One shared assumption of many recent efforts to delineate a history of fiction (or fictionality, typically understood as a mode of nonliteral reference) is that that term names a conceptual operation, be it intrinsic or culturally learned. This article argues that fiction is merely a particular type of classification, akin but not identical to the classifications performed by terms such as mimesis or verisimilitude. Thus it is nonsensical to claim that fiction qua concept does or does not exist at any given moment: fiction is foremost a way of grouping various literary practices, and it is those practices that emerge over time. The article then recasts the interest in the early novel’s fictionality shown by Catherine Gallagher and others as a problem of practices rather than of concepts. It tracks trends in subject matter and assertions of literal truth through a quantitative diachronic analysis of 230 years of French novels. While these trends cannot by their very nature show the birth of the concept of fiction—which was never born in the first place—they are the type of evidence that should be central to any future history of fiction.
The story of the gradual emancipation of conscious fiction from myth and moral parable has not yet been told,” wrote E. H. Gombrich (1959: 128) in his widely popular study Art and Illusion. “Not yet,” said Gombrich, though he certainly sketched out the kind of history he had in mind. It would have to go back to the Greek Revolution—a sixth-century BCE moment when, for reasons linked to art’s having been “pried loose” from a religious context (141), poets and painters sought to place us “in the moment” as “spectators of an imaginary scene” (138). What artists had done before this was exemplified by the Egyptian pictogram—a “conceptual” image whose “diagrammatic completeness” appealed to reason (138). By contrast, the mimetic image—inveighed against by Plato, who resisted the revolution at hand—would show only how things appear from one, limited perspective and therefore appealed to the imagination. Fiction, by this reckoning, introduces an angle of vision where there had been none. The poet, Gombrich said of Homer, “is an eyewitness” (129). To bring in a narratological term whose visuality is contextually appropriate, the poet—and any artist—focalizes. And focalization is, moreover, inseparable from narrative, from the Greek love of “mythological cycles telling of the exploits of gods and heroes” (128) that—according to Gombrich, who has frequently been accused of Eurocentrism—had no parallel in the older cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. For Gombrich, then, the critical phase in the history of fiction played out long ago. Since then, or at least until the mid-nineteenth century, the same regime or paradigm has prevailed, which we might just want to call the Western mimetic tradition.
Since Gombrich, whose study did not in fact foreground the term, we’ve had numerous histories of fiction. Some plow the same ground of ancient Greece (Finkelberg 1998). Others have moved things up a bit—say, to the so-called Greek novel of the early Christian era (Morgan 1993) or to twelfth-century Europe (Green 2002). The Renaissance has long been a popular choice (Duprat 2009; Nelson 1973). And scholars have also looked away from Europe, toward medieval China, for instance (Lu 1994). In the main, there is not much conversation between these scholars; independently, they conclude that something peculiarly “fictional” is afoot in the period of which they are specialists. (Unlike Gombrich’s art history, in which fiction’s difference was most apparent when fiction was compared to the static, diagrammatic image of the Egyptians, these accounts, chiefly by literary historians, frequently focus on fiction’s separation from history.) If something like a debate is now taking place about the history of fiction—evidenced by a recent forum on medieval fictionality in New Literary History (Holsinger 2020)—it’s because of a cluster of studies on the early European novel that have made strong claims about the genre’s distinctive notion of fictionality. These started to appear in the 1980s and have in the last few years come under intense criticism.1
My goal here is to reflect on this debate and what it means to historicize fiction—a word that literary scholars (not unreasonably) use in a casual manner, much as they do literature. Specifically, I will argue that scholars’ dueling attempts to place fiction’s birth, emergence, rise, or discovery—pick your metaphor—at vastly different places on the historical time line is the outcome of a misunderstanding. In saying this, I certainly don’t intend to impose a better definition of fiction, as if I knew what fiction really is. Rather, all conceptual history is beset by the problem identified by Nietzsche’s dictum, in The Genealogy of Morals, that “only that which has no history is definable” (quoted in Jay 2017: 622). We need a history, precisely, of things that change, but the worry is that a thing that changes may not be just one thing, after all. The issue is a philosophical one, concerning identity, and it shades into a more technical problem concerning the evolution of both living species and the technological artifacts produced by humans—evolution being a continuous process that begets distinct forms, so that birds are and aren’t dinosaurs and cars are and aren’t carts. But this is no reason for skepticism, and returning to some demonstrable changes in the early European (specifically, French) novel, I will argue that they should indeed have an important place in the history of fiction, albeit not the one that scholars originally suggested.
Ongoing debates about fiction’s history remain rooted in Ian P. Watt’s (1957) Rise of the Novel. Watt was interested not in fiction, of course, but in what he called formal realism. This realism was not the realism of “low” content that flourished in the nineteenth century, when the mode was named. Instead, as the term suggests, formal realism lay in the novel form, which reproduced the empiricist, experience-based worldview of philosophical modernity: novels bring us closer to reality (as opposed to raising us to the ideal). Subsequent interest in the history of fiction or fictionality among scholars of the early novel is in effect a tweak on Watt’s thesis. These scholars have observed that many early novelists were preoccupied with the literal truth of their narratives—until, apparently, they weren’t. Over the course of the eighteenth century or at some point therein, novelists eventually accepted that novels looked real—looked like the way we look at the real—but were not. This acceptance amounts to an understanding of fictionality, meaning the gap separating the real from its avowed simulation.
These critics have differed some in the way they locate and explain the change. For Lennard J. Davis (1983), who with Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel became the first to posit fictionality as a key element in the genre’s rise, the explanation lies in what he calls the “news/novel matrix” of the latter part of the seventeenth century. The earliest novels—as distinct from romances, whose origin much preceded the matrix—arose at the same time that an explosion of interest in news was transforming the print culture landscape. Those novels bore the imprint of the period in their insistence on literal truth, which rapidly started to give way in the era of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding as writers and readers embraced fiction qua fiction.2
Appearing four years after Davis’s, Michael McKeon’s notoriously hefty book The Origins of the English Novel owed that heft in part to its author’s conviction that one needed to take a considerably longer view. McKeon backtracked to the beginnings of modern scientific empiricism in the Renaissance and recast the rise of the novel as a centuries-long resolution of a dialectic between naive empiricism and extreme skepticism. The former trafficked in hyperbolic claims to truth (like the “news” of Davis’s matrix); the latter charged it with mendacity and fancy, and the early novel was batted back and forth between these two extremes. Only during the eighteenth century did the dialectic ultimately resolve itself into the category that McKeon seems without clear distinction to call the aesthetic, fiction, or the novel.3
The last and for my purposes most important figure in this revision of Watt is Catherine Gallagher. Both Davis and McKeon had framed their books as histories of the novel: fictionality was simply an important characteristic of narratives that counted as novels (as opposed to romances or to naively empiricist “true stories”). By contrast, Gallagher pointed more clearly to fictionality as the problem—starting in her 1994 book Nobody’s Story and then more definitively in her 2006 essay “The Rise of Fictionality,” whose title flagrantly dethrones “the novel” as the focus of analysis.4 Instead of some longer process, or talk of origins, Gallagher (1994: xvi) made the more dramatic claim of having isolated “a massive reorganization of textual referentiality” sometime between Defoe’s publication of Robinson Crusoe as a real travel narrative and Fielding’s comment in Joseph Andrews that he’s drawing not particular people but classes of people.5 Between 1720 and 1742, then, the novel “discovered” this new world of fiction (Gallagher 2006: 337, 338, 344). And whereas for Davis and McKeon the Englishness of the fictional novel did not seem crucial, Gallagher, in New Historicist fashion, embedded the fictional swerve in England’s culture of capitalism and credit: literary fiction is ultimately inseparable from the fungibility of money, the type of provisional trust necessary for the functioning of the financial system, the anonymity of the book market, and new ideas about intellectual property.
Whatever their differences, all three critics, like Watt, situate the critical transformation in the novels of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. In another respect as well these theories are profoundly similar: however slowly or quickly it takes place, the coming of fiction is taken to be a cognitive modification. To be sure, all three critics would agree that the (fictional) novel is a cultural artifact with more or less definable characteristics, and they discuss programmatic statements contemporaries made about subjects like truth, lies, plausibility, and fancy. But ultimately they are not interested in tracing the evolution in ideas about literature or in doing a history of a literary form—studying the novel as one might study the introduction of the sonnet or tragedy in the Renaissance. The stakes are higher, in that the novel becomes the material sign of a new kind of belief proper either to art (in McKeon’s conception of the aesthetic) or to modernity writ large (according to Gallagher’s hypothesis of a broad cognitive upheaval). This belief amounts to a way of processing representations, a conceptual “skill” (Gallagher 1994: xvii) developed through training (reading). Gallagher’s 2006 essay uses the words conceive, concept, and conceptual a lot, and by them she doesn’t mean what we might if we were talking about the concept of, say, papal infallibility. Instead, the implication of a phrase such as “the conceptual space of fictionality” (340) is Foucauldian: fictionality is (to use a favorite word of Foucault’s) unthinkable before the epistemic revolution (or rupture) that puts it in place and that links it to a range of other discursive phenomena dating to the same time.
But where Foucault’s epistemes provide a lesson in relativity—according to the image that closes The Order of Things, the way we think now will soon be washed away like a face drawn on the edge of the seashore (Foucault 1971: 387)—Gallagher’s discovery of fictionality is unmistakably triumphalist. English readers weren’t merely talking about literature in historically distinct ways or relating to characters in a new manner. They were literally making a discovery: “Fiction seems to have been discovered as a discursive mode in its own right as readers developed the ability to tell it apart from both fact and . . . deception” (Gallagher 2006: 338). In this telling, therefore, fictionality is said to become “visible” or “manifest” (340, 337): fiction’s middle zone was there all along, even if its first explorations by novelists were misunderstood or rejected by “the common reader” (339). The rather bald chauvinism of some of Gallagher’s statements—most obviously in her allusion to “the progress of fictional sophistication in a culture” (339)—is no accident: if fictionality is indeed out there like a virgin New World, small wonder that glory is heaped on its discoverer.
Small wonder, too, that Gallagher’s account has provoked a chorus of dissent among scholars less confident than she of the crucial importance of the English eighteenth century to all we know now. The first major voice, here, is that of Françoise Lavocat, in her 2016 book Fait et fiction: Pour une frontière.6 As indicated by her subtitle, Lavocat’s principal target is those who have argued, in a poststructuralist vein, that all narrative discourse is at bottom fictional. (Chief among her “panfictionalists” is Hayden White.) Concentrating on a number of historically and geographically varied flashpoints, Lavocat aims to show that the border between fact and fiction has continually been reaffirmed precisely by its contestation. Given this, it is hardly surprising that she would dismiss anyone pretending to circumscribe fiction’s historical range, and indeed Gallagher’s thesis is held up as particularly indefensible (Lavocat 2016: 21, 59n1, 108, 219, 414n3). To the extent that Lavocat does seem to allow for fiction to be talked about historically, it is not in the strong sense of having origins and development—she adduces some anthropological work to argue that fiction is all but universal—but in the weak sense of having its cultural acceptance vary by time and place. What Lavocat calls “cultures of fictionality” arise because of a number of factors, including belief structures that “authoriz[e] invention and favor an interrogation of the nature of reality” (200; my translation). Buddhism is one such structure, and it produces the Japanese Tale of Genji, around 1100, said to be the trace of “an exceptional understanding of fictionality” (200). The European Renaissance is another: it saw the “emerge[nce]” of a species of fictionality that is far from universal—the ability “to represent [and] to take pleasure in the representation of a state of things that one knows not to exist” (179). And our current moment is still another: “If [the desire to transgress fictional borders] is not proper to our own time, it characterizes it in a particular fashion” (522). Lavocat thus gets it both ways: there is no birth of fiction, because it is nearly universal, but there are cultures and moments that develop more elaborate fictional practices, and the modern world would seem to be a key example of these.
Monika Fludernik (2018) also tussles with Gallagher in her pointedly titled article “The Fiction of the Rise of Fictionality.” The title functions in more ways than one, and Fludernik doesn’t mean by it that fictionality was always there and doesn’t change. Instead, and somewhat in the same vein as Lavocat, whom she discusses along with many other scholars of the subject, she suggests that there is on the one hand a widespread, baseline fictionality present even in oral storytelling and on the other a more specific fictionality proper to modern Europe. The former Fludernik sees already in the fables, romances, and hagiography of the Middle Ages, all of which fulfill her broad definition of fiction as predicated on, among other things, the “experiential quality” of the narrative (78), including character psychology, and on the fact that the said texts are “expressive noncommunicational utterances . . . not meant to provoke a direct response on the part of recipients” (81).7 Here Fludernik seems to present the Middle Ages merely as an example—she notes that she regards The Odyssey as fictional as well (78)—though at times she casts the period as an incubator of fictionality.8 Fludernik then turns to the problem of the modern verisimilar novel per se, which, unlike Lavocat, she does acknowledge as a historical problem. And her explanation of the development of this novel’s kind of fictionality is to make it a reaction to a Renaissance rise of factuality, stemming from geographic explorations and the scientific revolution. On account of this “craving for factual information” (79), she writes, the overt fictionality of romance—most evident in its use of the supernatural—was “tone[d] down” so as to satisfy what by the nineteenth century had become “the scientifically based decorum of social and psychological realism” (85). The rough congruence with McKeon’s account is evident, and indeed Fludernik cites him with approval (79, 84).
A still more recent critique of Gallagher (and the last inventoried here) is made by Julie Orlemanski in her 2019 article “Who Has Fiction?,” which also makes much of the medieval period. One of Orlemanski’s goals is to show that rise-of-fiction arguments are part of a basic and very popular Weberian narrative of disenchantment and secularization. The “moment” of disenchantment can vary: Gallagher sets hers in the eighteenth century, others point to the Renaissance, and others still put it in the heart of the Middle Ages. All such datings, however, are structurally alike: they have to create an age of credulous naïveté to serve as a foil for the disenchanted fictionality of modernity. Orlemanski’s (2019: 155) second goal is to advocate for “a comparative poetics of fiction,” attentive to historical differences but unclouded by the chauvinism of disenchantment narratives, and she goes on to adduce some medieval theoretical accounts of fictionality as well as a number of medieval literary practices that should be understood as fictional.
It would appear that many of the disagreements between these three recent critics and the earlier rise-of-fiction school stem simply from different understandings of “fiction.” Explicitly or implicitly, Lavocat, Fludernik, and Orlemanski all concede that modern fictional practices do seem particular, with the first two tracing the novelty back to the Renaissance and the last holding simply that we mustn’t allow our knowledge of “fiction in its full modern sense” (Orlemanski 2019: 161) to block our appreciation of other sorts of fiction and fictionality.9 Much of the polemic surely comes from features of the earlier accounts that had become, by the time of Gallagher’s culminating work, glaring: the urge to think of fiction as a hard-won cognitive ability that some humans don’t have, and the resultant view of historical development as a “progress” in “fictional sophistication.” But even stripped of its Whiggism, Gallagher’s narrow definition of fiction was destined to clash with the reflexive usage of the term by a wide swath of literary scholars.
The difficulties are deeper, however. They extend into the accounts of Gallagher’s critics themselves and won’t be cleared up with better definitions. Faced with the proposition that fiction was unknown to people prior to whatever moment, the urge to reply that it was known—if perhaps under a different name—is strong, and stronger still if fiction is treated as a prized aptitude. But both positions rest on the dubious assumption that fiction has an ontological existence, independent of the human decision to talk about it. For the scholars of the eighteenth-century novel, fiction needs to be discovered: people have to realize that it’s “there.” For their critics, people always (or almost always) knew that it was there. Yet one side’s answer isn’t really preferable to the other’s, because fiction, on that level, does not exist.
It is not necessary to delve into a century’s worth of skirmishes around the project of intellectual or conceptual history (de Bolla 2013: 11–47; Jay 2017) to see that we can use a term like fiction in a number of ways. First, one can simply focus on the term as a linguistic artifact: we might call this the Oxford English Dictionary approach, and a thorough version of it would probably involve tracing the terms with which our main term circulates and takes its changing meanings. (Fiction, an older term than literature, might profitably be approached this way, but historians of fiction have not yet produced such a history.) Or one might devise a broad, working definition of fiction, using the term as a heuristic label to facilitate comparing (and contrasting) apparently similar discourses and practices across time and space. Or one might hone a narrower definition of fiction, typically indexed to a modern acceptation, to trace how that acceptation broke free from older ones. In such a use, fiction allows investigators no longer to group things they view as related but instead to separate things that might appear related but that should not be confused. It names, then, a historically bounded practice or discourse whose advent is the subject of investigation.
Each of these approaches is methodologically coherent, and the accounts reviewed above lean on one or the other of the last two. Yet a danger lurks within them. It’s one thing to call this group of practices fiction (and examine their commonalities while taking good account of their differences) or to call this specific practice fiction (and see where it came from). It’s another to posit that different cultures “have” fiction or to wonder whether this or that early text is or isn’t fictional. Such ways of speaking immediately make us forget that the term we’re using is just a term we’re using and lead us into arguments we needn’t have.
Orlemanski provides the clearest example of this slippage. On the face of it, her call for a comparatist poetics of fiction follows the second approach I’ve identified: she comes up with a baseline definition of fiction—involving variations on “semantic unearnestness” and “language’s fundamental capacity to portray the nonactual” (Orlemanski 2019: 146, 147)—and then locates medieval texts that fit it.10 In certain of her formulations, moreover, Orlemanski takes care to underline that her definition of fiction is, precisely, just a definition: “Medieval readers of Classical literature generally understood themselves to be engaged in what we now call fictionalism” (162), she writes, with the what we now call underlining the heuristic nature of the term chosen to yoke together practices that the literary historian regards as similar.11 And certainly her closing meditation on what it means to speak of a potentially anachronistic concept such as race across vastly different periods shows her to be very aware of “the uneasy status of the categories and concepts that organize comparison” and of the potentially “distorting” nature of comparison itself (163).
But even in the title of her essay one sees a different way of speaking, where people and cultures “have” fiction and where the task is to understand the modes of this possession—“the contextually specific ways that fiction has been demarcated and elaborated” (Orlemanski 2019: 156). At these moments, fiction starts to become a thing, not a heuristic label. It’s thus predictable that Orlemanski lets slip, for instance, the assertion that “medieval thinkers did have theoretical accounts of fictionality” (163). Without pretending to know much about medieval thinkers, I find it highly unlikely that they had theoretical accounts of fictionality. I would suppose, rather, that they had theories in which they made distinctions and classifications that overlap substantially—or such is the assertion—with ones we make when we speak of fictionality. And it’s when people speak of fictionality that they bring it into existence: “we” may have accounts of fictionality, but only in the sense that enough people have agreed to argue about something called fictionality. That something has no other existence. As such, it can’t be discovered, nor can its name simply change from one period to another. When sixteenth-century Italians or seventeenth-century French parse the issue of verisimilitude, they are not developing accounts of fictionality. In some respects, theories of verisimilitude resemble theories of fiction, and our present understanding(s) of fiction (or parts thereof) may arguably derive from earlier understandings of verisimilitude. But the later term is not better or less parochial than the earlier one, and verisimilitude is not just an early name for fiction.12
Be that as it may, Davis, McKeon, and Gallagher all confronted a bona fide curiosity of the literary-historical record: visibly, early novelists worry a lot about the literal truth of their narratives, whereas later novelists don’t. Responding to this puzzling change, these scholars of the eighteenth-century novel posit the emergence—as a sudden realization or a more prolonged evolution—of the concept of fiction (or the aesthetic, for McKeon). The explanation “works,” though it’s difficult to see how it couldn’t: it postulates something we cannot see (a concept or understanding) as the cause for something we can (artifacts). The cost, of course, is the chauvinism that the recent critics I’ve mentioned take to task. Yet even these critics concede that post-Renaissance literary practices do appear to be particular, as when Orlemanski calls the modern sense of fiction “full.” So surely the curiosity of Gallagher and her predecessors was not unwarranted. What sort of other approach to early modern vogue for “true novels” would be possible? And how can we fit this vogue into a history of fiction without creating the types of problems I’ve been describing?
Let’s start by remaining focused on the phenomenon itself—in the parlance introduced by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (2009), let’s take a longer look at what’s happening on the surface before being tempted into the sexier realm of deep causes. A good portion of early modern novels—and mightn’t it be important to know what portion?—are advanced, paratextually, as literally true: authors say that they tell true stories, or they pass themselves off as “editors” of first-person texts by unknown people. We might want to add to all these works those that take known people as subjects—those familiar with the French tradition will think of nouvelles historiques such as Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves, filled with Renaissance heroes. Rather than ask whether readers at the time believed all this pretense, or what concepts they possessed, we must first concentrate on what they say and do. What they say: Do they say their novels are true, do they admit them as fictions? And what they do: What are these novels about in the first place? Or rather, whom are they about? These things are perfectly measurable. Once we have the measurements, we can go back and see what explanations best fit the data.
The archive of early novels in France is full of novels about known people. (The data I will present here are on France, and I will address briefly the question of whether data on England would change my conclusions.) Their protagonists were people whom readers would have heard about before they picked up the book—heroes, we can call them, which is to say, people of renown, from legend or history or even current events. Let’s call these somebody novels, as opposed to nobody novels, which feature protagonists no one has ever heard about outside the pages of the novels they inhabit.13Figure 1 shows the preponderance of somebody novels in France based on a sample of the archive from 1601 to 1830.14 Thus measured, the rise and fall is clear: for about a hundred years, roughly between the 1640s and the 1730s, a quarter or more of novels are about known heroes, with a rate of 50+ percent for the central decades. Nobody novels make up the rest.
It is these nobody novels that can have truth claims made about them. There is no need to attach such claims to a somebody novel: somebodies have to have extratextual existence; otherwise they would not be somebodies. For an example from a different genre, Jean Racine doesn’t claim that his tragedy Britannicus is true. He may talk about his sources; he may say that everything in the play is authorized by tradition. We might even imagine him arguing that his play is empirically accurate (though he doesn’t, because accuracy is not a major concern of poetological discourse of the time). But he doesn’t need to say that he is talking about real people who lived the events he writes about, because educated readers and spectators had heard about his protagonists, Britannicus and Nero. (And somebodies, at least in the seventeenth century, were the only protagonists worthy of tragedy: the prestige of the characters went hand in hand with the prestige of the genre.) Novelists using protagonists of their own invention are in a different position—or in one of three, to be precise. They can claim that those characters are real people, that the story really happened or the first-person text was written by the protagonist: I will call this the pseudofactual posture.15 They can admit that the memoirs, the letters, or the third-person narratives they are publishing are their own invention and that their characters have no extratextual existence: this is the invented posture. Or they can say nothing at all about the subject, adopting an indeterminate stance. If we look just at nobody novels over the period, tagging each one in the sample according to whether it has paratextual assertions of truth or invention, things play out in the manner visible in figure 2. Clearly, it is not for nothing that the early novel has been associated with claims of literal truth: a majority of novels have them, until the 1780s. Yet the hegemony is variable, even before the last decades of the eighteenth century, when it appears to vacillate. Notably, literal truth would seem to be much more important in the second half of the seventeenth century than in the first.
Do these data give support to any of the histories of fiction I’ve been dealing with? And does it matter that the data come from France, and not England, where things may be different? Taking this last question first: as I have suggested, only in Gallagher’s New Historicist argument is the Englishness of the so-called birth of fiction essential. In her view, the English were first on the fictional scene because England was all about capitalism and credit—the fungibility of money being, at bottom, fiction itself. Davis and McKeon do not explicitly defend the Englishness of the story. Both, when they get to the eighteenth century, concentrate on what they know best, which is canonical English novels and, for McKeon, English scientific and political developments. Their longer narratives, however, back up into territory that is essentially western European, and their arguments are wide in their thrust—especially McKeon’s account of the consolidation of the aesthetic in the wake of Renaissance empiricism. And Lavocat and Fludernik share the emphasis on the western European Renaissance. Theoretically, and again with the exception of Gallagher, nothing in this scholarship pins the invention or discovery of fiction to England specifically. Thus, though one shouldn’t expect the situations in France and England to be identical, it would be surprising if data from France told us nothing about the question at hand.
More important, it may not matter much if things actually were different in England, given how sketchy the literary-historical arguments usually are.16 McKeon, followed by Fludernik, points to the empirical revolution of the Renaissance. For McKeon, this revolution produced a dialectic between empiricism and skepticism that in the eighteenth century resolved into fiction (or the aesthetic); in Fludernik’s simpler account, the development of fictionality is a direct, if slow, response to the “rise of factuality,” her name for the empirical revolution. For Lavocat, meanwhile, the Renaissance is important less for its science than for its poetology: the emancipation of fiction from history can be read in the period’s theories of the verisimilar. No conceptual evolution need follow this emancipation, because the poetological understanding of fiction’s distinction from history simply spreads—into seventeenth-century France, which Lavocat spends some time discussing, and from there, presumably, into the fiction-permissive modern era.
Curiously, all these arguments, plausible as they may sound, appear unable to explain any of the shapes seen in the data on the novels produced over these twenty-three decades. Even if we accept Lavocat’s view that theories of verisimilitude amount to an understanding of fiction, the spread of those theories does not sit well with the long hegemony of the truth pretense, its falloff in the late eighteenth century, or the seventeenth-century spike in novels with somebodies as subject matter. Fludernik’s (2018: 84) idea that the public’s empirical cravings led to works that pretended “to supply factual information” appears to find confirmation in the intensive use of pseudofactual pretense and Aristotelian protagonists in the late seventeenth century, but she also situates those cravings squarely in the Renaissance, whereas the graphs show that factuality was less important in the early 1600s than 100 or 150 years later, when people were supposedly taking “step[s] toward a negotiation between fact and fiction” (85). And it’s hard to know just how McKeon’s dialectic between empiricists and skeptics might crystallize in the novel archive. Presumably not as successive spikes, as the two dominated in turn: his point would be more that both discourses were active at the same time, battling it out, until they saw the compromise. Yet where is the battle? Over 170 years the pseudofactual position dominates, while authors admitting their novels as inventions are very few. And why should the standoff, if the graphs really do reflect a standoff, start to end in the 1780s or so? It’s as if the dialectic were going nowhere until, finally, it does.
Why do these explanations seem so out of phase with respect to the literary record? An answer can be found in the way they use evidence. McKeon’s Origins of the English Novel provides lots of coordinates, gleaned from sources far and wide—treatises, prefaces, letters, artworks themselves. These sources, properly arrayed, allow him to show the dialectic at work. He says, in essence: look at all these people arguing about truth following the empirical revolution; look at the novels of the eighteenth century, which we can interpret as attempts to grapple with the dialectic; then look at Coleridge’s explicit formulation of the willing suspension of disbelief around 1800. There’s a story there, says McKeon. The problem, however, is twofold. First, selection bias: we have to trust that the scholar has really chosen representative data points. Much more interesting, though, is knowing what those points really are “data of.” It’s one thing to propose that during whatever century the discourse about poetry shifts from one predicated on X to one predicated on Y. To do that, you collect a bunch of examples of both kinds of discourse and show how one is dominant at one period and the other comes in later. The data are the discourse—they are essentially lexical—and the argument is one about discourse.17 McKeon’s argument is different, because the texts he analyzes are assumed to point toward something deeper—toward a process by which a new conceptual category is coming into existence, toward an evolution in the modern frame of mind. All these data points are thus symptoms of something else, symptoms of a slow discovery of something that was there all along, lying unsuspected. Great writers may intuit it: thus, in his chapter on Don Quixote, McKeon attempts to show how the novel’s strange concatenation of its two parts—the characters in part 2 know that they were characters in part 1—is in fact an anticipation of Coleridge’s suspended disbelief. McKeon does not say that the roots of Coleridge’s formulation extend back through Cervantes. Rather, a process is under way, and the cultural record gives signs of that process. Cervantes understood, or glimpsed, a truth that Coleridge articulated explicitly only much later.
Arguments like McKeon’s may sound good, but I don’t think that they are sound arguments. Or at least they are not operationalizable: you can’t convert them into something measurable—even measurable by more traditionally “qualitative” means—because they are about abstract, elastic, and essentially invisible entities: for McKeon, the aesthetic; for others, the market, the liberal subject, and—the catchall —modernity. The arguments make use of evidence, certainly, but the evidence is that of the clue. The literary record itself is not the object of study, only what it indexes and causes to appear as it does. And if that’s the approach, it is important not to know too much about that record. Graphs like figures 1 and 2 tell us too much: how can the various ups and downs in the historical record have one cause?
Those graphs are one possible way of operationalizing the question of the “fictionality” of the novel, and if they don’t point to one underlying causal process, they still cry out for interpretation. What is afoot, if not the birth, rise, discovery, or emancipation of fiction? My explanation appeals to the values and habits of the producers of these artifacts, not to conceptual paradigms, governing epistemes, outillage mental, or zeitgeists. Such things are all invisible, in need therefore of inference or divining on the part of the critic-hermeneut, whereas values and habits are found in what people say and what they produce. Why the steady and strong interest in maintaining the early novel’s truth? It’s easy to show that known heroes and true stories always enjoyed a privileged place in Western aesthetic hierarchies. The Italian Renaissance was a high point for the development of such theories, as thinkers confronted Plato’s (recently discovered) dismissal of poets as liars with various admixtures of Horace and Aristotle. McKeon views such debates as being filtered through nascent empiricism. Thus, when he observes the presence of references to historical truth already in Renaissance romance, he declares them attempts by a formerly fanciful genre “to adapt to epistemological revolution and to keep itself honest” (McKeon 1987: 56). But scorn for poets who speak of people who and events that never were does not make the people who deliver the scorn predecessors of John Locke; they are merely good followers of Aristotelian thought about poetry. Aristotle himself urged tragedians to choose real people—somebodies—as their subjects: they made, he claimed, for more belief on the part of spectators (Poetics 9, 1451b). And the theorists of the Italian Renaissance—not necessarily to the man, but more or less—agreed. Faced with Plato’s accusation of poetic mendacity, they settled on the perfect compromise position: the poet invents just enough to make the things of history interesting. Torquato Tasso, for instance: “Let our epic poet leave the end and the beginning of the enterprise, and some of the most illustrious events, in their true form, altered slightly or not at all; then let him change, if he wishes, the means and the circumstances, let him confuse the time and the order of the other matters, and show himself in sum rather an artful poet than a truthful historian” (quoted in Weinberg 1961, 2:651). Such are the commonplaces of the discourse of verisimilitude. No recourse to the scientific revolution, or to the rise of factuality, is necessary to explain them, and they do not result from a change in worldview or in conceptual orders.
Given these commonplaces, one can wonder if the early novel’s preoccupation with various sorts of truth—the Aristotelian truth of known heroes, the pseudofactual truth pretense—is particularly surprising. What we see in the vogue for somebody novels, first off, is merely the increasing prestige of the novel form, as its subject matter became more closely allied with that of epic or tragedy. And this was already occurring in novels we often brand “romance.” The novels of Gomberville, La Calprenède, and Scudéry were all prestige undertakings, building on the achievement of d’Urfé’s incomparable L’Astrée at the century’s opening: the aspiration is visible in the printing quality, in the dedications and prefaces, in the careful construction of these multipart sagas. And it is visible in the subject matter, as the novels become increasingly Aristotelian, that is, focused on the deeds of those somebodies we see proliferating in figure 1. And even Aristotelian novels—the term is a helpful synonym for somebody novels—can be shown to be becoming more Aristotelian. Figure 3 divides them into “weak” and “strong” variants.
“Weak” Aristotelian novels are ones that feature an invented protagonist, usually the titular one, interacting with otherwise known, renowned, heroes. “Strong” ones take all their main characters from history. It is easy to see, along with its growth, the modification of the Aristotelian novel as it stops playing fast and loose with its subjects over the second half of the seventeenth century—which are also the years that nobody novels start to sport truth affirmations at a rate greater than the historical norm. And these are the years as well where literary historians commonly locate the French “rise of the novel”—a growth in numbers, and the first critical accounts of the genre qua genre (e.g., Du Plaisir’s Sentiments sur les lettres , which assumed cross-Channel importance when it was cribbed as a preface to Delarivier Manley’s Secret History of Queen Zarah ). “Real” subject matter—Aristotelian heroes, or nobody protagonists nevertheless held to be real—was for all these years a standard presence in the French production of novels, and this subject matter became more important with the increasing prestige and visibility of the form. When I say that this is not surprising, I mean that an explanation is very close by—in the values of the makers and consumers of these artifacts. There is no need to appeal to the invisible hand of the scientific revolution, and still less call to suppose that these people lacked the ability to understand modern fictionality. Such explanations are more ingenious, but they start to look very wide of the mark once we realize that we are trying to account for nothing more than trends in the production of cultural artifacts—as opposed to regimes, paradigms, or epistemes.
As for the falloff of truth pretense starting apparently in the 1780s, it too shouldn’t be mysterious. Why in the world did it take so long for French writers and readers to come to the conclusion that their novels did not need to be asserted as true, to realize that they were simply fictional? Why does that dialectic of McKeon’s seem to be stuck until it’s not anymore and the resolution happens? When you put it that way, the endurance of pseudofactual pretense surely is mysterious. But this is because it’s not the right way to frame the question. Authors and readers of novels over this period are not involved in a conceptual negotiation in the sense that Gallagher, McKeon, and Fludernik intend. All we see in the graphs is the slow dismantling of the old predication of artistic worth on the worth of art’s subject matter. In this view—which one can easily trace upstream into Renaissance humanism, through Horace and his incredulus odi, finally to Aristotle—invented characters were simply worth less than the ones with real existence. Some writers and readers didn’t agree and were free to write about nobodies they didn’t bother to advance as real people. But such an opinion—and of course it’s an opinion, not a “realization”—did not make these writers more conceptually sophisticated or forward-thinking than their counterparts in the majority. And their minority practice didn’t pull their contemporaries along with them.
Until, that is, it did, and the system itself changed—which is to say that people’s values and behavior, in the aggregate, changed. One can point to other roughly contemporaneous changes that might plausibly be linked to the decline of pseudofactuality. If pseudofactuality is ultimately best understood in the context not of the modern fact but instead of traditional representational hierarchies, then one link should be to the late eighteenth-century coming of what Jacques Rancière (2013) describes as the aesthetic regime, according to which all subjects are equal. We might also want to consider pseudofactuality’s decline alongside the transformations in aesthetic discourse in the German idealists. But such links are not causal ones—as if “theory” needed to precede “practice,” or was the explanation for it. And though the system changes, it still allows for minority practices: so not only do the old values not disappear overnight—pseudofactuality was not yet a trace presence even in the 1830s, according to figure 1—they do not really disappear at all. When we hear that some forgettable movie is “based on a true story,” we’re still hearing the old idea that artworks about real people have a better claim on our attention. Such an assertion may make sophisticated consumers turn up their noses, just as for a good part of the twentieth century we were taught to turn up our noses at plot, at omniscient narration, at identification, at the antiquated notion of “character.” But this is precisely the point: it’s only a question of valuation (and the cues of social distinction and belonging that values transmit). When we look down on the true story, we’re not benefiting from the effects of better mental equipment or from the discovery of fiction or the aesthetic. We’re just subscribing to a different value system that dates back to the mid- to late eighteenth century and that slowly changed the way most people talked about artworks, painted paintings, and wrote novels and poetry. And if it dates to then, this is only to say, descriptively, that these decades were when the discourse and behavior of the majority changed. There’s no reason why the falloff in true stories occurred precisely when it did. It happened when it happened. Literary history, like any history, could have been different.
Are trends in the use of invented protagonists in the French novel part of the history of fiction? My answer is: of course. As are the many Renaissance skirmishes around verisimilitude or, to return to Gombrich, the Greek Revolution and the centuries of artistic experimentation it unleashed. And we can cast less Eurocentric nets as well, into early Japan, with Lavocat, or elsewhere still. But none of these moments represents the invention, discovery, or emancipation of fiction as we know it. We shouldn’t try to say that fiction did not exist before 1700, 1600, or whenever. Nor—and this is key—should we try to argue that fiction did exist before then. “Fiction” is nothing more or less than a historically bound way of categorizing cultural practices that share certain similarities. It is a conceptual category, then, like literature, or aesthetics, or poetics, or mimesis; or, to change domains, like capitalism or totalitarianism. It’s also a word, and the relationship between words and concepts, I allow, is a subject of much scholarly debate. What fiction is not, though, is a thing we can discover in a culture we’re studying. What we can discover, what we can do a history of, is the way people have diversely done things we choose to recognize as fictional because of the explanatory benefit in doing so.
“As the news/novel discourse began to subdivide, and as the culture began making clearer demands for factual or fictional narrative, the old claim that a work was true became harder to substantiate. As that happened, the possibility arose that a work could be purely fictional” (Davis 1983: 156).
“Modern culture becomes sufficiently tolerant of artful fictions to pass beyond the bare recognition of their incredibility and to conceive the possibility of their validation in other terms” (McKeon 1987: 128).
The lineaments of her later argument about the rise of fictionality were first put forth in Gallagher 1992.
She dates the phenomenon in this way in Gallagher 2006: 344. I am conflating here two accounts that in fact make unreconciled claims. Nobody’s Story seeks to locate the novel’s newfound fictionality specifically in women writers, who by dint of their gender—the “‘no thing’ of female sex”—were particularly attuned to “nothingness and disembodiment” (Gallagher 1994: 8, xviii). “The Rise of Fictionality,” by contrast, concentrates on male authors, principally Defoe, Fielding, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
My earlier work criticized both the cognitive understanding of fiction used by Davis, McKeon, and Gallagher and their tendency toward Whiggish teleology (Paige 2011: 20–25). Nevertheless, its argument has been interpreted by Lavocat and the other critics of fiction’s purported rise in the eighteenth century as an extension of the same thesis. To avoid turning the present article into an apologia for this previous book—some of whose contentions I would have to rephrase in light of the ones I advance here—I will simply omit it from discussion.
Compare Lavocat’s (2016: 33) similar baseline definition of fiction as “a cultural artifact produced by the imagination and not bound by the truth conditions operative when referring to the empirical world.”
See, for example, the contention that fictionality “existed in English literature in the genre of the romance and more extensively in the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”—where more extensively implies a kind of development (Fludernik 2018: 82).
Orlemanski does not specify what the “full modern sense” consists of.
For instance, Orlemanski (2019: 160) maintains that “in lay religious drama, the extraliturgical status of mystery plays and the artificed quality of dramatized miracles foregrounded the fictional mode.”
Orlemanski does not explain how fictionalism differs from fiction or fictionality and uses the term only in this passage.
Compare James I. Porter’s (2005: 30) remarks about the epithet classical: “Despite the repeated claims on behalf of simplicity, harmony, balance, proportionality, and so on, being classical is not a property an object can have, like specific gravity or being red or standing six feet tall. It is the suggestion that a given object has this kind of property, which is why one needs to determine just where in any given case the suggestion originates.”
I appropriate the terms somebody and nobody from Gallagher 1994. The meaning I give them, however, is different from hers.
The sample is stratified by decade and contains 1,310 distinct titles, each inventoried by its date of original publication. For further information on the corpus and the sampling protocol, see Paige 2021: 203–11. The charts in the present article have been created using this book’s data, available at Paige 2020.
The term is from Foley 1986. Like McKeon and Gallagher, Foley was responding to Davis’s Factual Fictions, but her work has dropped out of the conversation on fictionality’s history.
It turns out that the situation in England is indeed different, in that the turn from pseudofactuality to invention is much more brusque; see Paige 2021: 158–73. The record there, however, does not support the theories any better than the French data.
This is the type of argument one can find in Bernard Weinberg’s (1961) classic dive into the poetological discourses of the Renaissance.