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From The Corner to The Wire: On Nonfiction, Fiction, and Truth

Vaage, Margrethe Bruun (2017) From The Corner to The Wire: On Nonfiction, Fiction, and Truth. Journal of Literary Theory, 11 (2). pp. 255-271. ISSN 1862-5290. E-ISSN 1862-8990. (doi:10.1515/jlt-2017-0023) (KAR id:63546)

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The orthodox view in analytical film theory is that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is anchored in communicative practice. Whereas the creator of nonfiction can be seen as asserting something as true, the creator of fiction merely asks of its spectators that they imagine the work’s content. This could be labelled an intention-response theory of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. While watching Supersize Me I am as a spectator very much aware of director Morgan Spurlock making an argument about the state of affairs in the real world, and I assess the truth-value of this argument. While watching Avatar I imagine that there is a population of humanoids, the Na’vi, on the planet Pandora, fighting for survival: I assess what is fictional (true in the fiction).

Among the many difficult issues this counterargument raises, I will concentrate on only one here, namely on the case of social realism in fiction. Social realism arguably asserts that something is true in our actual world and asks its spectators to believe this – although works of social realism are also classified as fiction. The solution is not to dismiss the basic theory, but to make finer distinctions. I argue that one difference between prototypical nonfiction and social realist fiction is that nonfiction asserts that its contents (characters and events) are true as tokens, e.g., this person experienced this. As fiction, a work of social realism calls for imagining. However, such a work also asserts that its contents are true as types, e.g., these types of persons experience these types of events.

In conclusion, the theory presented in this paper may not be able to neatly categorize any given film as either fiction or nonfiction, as some nonfiction films make type claims and some fictions make token claims. I do not claim that the difference between type and token claims is sufficient for categorizing any given work as either fiction or nonfiction. More work is needed in order to categorize and describe the various types of fiction and nonfiction, paying special attention to the particular blend of imagining and belief prescribed by each, as evident in what the creators say about their intentions, textual features of the work itself, and critical reception. However, difficult borderline cases such as social realism in fiction do not collapse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, as demarcated by the intention-response theory. Rather, such difficult cases should compel us to investigate more closely the communicative intentions and conventions at work. In the case of social realism, it is still correct to say that the spectator merely imagines that these fictional characters experience various events; however, she also perceives a double invitation to believe that these events and experiences are typical, and as such representative, of a larger group about which the work intends to assert something as true.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1515/jlt-2017-0023
Uncontrolled keywords: Truth in fiction, social realism
Subjects: N Visual Arts > NX Arts in general
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts > Centre for Film, Media and Cultural Research
Depositing User: Margrethe Bruun Vaage
Date Deposited: 25 Sep 2017 09:06 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 13:48 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Vaage, Margrethe Bruun:
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