceeding the latter in an effort to "compete for the attention of the public at large" (Kearney, 2002, p. 60). Due to genocide fiction's particular strength in engaging the reader and eliciting imaginative responses by serving as a bridge between the historical event and experience and the present, genocide fiction may serve to affirm rather than erase the historical import.

SEE ALSO Biographies; Diaries; Memoirs of Survivors; Wiesel, Elie


Alvarez, Julia (1995). In the Time of the Butterflies. New York: Penguin Books.

Davison, Neil R. (1995). "Inside the 'Shoah': Narrative, Documentation, and Schwarz-Bart's 'The Last of the Just.'" CLIO 24(3):291–322.

Dekoven, Ezrahi Sidra (1980). By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fine, Ellen S. (1988). "The Absent Memory: The Act of Writing in Post-Holocaust French Literature." In Writing and the Holocaust, ed. Berel Lang. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. (1999). "Public Memory and Modern Experience." In A Critic's Journey. Literary Reflections, 1958–1998, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Heinemann, Marlene E. (1986). Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust. New York: Greenwood Press.

Hirsch, Marianne (1997). Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Horowitz, Sara R. (1997). Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Howe, Irving (1988). "Writing and the Holocaust." In Writing and the Holocaust, ed. Berel Lang. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Kearney, Richard (2002). On Stories, Thinking in Action. New York: Routledge.

Lang, Berel, ed. (1988). Writing and the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Lehmann, Sophia (1998). "'And Here [Their] Troubles Began': The Legacy of the Holocaust in the Writing of Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman, and Philip Roth." CLIO 28(1):29–52.

Rebasa-Soraluz, Luis, and Larisa Chaddick (1997). "Demons and Lies: Motivation and Form in Mario Vargas Llosa." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 17(1):15–24.

Rutledge, Gregory E. (1999). "Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson." African American Review 33(4):589–601.

Sicher, Efraim (2000). "The Future of the Past: Countermemory and Postmemory in Contemporary American Post-Holocaust Narratives." History and Memory 12(2):56–91.

Tierney-Tello, Mary Beth (1996). Allegories of Transgression and Transformation: Experimental Fiction by Women Writing Under Dictatorship. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Unnold, Yvonne S. (2002). Representing the Unrepresentable: Literature of Trauma in Chile. New York: Peter Lang.

Zeitlin, Froma I. (1998). "The Vicarious Witness: Belated Memory and Authorial Presence in Recent Holocaust Literature." History and Memory 10(2):5–42.

Yvonne S. Unnold


views updated May 23 2018


There is an ongoing debate in the field of literary history about when a distinctly American literature emerged. Some scholars argue that American authors did not gain a voice separate from their British forebears until well into the nineteenth century. According to these critics, the form and voice of literature published in the early American nation was not distinctive enough to merit consideration as "American." In some opinions, an added detriment to anything that might be considered American literature is that nothing produced had literary merit. Books were expensive to produce, and pirating of already produced English works was more profitable for printers than producing new works of fiction by American authors. Only about ninety American works of fiction were printed between 1789 and 1820, and few of these made a profit. No American author was able to make a living from writing until the 1820s, although certainly Susanna Rowson (1762–1824) and Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810) tried.

Despite these facts, other scholars make the case for an American literature that emerged in the period of the ratification of the Constitution. These scholars believe that the early American novel, while it may not live up to some hard-to-define literary standards, was very American, reflecting the anxieties of nation building. The American Revolution (1775–1783) led to social, political, and cultural upheaval. Because of this, they argue, the genre of American literature was far from stable because it was reflective of an unstable society. While the form was British, the messages, scattered as they may have been, were American. These early novels grappled with the question of what it meant to be a citizen of the newly formed nation and whether or not independence was worth the disruptions that followed.

These experiments in an American fictional voice took place exclusively in the North. The American South did not engage in the creation of fiction. While southerners certainly helped to shape political discourse, novels and other fictional forms were produced by the pens of northerners. As white southerners tightened their defense of slavery after the American Revolution, they took a lesser part in the creation of an American national identity than the northerners who engaged in the questions of identity in both fiction and nonfiction. In addition, the contribution to American fiction was limited by race. For African Americans in all parts of the new Republic, racism and the concomitant poverty and lack of education of blacks kept them from writing. Although poetry of African American Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) was widely read, only four novels by African Americans were published before the Civil War, and none of these were published until the mid-nineteenth century.

the revolutionary era

While American writers did not break away from the literary forms of the British, there were several attempts to create a distinctly American literature. The Connecticut (or Hartford) Wits were among the first group of writers who consciously tried to do that. These men had been born in Connecticut and had attended Yale College. They believed that they could create an American voice and advocate a political cause. The Wits were concerned about the emergence of democratic movements after the war. They wrote poems to honor stability and oppose Jeffersonian democracy. The Wits included John Trumbull (1750–1831), author of two popular satiric poems, M'Fingal (1776–1782) and The Progress of Dulness (1772–1773), and Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), the author of The Conquest of Canaan (1785), an epic poem about the American Revolution. The Wits put themselves in opposition to Philip Freneau (1752–1832), known as the "poet of the American Revolution," who embraced Jeffersonian democracy. Despite his ideological differences with the Wits, Freneau also believed in the importance of developing an exclusively American idiom. Although these early writers largely failed in their attempts to break from British forms, their attempts to create something truly American are noteworthy.

One of the first authors to explicitly attempt to define American character was J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813). A French immigrant who was married to a woman from a Loyalist family, Crèvecoeur was unable to choose a side during the American Revolution. After spending time in a British army prison in New York and then sailing to London, Crèvecoeur published the fictional Letters from an American Farmer in 1782. Taking the persona of James, a farmer without extensive schooling, Crèvecoeur asked, "What, then, is the American, this new man?" He answered his question by arguing that the American was indeed new, a mixture of ethnicities and beliefs, rising from a melting pot of European cultures. Crèvecoeur celebrated the American character, one that he believed had left behind the prejudices of Europe and defined itself by hard work and perseverance. However, Crèvecoeur did not leave the picture entirely rosy, but wrote of frontier dwellers who were less advanced than their eastern counterparts and of brutality in the slave system of the American South.

While other authors did not address the question as directly as Crèvecoeur had, the process of definition and differentiation from Britain was apparent in many of the early works of fiction. Much as Crèvecoeur had sought to define the American man as different from the European man, other early American writers sought to justify American independence or define American character. Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was well-known for his political allegories, which helped make the case against Britain during the war. In his best-known piece, The Pretty Story (1774), the colonists appeared as a farmer's sons fighting against mismanagement of their family farm. These political allegories helped set the stage for later American fiction. Early American playwright Royall Tyler (1757–1826) also worked to distinguish Europe and America. In The Contrast (1787), the first comedy play to be professionally produced on the American stage, Tyler pitted the republican American against the refined European, with the American triumphing in the end.

the new nation

The fiction of the early American nation reflected the rapid changes brought about by the Revolution and the nation making that followed. The first American novels were about seduction, telling the stories of young women who lost their virtue to conniving men. Novels centered on the seduction of young women highlighted the dangers and upheavals of the new nation. Focused on an English novel, Clarissa (1747–1748), and nervous about the changes in the nation he helped to create, John Adams famously compared democracy to Lovelace, the immoral character who leads to Clarissa's ruin. He argued that democracy would lead to the ruin and death of the new United States, much as Lovelace had ruined Clarissa. While Adams called on an English example written before the creation of the United States, male and female American authors in the early American nation deliberately toyed with these same concerns.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Charles Brockden Brown had begun to publish his Gothic novels in which nothing was settled and the world seemed a very chaotic place. These early novels, like the poems, allegories, plays, and other forms of fiction in early America, were British in form. Yet they all spoke to the question of political unsettledness and the questions raised by the Revolution. Who had power? Who could speak? Had the republican experiment succeeded or failed? Who was an American citizen and what characteristics was that citizen to embrace? All of the early American novels advanced a theory of education, a topic that was much in the political and social discourse. Novelists like Charles Brockden Brown believed that their novels did nothing less than engage in the ongoing cultural dialogue about politics and society.

Despite Brown's defense of the novel, the form had many critics. Politicians and ministers railed against novels. These critics believed, or said they believed, that novel reading would lead to the downfall of the Republic. Critics wrote about these fears in magazines and newspapers. In their prefaces or introductions, novelists condemned the very form in which they engaged. Novels, in the opinion of the critics, took readers away from the serious matters of citizenship. Instead of reality, readers would be so tied up with fantasy they would be unable to function in the virtuous ways necessary for maintaining the Republic. After all, the United States was new and fragile. Psychologically, novel reading was dangerous for other reasons as well. In the growing field of medicine focused on mental illness, doctors believed that mental health was maintained by control. Men or women who spent too many hours immersed in the fantasy world of novels would more easily lose their control and would be ill-prepared to deal with disappointment or shock. Reading history or essays led to rationality; reading novels led to irrationality.

writers and works

It is generally agreed that the first American novel is The Power of Sympathy, or the Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth (1789), by William Hill Brown (1765–1793). The main story in The Power of Sympathy is of a doomed, incestuous love. Embedded within the story of Harriot and Harrington, who discover too late that they are brother and sister, was the real-life eighteenth-century story of Fanny Apthorp and her brother-in-law, Perez Morton. Morton had seduced Apthorp, and she became pregnant. In August 1788, Apthorp committed suicide, unwilling to make public accusations against Morton. In his book, Brown thinly disguised Apthorp as Ophelia in a vignette that briefly distracts the reader from the main story line. With such tales, "founded in truth," Brown argued that his novel was a cautionary tale and therefore fit for reading, unlike other, frivolous works of fiction.

Other novels quickly followed The Power of Sympathy. The two best-selling novels in the early American nation were written by women. In Charlotte Temple (1791), by Susanna Rowson, young Charlotte is seduced by Montraville, carried from her native England to America, and then left to her ruin and death. The novel was so popular that it was surpassed in sales only after the mid-nineteenth century, by Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Second only to Charlotte Temple was The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797), by Hannah Webster Foster (1758–1840). In this story Eliza Wharton chooses the path of coquetry, eschewing the life of virtue she felt would confine her too much. The consequence is death and dishonor, but the novel raised interesting questions about the nature of female roles in the new nation.

Other important writers emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816), a Scottish immigrant and a friend of Philip Freneau, published several dramas based on events in the Revolutionary War. His most important work was a novel, Modern Chivalry, published in four volumes during the years from 1792 to 1815. In the republic of Modern Chivalry, men without qualifications are elected to office by ill-informed voters. In the text Brackenridge praised democracy but also worried about it. In a work written over more than a decade, a reader can see some of Bracken-ridge's own shifting alliances.

The author who came closest to making a living as a writer in the period before 1820 was Charles Brockden Brown, although he was never able to fully support himself with his writing. With his Gothic novels, he emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as one of the most prolific writers of fiction. Brown's first novel, Wieland (1798), is a story of madness. In his madness, Theodore Wieland eventually kills all four of his children, tries to kill his wife, and eventually commits suicide. Brown, engaging in the larger discourse about nationhood, believed this novel would be useful to his readers, particularly with regard to thoughts about "the moral constitution of man." Without checks on liberty, anarchy would reign. He sent his novel to Vice President Thomas Jefferson, perhaps believing that he offered a solution to the problems of the new United States. Brown followed Wieland with Ormond (1799), Edgar Huntly (1799), and Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800).

While all of the published fiction in the early American nation was flawed, these works are reflective of a society born out of war, cut off from its colonial past, and experimenting with new forms of government. With this in mind, these publications can be seen as American publications. The writers adopted familiar forms and tropes but used these to comment on the new society, and in Charles Brock-den Brown's case, to push for change. For the new Republic to function and perhaps thrive, these authors believed, citizens needed to be educated. Female and male authors argued that this was true of women as well as men. And novelists, even those who—like Brackenridge—supported increased democracy, worried about what would happen if democracy was taken too far.

The new United States was far from united. Crime rose in the cities and disorder seemed to reign everywhere people looked. A myth about the American Revolution has developed over the centuries to the point where people now believe almost everyone supported the cause and the consequences. The fiction of the time gives a more accurate picture of the debates, the upheavals, the disagreements, and the fears. While flawed as literature, it is utterly reflective of a time and place otherwise largely lost.

See alsoAfrican Americans: African American Literature; Authorship; Poetry .


Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Stern, Julia A. The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Sarah Swedberg


views updated May 18 2018



Fictions include a variety of things: face-saving untruths that no one believes; devices of convenience in law; and unreal postulates such as the supposed inner planet Vulcan. This entry will address a narrower field: discourse that aims to convey a narrative of events but which is not intended by its maker to be taken as true. Fiction in this sense may appear in any medium, sometimes in language and sometimes not, and in a variety of genres. Historically the most important genres seem to have been epic poetry, the comic and tragic forms of drama, and the novel, which has shown a generally increasing but not uniform tendency to naturalism over time. These genres have been transmuted by the vast and accelerating body of fictions in filmic and televisual media since the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet it is worth noting that nothing is known of most of the history of fictional narrative, since fiction may well be as old as language, and no story older than 5,000 years has survived. It is certainly hard to believe that fiction was absent from human society 30,000 years ago, given the impressive cultural, imaginative, and symbolic achievements of that period, visible in cave paintings and carved objects. Fiction may indeed be ten times older than that.

It is important to see that this definition of fiction is consistent with fiction having any number of purposes over and above the mere telling of a story, including didactic purposes. The definition requires only that the author should not present the events of the narrative as real; he or she may well intend to convince an audience of the truth of a certain ethical or political viewpoint that the narrative serves to suggest.

The idea of fiction generates a number of philosophical problems. One takes the form of puzzlement about why people are interested in fictional stories, given that they generally understand that events have not happened and characters do not exist. The answer is probably that the attraction of fiction is testimony to human delight in the exercise of imagination and the rich emotional responses that imagining certain events generates. This issue has recently been given an evolutionary formulation: Why, given the pressing need for true information about the world, should humans ever have developed an interest in misrepresentations, which do not tell them how to feed, clothe, or house themselves? Human mental evolution seems likely to have been driven partly by social forces, making it advantageous for people to be able to understand, cooperate with, and sometimes deceive one another. Fiction may have developed as a kind of training ground on which to exercise mind-reading powers: a social assault course where live ammunition is banned. However there is little empirical evidence to support this hypothesis. Alternatively a taste for fiction might be a useless by-product of mental capacities that evolved for other purposes.

A further puzzle, and one with important practical ramifications, concerns the relation of a fictions world to the world of reality. Viewers or readers generally assume that a fiction will be set within a framework of truth, and are sensitive to any indication that the author is exploiting or has misplaced the boundary between this factual background and the events and characters created. The power of socially critical fiction, such as that of English novelist Charles Dickens (18121870) depends on this. Readers of espionage fiction will complain about minor mistakes in the description of technology; more seriously, others respond to fictions such as British writer Salman Rushdies (b. 1947) Satanic Verses (1988) with violent protest. While such responses may be deplored, the general idea that that fiction has a capacity to generate and control powerful emotional response, which may then influence behavior and belief, is not implausible. And sensitivity in this area is also testimony to the finely tuned capacity of human beings to grasp an authors unarticulated intentions: One realizes that, while the story itself is fiction, there lies behind it a possibly multilayered set of intentions to persuade and perhaps to manipulate.

The status of fictional characters, who are often spoken of in familiar and even intimate terms, is an interesting facet of the analysis of fictions. Theorists have occasionally argued that fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes exist in some way that, mysteriously, differs from the manner of existence of normal people. A better interpretation is that while what people think and say gives the impression that they are actually referring to fictional people as real, they in fact understand these characters to be make-believe. However creators of fiction do create entities subtly different from fictional people, namely the roles filled by fictional characters. These roles may be thought of as sets of characteristics that someone would have to possess if he were, for example, Sherlock Holmes (when in fact no one is). One can accept such statements as Dickens created some very memorable characters as true, but understand the reference to characters really to be a reference to roles.

The definition proposed at the beginning of this entry might be regarded by some as intolerably restrictive: There is a tendency in early-twenty-first-century thinking, influenced by postmodern ideas, to identify representations of any kind with fiction, on the grounds that representations select, and so distort, reality. In defense of the approach here taken there is a very significant difference between a story that is, and that is honestly presented as being, made up, and one that purports, perhaps only partially and perhaps with significant elements of misrepresentation, to relate real events. Categories such as the documentary film certainly need a nuanced approach that recognizes they are not and cannot be mere reflections of the real, but it is not appropriate to lump them into a vastly inflated category of the fictional class.

SEE ALSO Film Industry; Literature; Lying; Narratives; Postmodernism; Realism; Reality; Representation; Science Fiction


Byrne, Alex. 1993. Truth in Fiction: The Story Continued. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (1): 2435.

Currie, Gregory. 1990. The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thomasson, Amie. 1999. Fiction and Metaphysics. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Greg Currie


views updated Jun 11 2018


views updated May 18 2018

fic·tion / ˈfikshən/ • n. literature in the form of prose, esp. short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people. ∎  invention or fabrication as opposed to fact: he dismissed the allegation as absolute fiction. ∎  a belief or statement that is false, but that is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so: the notion of that country being a democracy is a polite fiction.DERIVATIVES: fic·tion·ist n.


views updated May 29 2018


An assumption made by a court and embodied in various legal doctrines that a fact or concept is true when in actuality it is not true, or when it is likely to be equally false and true.

A legal fiction is created for the purpose of promoting the ends of justice. A common-law action, for example, allowed a father to bring suit against his daughter's seducer, based on the legal fiction of the loss of her services. Similarly, the law of torts encompasses the legal fiction of the rule of vicarious liability, which renders an employer responsible for the civil wrongs of his or her employees that are committed during their course of employment. Even though the employer generally is uninvolved in the actual act constituting the tort, the law holds the employer responsible since, through a legal fiction, he or she is deemed to be in direct control of the employee's actions. A seller of real estate might, for example, be liable in an action for fraud committed by his or her agent in the course of a sale.


views updated May 14 2018

fiction something feigned, invention XIV; composition dealing with imaginary events XVI. — (O)F. — L. fictiō, -ōn-, f. fict-; see prec. and -TION.
So fictitious XVII. f. L. fictīcius.

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