This essay sketches out, and challenges, two broad ways of understanding the fictiveness of literary works, one that associates fictiveness with unreal contents and one that associates it with a distinctive register or key in which a given discourse is to be received. Both conceptions run counter not only to assumptions that are commonly made in the practice of political criticism of literature, but also to basic features of our ordinary engagement with fictional discourses. The essay then examines the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a controversy that Rushdie and many of his defenders characterized as the result of a failure to attend to the fictiveness of fiction. The essay points out, in the context of this controversy, the temptation to assert a categorical distinction between fictive and nonfictive discourses—and the limitations of any such assertion. The essay upholds a view of fiction as a mixed mode, one that crucially involves a constant engagement of nonfictional actualities. It concludes by sketching out some of the essential features of any more adequate account of the fictiveness of literary works and suggests that a more sustained engagement with the question of fictiveness should be on the agenda of political criticism.

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